Karen Armstrong needs little introduction: a religious historian and scholar, she is certainly one of the most popular writers on religion today. She has penned acclaimed biographies of religious figures and undertaken exhaustive historical treatments of various faiths. She has countered atheism, combated fundamentalism and actively champions a message of compassion, liberty and interfaith harmony. Her books are something of an event: Armstrong possesses that rare gift of making high scholarship accessible and alive for a general readership, a feat that is all the more remarkable considering the contentious and complicated topic of religion. And now she returns with The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts.
This book is a variation on a common theme running through Armstrong’s work, most notably in The Case for God: What Religion Really Means — her classic response to the New Atheism of Richard Dawkins, Peter Hitchens and co. One of her key arguments was that these writers were busy grappling with a straw man: religions in olden times were not merely sets of rules or dogma. Armstrong points out that they were actually transformative disciplines, which relied on a variety of techniques — myths, riddles, rituals and mystery — to reorient the believer to access higher realms of consciousness.
To quote Armstrong: “In many ways, we seem to be losing the art of scripture in the modern world. Instead of reading it to achieve transformation, we use it to confirm our own views — either that our religion is right and that of our enemies wrong, or, in the case of sceptics, that religion is unworthy of serious consideration. Too many believers and non-believers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of pre-modern spirituality.”
In this new book, Armstrong develops this thesis to its fullest. She undertakes a grand tour of the world’s major religions to present a high level view of how scriptures developed. We see how our ancestors wrestled with otherworldly notions, how our relationship with the sacred word evolved over time, and altered radically with circumstance.
Karen Armstrong’s latest book is a grand tour of world religions, that develops her thesis that scripture is a way to achieve transformation rather than to be read in literal terms
And Armstrong highlights a constant and enduring theme: the central role of scripture in personal transformation and transcendence. This notion — so foreign to modern man today — was apparently self-evident in ages past. “If after studying the Analects [of Confucius], one is still just the same old person as before,” observed the 11th century Chinese philosopher Cheng Yi, “that’s to have never studied it.”
Transformation has multiple dimensions. For instance, in ancient India, it was understood that the Divine could not be contained in words or complex definitions, but could be apprehended in the limitations of language and speech. Armstrong describes the brahmodya ritual — riddling contests among sacrificial priests who would compete to define the ultimate reality, Brahma. However, in a strange twist, the winner was not the one with the best definition; it was he who reduced the assembly to silence, and this silence was a holy silence in which Brahma was present.
In a similar manner, Zen masters used paradoxical riddles known as koans to provoke the Great Doubt in seekers, effectively short-circuiting the analytic intellect, bypassing the wilful ego and thereby opening the mind up to deeper and more intuitive modes of perception.
We find a markedly different dimension in Islam. This is the religion of ‘surrender’. God is ever near, closer than the jugular. Scripture takes the form of a powerful and intimate dialogue in which God engages directly with believers. As per scholar Marshall Hodgson: “[The Quran] was never designed to be read for information or even for inspiration, but to be recited as an act of commitment in worship; nor did it become a mere sacred source of authority ... What one did with the Quran was not to peruse it but to worship by means of it; not to passively receive it but, in reciting it, to reaffirm it for oneself: the event of revelation was renewed every time one of the faithful, in the act of worship, relived [ie re-spoke] the Quranic affirmations” because “it continued ... to be an event, an act, rather than a statement of facts or norms.”
Early Muslims held that God could be experienced in the realities of daily life. Mundane activities such as business and politics, far from being distractions for believers, were in reality “the arena in which they experienced God and which enabled the Divine to function effectively in the world.” An entire subculture of Sufism emerged, premised on the Quranic affirmation: “But those who struggle in Our cause, surely We shall guide them in Our ways; and God is with the good-doers.” (26:69)
The ancients also considered scripture a wellspring from which to derive fresh inspiration to meet new challenges, a constant source of edification, something that lives and breathes. Scholar Brian Smith describes the Rigveda as “a peculiar kind of canon ... endlessly re-envisaged, and eternally unchanged.” In the Bible, Saint Paul compares himself to an architect: “I laid the foundations, on which someone else is doing the building. Everyone doing the building must work carefully. For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one, which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ. On this foundation, you can build in gold, silver and jewels, or in wood, grass or straw.”
The misfits in this saga are the Greeks, who pioneered a wholly secular worldview two millennia ago. Amstrong documents a fascinating theory, that this rupture with the Divine was intensely traumatic and to heal this psychic wound — as a kind of mass catharsis — the Greeks invented the art form of tragic theatre. This was a testing ground where secular man confronts Divine decree and the paradoxes inherent in the human condition erupt forth in a blaze of manifest destruction.
Unfortunately, modernity, with its single-pointed focus on the material and the physical, has lost sight of religion’s transcendental dimension. Transformative faith has been reduced to theory and the practise of scripture has degraded into intellectual acrobatics. The experience of God is inaccessible to us.
The Lost Art of Scripture is a work of synthesis, highlighting an argument that is sorely lacking in mainstream discourse. Armstrong’s thesis here is not novel — it is a well-known position in the study of religions — but it is certainly presented in a way that is exciting and accessible. Like most of her books, this is a hefty volume running at over 600 pages. It is a dense and demanding read, definitely not for the faint of heart. But the committed reader will most certainly not be disappointed. He or she would be better placed to appreciate G.K. Chesterton’s timeless advice: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts
By Karen Armstrong
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 15th, 2020