The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong: A review

Karen Armstrong, for those unfamiliar with her work, is a former nun and British writer who has written extensively on religion and religious themes. I've read and learned a lot from a few of her many books, including A History of God, to which this current book seems almost a sequel. Armstrong, who is 75, is now an ambassador for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations. 

The Lost Art of Scripture could almost serve as a textbook for a course in comparative religions. In it, Armstong takes us on a tour of the scriptural foundations of most of the major religious thought of humans. It is a fascinating and lengthy (more than 600 pages) journey.

We visit India for the origin of the Vedas. And we revisit to pick up on variations of Hindu texts and the evolution of Jainist thought and of the beginnings of Sikhism. It is a rich and wide-ranging history that could fill - and has filled - many books by itself.

Then we see the beginnings of Buddhism. The Buddha never wrote a text and so it was left to others to gather and record his philosophy as expounded in his teachings to disciples. China was the origin of much philosophy that could be termed religious, although the Confucian and Taoist texts that are most familiar to us are not about a "God" in the Western sense; instead, they are guides about how to live a good and compassionate life. They emphasize the idea that we are to revere all life and to treat others as we would ourselves wish to be treated.

And here, Armstrong does not stop with what we might normally think of as religious texts or scripture. She includes the Greek philosophers and the ancient plays which also are instructions about living moral lives. She makes the argument throughout that God, or if you prefer right thought and righteous living, is revealed in poetry, music, love, sex, as well as religion. It is revealed perhaps most clearly in Nature itself. 

A major portion of her book deals with the origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their scriptures. She traces the development of the Hebrew Bible and makes the point that scripture was not meant to be read "with eyes passing swiftly over a written page." Instead, it was to be read or recited out loud, often with rituals that included music and body movements. In this way, the words would be imprinted upon one's heart and mind and remembered. 

The beginnings of Christian scripture can fairly be traced to St. Paul and his various letters to Christian communities, although scholars believe that some of the writings attributed to him were actually written by others, including some of the most misogynist passages that continue to be used by conservatives to justify the subjugation of women. 

The contradictions in the accounts in the earliest Christian texts regarding the life of Jesus are many. A comparison of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is revelatory. For example, the oldest of the Gospels, Mark, does not mention the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, curious omissions to say the least. But, of course, such contradictions are replete throughout the scriptures, including various versions of the Ten Commandments that are found in the Hebrew texts. Armstrong makes the case throughout that scripture is not to be taken literally. The reader should adopt the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality. It is wrong to try to fit it into the confines of scientific discovery or historical facts. Religion and scripture should be approached as an art form,  an invention of the human mind, just like music or painting or poetry. As such, understanding of it evolves over time. 

The understanding of Islam and its scripture, the Quran, have evolved over time. The origins of Islam emphasize compassion and justice and its bedrock gospel is that it is wrong to build a private fortune for one's own benefit; one should share one's wealth to create a society in which the poor and vulnerable are treated with respect. This is still the faith espoused by millions around the world, but, unfortunately, a few militant passages from the Quran, written at a time when the new faith was under attack and surrounded by enemies, are taken out of context by Muslim extremists as well as by Christian fundamentalists who despise them in order to transform Islam (which at its root means submission to God) into an excuse for violence and hatred.

Christianity has seen a similar evolution through the Protestant Reformation, right down to the premillennialists of today who look forward to the Rapture and being able to sit on a cloud and look down to gloat at the suffering of those left behind. It all, perhaps, harkens back to the beginnings of the Hebrew Bible which has their God repeatedly ordering genocides or, as in the Noah story, committing genocides. One would do well to once again recall Armstrong's reminder that the scriptures are an art form that expresses "the complexity of the human dilemma" and are not to be taken literally. 

I have barely scratched the surface of the material that Armstrong covers in her book, including many references to poetry and secular literature which might be taken as adjuncts to sacred scripture. It is an admirable compendium of religious thought through the ages. The narrative slowed to a crawl at times as she emphasized or sought to explain a point and I admit my eyes glazed over at times, but, on the whole, it is a very readable account for a skeptical layperson such as myself.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars             

Comments

  1. This sounds like a really interesting book that should be read universally.

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    1. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in comparative religious philosophies and the history of scriptural texts,

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  2. This sounds like some heavy reading but it's for sure interesting reading.

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    1. Heavy is a good word to describe it. Comparative religions and how the various theologies came into being is a subject that has always interested me, so I like to dip into these books from time to time.

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  3. Wow, this sounds like a fabulous and very thorough book. One I would like to read as it sounds very comprehensive.

    Thank you for sharing a very detailed and thoughtful review of The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong. I will add it to my ever growing reading wishlist.

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    1. It is thorough and very comprehensive. I think you might find it fascinating.

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  4. Great, Dorothy! I am also a skeptic who wishes I could find beliefs or the faith that many people have but who is appalled at the many ways religion has been used as a justification of so much horror. It does seem that the religious thinkers who spawned these religions had the right ideas but who can control an idea? I think I would find much to reassure me in this book.

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    1. When I noticed that you had recently read and enjoyed The Source, I thought, "Judy should read this book!"

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