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.
More on Broadview: Cathy Crowe sees a political ‘cold-heartedness’ on housing
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.