Writer and historian Karen Armstrong. (Photo: Timothy Allen)

Topics: Spirituality | Interview

Karen Armstrong on what surprised her studying scripture

One of the world's leading religious historians talks to Broadview about her new book

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Karen Armstrong is one of the world’s leading religious historians. Her newest book, The Lost Art of Scripture, examines the religious and scriptural histories of India, China and the three Abrahamic traditions in light of today’s political challenges and the rise of extremism. She spoke to Noelle Boughton from her home in London.

Noelle Boughton: Why did you write a book about scripture? 

Karen Armstrong: I hadn’t encountered a book that dealt with scriptures across the board. So I was curious. I was also perturbed by the unintelligent way in which we’re reading scripture today, with our overt literal emphasis, which is causing so many unnecessary problems.

NB: What are some of the consequences of that literal reading?

KA: You get ridiculous ideas. You have certain fundamentalists in the United States, for example, who want to revive the old Hebrew legislation that would encourage the stoning of disobedient children. You have jihadists who just quote certain verses of the Qur’an and don’t include those that talk about peace and affection for others. Saudi Arabia has gone back to seventh-century mores of the first Muslim community, such as veiling women.

NB: And scripture, in contrast to that, has historically been understood as something that evolves and is open to interpretation, hasn’t it?

KA: Yes, and when one is going against the whole forward thrust ethos of scripture, which always looks innovative, you lose something. In Judaism, in the Talmud, there was always a page for each student to add his own insight, his own revelation. Each student was to imagine himself standing beside Moses on Sinai and hearing the revelation that comes to him. He must find something new to say because the Jews say revelation is an ongoing process: it occurs every time a Jew confronts the sacred text.

This idea is in Islam, too. There was a great Muslim sage in the 12th century, Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi, who said that every time you recite the Qur’an, it should mean something different to you. If it doesn’t, then you’re not reciting it correctly because God is saying something to you at this particular moment.

Whereas our tendency, based on modern scholarship, is always to go back to the original text. But it is subverting the essential dynamism of scripture, which is to find something new in it.

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NB: Did you learn anything unexpected while researching the book?

KA: At the beginning, I was expecting that I would be focusing on the idea that scripture was largely oral, a performative art that was sung, not read, and that the invention of printing spoiled our perception of scripture.

But I very quickly found things I hadn’t expected. I discovered that all religions shared a concern, from the very beginning, with justice and equity. That’s a very important message for our time when we’re seeing massive global inequity. They were also concerned with the environment, another major topic of our time. Also, scripture always had to be translated into practical action, either in ritual or in ethical action. It’s not just a question of reading the sacred texts and relishing them. You have to put them into practice and make them part of yourself.

NB: The communal aspect of scripture is also important to you. Why must we read scripture as a community?

KA: I think a lot of piety today tends to be very subjective: me and my God, or Jesus as my personal saviour. It’s like some kind of personal trainer, especially geared to your particular needs. Whereas scripture calls for community. It was always read, listened to and chanted communally. That creates all kinds of bonds between people that aren’t purely rational.

NB: Your book explores the ways scripture has been misused in the service of violence. Can you speak about that?

KA: All scriptures, without exception, contain violent passages because they are human products, and we are a violent species. There’s also this tendency to be selective and quote scripture to further your own ideas.

Take Islam. In the last 20 years, and even in the Middle Ages, western people said Islam is essentially a violent religion. But I was intrigued to find out that for the first four centuries of Islamic history, the major Muslim exegetes said the texts that we’re always hearing quoted by terrorists no longer applied. They said they applied to particular moments in the life of Muhammad, but circumstances had changed so they were not important. They became important again starting in the 12th century, when Islam was being violently attacked by the Crusaders and Mongols. I think the surge of violence we’ve seen today has come at a time when Muslims have felt under attack by colonialists, imperialists and various wars.

I think a lot of piety today tends to be very subjective: me and my God, or Jesus as my personal saviour. It’s like some kind of personal trainer, especially geared to your particular needs.

NB: How can scripture encourage peace instead?

KA: Well, we just have to read the demands of scripture, which all insist on the importance of going beyond the ego and practising compassion, which is not just feeling sorry for people. It means feeling with the other. And they all insist you must love even the enemy. This has been a constant struggle for us because compassion is built into our human nature — it enables us to care for our young and form solidarity with one another. But we’re also a violent species, so we use scripture to back up our own instincts.

NB: What role does scripture play in your life?

KA: I was Catholic, so we didn’t read scripture in the same way as I would have had I been Protestant. I was a nun, and we chanted our scriptures, in Latin and the Gregorian chant, so I experienced it in that premodern context with scripture as a performative art. For me, without the chant, music or ritual, it’s like reading the libretto of an opera. A dimension is missing. I was not brought up just to study scripture by itself. It was always something read in context and in community. But that’s gone now, even in the Catholic church.

NB: The Lost Art of Scripture is your 22nd book. What do you hope you’ve accomplished as a religious historian?

KA: Just to make people think a little more deeply about religion. I’m speaking as a Brit, where people discount religion as passé, whereas I think it’s a very important part of our humanity.

There’s also this whole emphasis on our need for community and our need to confront the transcendent element in life. Scripture does not answer our questions about God. It just makes us more puzzled about God. There are things in life that will always elude us. There is something mysterious about the human experience that you cannot define, and scripture plunges us into that obscurity and the constant quest for it over the ages.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2020 issue with the title “Living texts.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Noelle Boughton is a Toronto writer, editor, spiritual director and spirituality workshop facilitator.

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  • says:

    One of the issues I have with this article is the flippant use of the word “scripture(s)”. It seems to be used interchangeably, and causes confusion of the term. One moment religious scriptures in general, then I assume Christian scriptures. (E.g.) I was also perturbed by the unintelligent way in which we’re reading scripture today...

    What the author seems to fail to mention that Hindu, Shamanism (supposed root of Confucianism) and the three Abrahamic faiths all have the same roots (Aryan region 6-10,000 BC). Thus they share similarities (such as the flood), however, what makes them unique?
    Let’s take the writers example, she states each religion evolves.
    Yet Christianity states: Revelation 22:18-19 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
    Christianity has three distinct features from all other religions. 1) We cannot earn our way to heaven. 2) We can have a relationship with God. 3) Our leader (Christ) is NOT dead.

    Contrary to the article, Isaiah 55:6 Seek the Lord while He may be found, and Ephesians 5:1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. We can know God, so clearly, we can follow His example.
    Human experience is defined by sin, nothing else.

  • says:

    I appreciate any new scholarly book that is as objective as it can be while being authored by a Christian. One of the great difficulties we have today is that people do take scripture literally which makes little sense when there are so many contradictions, forgeries, redactions, no original manuscripts, only copies of copies and the knowledge that scripture was written by people, people of a particular time and place who had a particular agenda. Alvin Boyd Khun puts forth the powerful argument citing numerous sources that scripture was and is meant to be read allegorically. If that's the case, as he claims it was before the third century, then reading it literally makes no sense at all.
    While in seminary I was encouraged and expected to engage in a process of life-long learning, and I have been engaging in just that. However, when one gets into a pastoral charge one finds that the spiritual and Biblical knowledge is actually childlike.
    One of my favourite authors, Bart Ehrman says in his book "Jesus Interrupted" on page 13 that "Pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in Seminary."
    When pastoral charges are controlled by those who hold no academic knowledge or even higher education, a minister who tries to enlighten the congregation often doesn't last too long.
    Alas, most folks seldom scratch the surface of scripture and certainly don't study the origins of scripture, Christian or otherwise. And most don't differentiate between Old or New Testament teachings or the different teachings of different characters. They cherry-pick to suit their own opinions.
    Since I have retired, I have moved beyond the church and am now able to have a deeper relationship with God. It was God that led me to the church and it was God that brought me out of it. I thank authors such as Karen, Bart Ehrman, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, John Shelby Spong, Gretta Vosper, Marcus Borg, Tom Harpur and others for helping me on my journey. Keep up the good work, Karen. Blessings to you, for you have blessed me and others like me.

    Replies

    • says:

      "One of the great difficulties we have today is that people do take scripture literally which makes little sense when there are so many contradictions, forgeries, redaction's, no original manuscripts, only copies of copies and the knowledge that scripture was written by people, people of a particular time and place who had a particular agenda."
      Yet we continually see evidence contrary to your argument, in fact there is evidence of manuscripts as early as 7,000 bc.
      The Dispilio tablet even suggests husbandry helping to argue for the flood theory.
      I've debated this with you before with no response - but why would someone (or group of people) write a "myth", and then be willing to die for it? That question baffles me. Not only that, but what are the odds of a group of people sitting around a table for 100 or 200 years and come up with a "story" that fit a narrative that was orally or mechanically passed down for 3 or 4,000 years. And why would you want to do that?, you had full control over the populace with the original narrative.
      Please explain Charles Haddon Spurgeon. One of the greatest preachers of all time. He had almost no education, yet he is also one of the most quoted. (We could also look at the fisherman named Peter - Acts 4:8 it mentions Peter was unschooled)
      I'm sorry you think God brought you out of the Church, especially when He's is trying so hard to get everyone else in.
      I truly hope your relationship with Christ grows.

  • says:

    Lots of very hasty generalizations in Karen's answers. Where in the Koran for instance does it say love your enemies? Secondly the most persecuted religion in the world today are followers of Jesus Christ at the hands of Islamic and Communist governments almost exclusively in the middle east, Africa, and China. To suggest that Islam in general is somehow the 22st century victim of preference is a political opinion that adds nothing to her commentary on Scripture.