Review: Allen Callahan on two new books about scripture

Karen Armstrong's The Lost Art of Scripture is a masterful, eloquent, polymathic study moving deftly across millennia from the Pacific Rim to the Indian Subcontinent to the Fertile Crescent tracing “the chronological development of major scriptural canons in India and China, as well as in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.” John Barton’s recent monograph surveying the development and reception of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, A History of the Bible, though ostensibly more limited in scope, is similarly capacious in its reach and its grasp of the contemporary challenges that attend reading holy scripture, telling “the story of the Bible from its remote beginnings in folklore and myth to its reception and interpretation in the present day.”

What Barton does for the Bible, Armstrong does for the scriptural traditions of the world’s religions. Karen Armstrong is a former nun who has written many books about comparative religion for a general audience, and John Barton is an Anglican priest and professor of theology at Oxford. Both Armstrong and Barton want to save Holy Writ from the jaded rejection of secularists and the violent distortions of fundamentalists, two ideological camps threatening to squander the insights that scripture might afford in troubled, troubling times.

Both authors hold the line against religion’s—and so, scripture’s—cultured despisers. “Because it does not conform to modern scientific and historical norms,” notes Armstrong, “many people dismiss scripture as incredible and patently ‘untrue.’” And though Barton seeks “to engage with different styles of belief about Scripture … down the ages,” his chief motive is “to explain how the Bible came into existence … and how we might think about its elements today.” Ancient scripture has and must have a place in our world of drones and apps and melting ice caps.

Of fundamentalism Armstrong proposes that “to read the scriptures correctly and authentically, we must make them speak directly to our modern predicament. Instead, some Christian fundamentalists today aim to revive the Bronze Age legislation of the Hebrew Bible, while Muslim reformers are slavishly attempting to return to the mores of seventh-century Arabia.” Barton argues “for the kind of critical study that modern biblical scholars practice, which addresses the Bible without an assumption that whatever it says is to be regarded as authoritatively true,” and expects that this will “make disconcerting reading” for fundamentalists, who “venerate a Bible that does not really exist, a perfect text that perfectly reflects what they believe.” Both authors agree that, though we may look back to antiquity via scripture, we cannot, must not go back to it.

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Armstrong explains that scripture “emerged when human beings started to live in larger and more complex societies and needed a common ethos that bound them together.” Scripture was grounded in civilizations “based economically on agriculture [that] were maintained only by ruthless exploitation.” She insists that, although “none of the scriptural traditions ... could eradicate the systemic violence of the agrarian state" they “offered an alternative ideal ... of what should be done,” they “always had a moral dimension and [were] essentially a summons to compassionate, altruistic action.” Noting that “reason alone” cannot solve the dilemmas we face, she describes scripture as “an art form designed to achieve the moral and spiritual transformation of the individual.”

Barton, similarly optimistic about the transformative power of scripture in the life of its Jewish and Christian readers, asserts that “examining the Bible challenges as well as nourishes religious faith and practice.” The Bible, he writes, “can exercise a control and check on the religions that claim it as their own.” Yet both Armstrong and Barton recognize the limits of their optimism. Armstrong concedes that “despite their message of empathy and compassion, all scriptures, without exception, have a belligerent strain that can easily be exploited,” and Barton, quoting theologian Austin Farrer, finds it “striking how the forms of Christianity that insist on the ‘First-Century period junk’ survive and flourish.”

These caveats suggest that Armstrong and Barton, for all their equanimity and ecumenism, are preaching to the choir. Their implied audience already accepts the indispensable premises—some rejected by secularists, others by fundamentalists—that the authors presuppose: the importance of history, of science, of facts; the diversity of cultural perspectives; the common humanity of all people; the inherent human capacity for charity, self-criticism, and self-transcendence. Such readers haven’t come to these convictions because they read books like Armstrong’s and Barton’s; they read books like Armstrong's and Barton's because they have come to these convictions.

The Lost Art of Scripture and A History of the Bible are written for those many religious-to-not-so-religious people who resist the secularists and the fundamentalists and are willing to do the requisite heavy lifting to recover a more robust and interpretive approach to scriptural texts. And I do mean heavy lifting — in more than one sense. Both The Lost Art of Scripture and A History of the Bible weigh in at over six hundred pages, their sheer heft enough to stop some readers as well as some doors. Both books warrant the effort, though, for the breadth of their learning and the rigor of their analysis. Neither one, however, conclusively advocates for faith in the transformative vision of scripture that both assert—it’s a belief one must bring to both books to be fully convinced by them.

Allen Callahan is the author of The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible, among other books.

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