049: Conversation With Karen Armstrong

    “The Bible is in danger of becoming a dead or an irrelevant letter; it is being distorted by claims for its literal infallibility; it is derided — often unfairly — by secular fundamentalists; it is also becoming a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemic. …
    “But because scripture has been so flagrantly abused in this way, Jews, Christians and Muslims have a duty to establish a counter-narrative that emphasizes the benign features of their exegetical traditions. Interfaith understanding and cooperation are now essential to our survival.”

    (From Karen Armstrong’s new “Books That Changed The World: The Bible”)

    The Bible has become a battleground and that’s a tragedy, says historian and religious scholar Karen Armstrong.

    I was especially eager to engage in this week’s Conversation With Karen Armstrong, because the truly challenging idea behind our work at ReadTheSpirit is that we can create an inspiring forum for people of all faiths. We boldly believe that, despite our religious differences, we can talk about the universal spiritual issues that we all wrestle with in our daily lives. And, yet, we are not trying to convert anyone away from — or into — any faith.
    There are thousands of Web sites, hundreds of book publishers and scores of filmmakers already focused on various forms of religion these days. We know that. But, the professionals behind ReadTheSpirit believe that there is a way, with great curiosity and great respect, to build stronger communities by sharing our stories of faith.

    The unusual approach that Armstrong takes in writing her new book, “The Bible,” is perfectly in tune with this idea.
    In fact, the new worldwide series of books in which Armstrong’s volume appears is proof of the value of this idea. This new series of books is exploring, as the British publishers of the series put it, “Books That Shook the World.”
    The American publisher has softened the word “Shook” to “Changed,” but we like the harder-edged British phrase. As Christians, Jews and Muslims who share versions of the Bible as sacred text — don’t we like to think that these scriptures have had an Earth-shaking impact?   

    You probably know Karen Armstrong already, because you’ve seen her face and heard her British accent pop up in countless documentaries about religion, history and scriptures.
    In an important way, she already has made our point, simply by publishing a volume in this worldwide series of books. The idea behind this new series suggests that we can create safe public spaces to talk about our core values, philosophies, spiritual aspirations and even the doctrines of our faith.
    An earlier volume in this series, for example, was written by the outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens. His volume examined the history of Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man,” which fueled the American Revolution. Most Americans probably will enjoy reading reading Hitchens’ book on Paine, because it explains a lot about the principles behind our Revolution.
    So, an atheist and a Bible scholar walked into a book series together — and the result wasn’t explosive — it was illuminating.

    Karen Armstrong recently turned 63. As a young woman in the 1960s, she became a Catholic nun for seven years, then left her order to pursue a career in education. She is largely self taught in the fields of religious and scriptural studies through decades of research. Her most important role is that of a highly specialized journalist.
    In her various books, she describes everything from life in a convent, to life with epilepsy — to the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the Buddha and the nature of religious fundamentalism.
    What’s most important about her work is that she pursues each book in a style that everyday readers can understand. That’s also a value we celebrate at ReadTheSpirit.

    (CLICK on the covers of her books with this article to jump to our bookstore, if you care to read her works. Today, we are especially recommending her new book, “The Bible.”)

Here, then, is our Conversation With Karen Armstrong:

     DAVID: Over the years, we’ve talked about a couple of your earlier books and I know that you’ve never shied away from tackling really challenging topics. Like, “A History of God”? It was pretty bold to take on such a cosmic challenge!
    But, I’ve got to say as we start talking about this new book: I didn’t expect the story that I found between the covers of “The Bible.” I was expecting that you had written a standard history of how The Bible came to be. But that isn’t what you wrote.
    You wrote a biography of the Bible. You wrote about how the Bible’s character was formed through the millennia. You wrote a history of the way that people have regarded the nature of this book.
    How did such an unusual project get started?
    KAREN: “A biography of the Bible” — that’s a very good way of putting it.
    This is part of a series of biographies of seminal books that have affected the world. The catchy British title of this is “Books That Shook the World.” So, others have written about “The Origin of Species” and “The Rights of Man,” and someone else did “The Quran.”
    And I was handed “The Bible” and I felt that I had drawn the short straw because The Bible has had a rather longer story than, let’s say, “The Rights of Man.”
    It has a very long history and it was much more difficult to write a book about all of that.
    So, my approach to this was to write about how The Bible has been interpreted since it was written. And I don’t think the editors of the series realized what a mammoth task that was.

    DAVID: The single most surprising thing in this new book, I think for many of your readers, will be this argument that you outline that says: There was no single way of reading The Bible through most of its history.
    In other words, down through history, it’s not as though there was a single way to interpret its meaning. There were many!
    And, you point out in your book that even the people who put together the original text of the Bible purposely included differing accounts from the sacred tradition so people could hear various versions of the ancient accounts. That’s true, you point out, even in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.
    KAREN: Yes, it’s true. From the very beginning, there was no attempt at a single orthodoxy with The Bible. The way the editors of the Bible incorporated these various diverse traditions in the Pentateuch gave us very different takes — all in the same book — on the creation story, the stories of the patriarchs, the story of the exodus form Egypt. Very different stories were put together in the Bible.
    And in the New Testament, you have four distinctive views of Jesus, each with distinctive slants on Jesus. There was no attempt to tie down a single meaning. The assumption was that, because God is infinite, the Bible can’t be tied down to a single meaning.

  DAVID: This idea goes way back to the roots of the Bible, you point out.
    KAREN: And many of the greatest rabbis wanted to keep pulling new meanings out of it over time, many meanings that bore little relationship to the intentions of the original writers.
    And, for centuries, readers relished highly allegorical ways of reading the Bible. There was no attempt to stick to a single literal sense.
    DAVID: Pretty much from the opening pages, right?
    KAREN: If you look at the creation story, for example, there are two quite different creation accounts put side by side at the beginning of Genesis that are mutually incompatible. If you’re trying to take a literal point of view toward what is written there, then either one is true or the other is true.
    But the original writers didn’t see it in those terms at all. They saw it as two different ways of talking about something that really is ineffable and inexplicable. There was no attempt to iron it out and say definitely it was the 6-day approach — or it was the God-planting-a-garden approach. These were both held by many people, at the same time.
    In the ancient world, there were many versions of myths.

OK, you’ve hit an important term here: Myth. That’s trouble for many readers. You’ve written an entire book about the importance of myth. And you remind us that myth isn’t a dirty word. It’s a great, important idea, right?

    KAREN: Today, the word myth is used in popular language to mean: It’s not true. If you say a politician is lying about something, you say his statement is a myth. But, in the pre-modern world, myths were taken very seriously as ways of talking about things that no one ever expected to tie down into single rational statements. Certainly, not in the way we think about tying things down in rational statements today.
    Too much of the world is impossible to explain. It goes beyond the grasp of human understanding.
    DAVID: This is going to be hard for people to accept — this idea that readers in the first centuries weren’t as literal minded as we are today.
    KAREN: People always took the literal sense of The Bible seriously, but a literal reading was only one of the senses in which they took the Bible.
    Jewish and Christian traditions had sophisticated, metaphorical, mystical and allegorical ways of thinking about the Bible. People did this far more naturally in the pre-modern era than they do today.
    Here’s an example: In churches there were great frescoes of biblical stories painted on the walls, showing biblical characters wearing what would have been modern dress at the time they were painted. People saw the stories as essentially still unfolding. They weren’t trying to take the stories literally. It was fine to put the biblical characters in modern clothes.
    What is new in our era is the idea of isolating one, single literal sense of the Bible — and declaring that the only way to read the Bible is literally. That’s actually new in the whole history of the Bible.

    DAVID: Catholics may understand this better than Protestants, I would think, reading your book.

    KAREN: Actually, Catholics retained the allegorical conception of the Bible, so this literalism hasn’t hit them as hard as it hit Protestants.
    DAVID: A good example would be a character like Veronica, right? Catholics know about this woman from the Stations of the Cross. She supposedly comforted Jesus on his way to the cross. And this comes from a long tradition of interpreting the biblical stories, even the stories about Jesus’ life.
    But most Protestants have never heard of this Veronica. She’s not in the Bible at all. A literal reading would say there’s no foundation for thinking she existed, right? Protestants wouldn’t understand the deep religious meaning that has sprung up around Veronica.
    KAREN: The Protestant idea of relying only on scripture would have a problem with that. Veronica has an important place in the spiritual lives of many people, but this new idea of isolating only a literal reading of the Bible — that makes no room for Veronicas.

We should make it clear to readers of our Conversation that your book provides lots of examples of what we’re talking about here. You’ve really written a fascinating history. We just talked about Catholics, so let me mention a Protestant example from your book: the evangelist John Nelson Darby, this 19th-Century guy who came up with the concept of the Rapture.

    KAREN: Darby is interesting. He was a Brit who developed this entirely new reading of the book of Revelation. I don’t need to go into the Rapture theory for people. People in this country know about that idea particularly well, don’t they?
    But, Darby had no takers in the UK, so he came to America where he was a resounding hit. In a sense, as bizarre as it may sound to say it: This was quite a modern way of reading the Bible.
    As strange as that may sound, Darby’s whole idea about how the Bible was divided into eras was in line with scientific thought that was current in his day. Just as Darby based his ideas on great ages and great stages of history, this is what scientists were uncovering in that era in their studies of cliffs and rocks.
    And, then, he took a very literal reading of the book of Revelation and, hence, he was modern in that respect, too. The traditional reading of Revelation was highly allegorical. Darby pointed to a literal reading. If there was going to be a Battle of Armageddon, then this would happen in a given place, a given time.
    Until the modern period, people didn’t see Revelation in this way as some kind of program outlining the last days. The book was seen as a highly obscure pattern of symbolism.

    DAVID: At the end of your book, you point us toward what I think is a terrific idea: A new effort all around the world to invite Jews, Christians and Muslims to work together to interpret scriptures. You’re calling for interfaith circles that will discuss, together, the ways we read and understand scriptures.

    KAREN: It’s time to do this. We all have the same difficulty.
    People are quoting our scriptures in all kinds of mischievous ways. The Bible is being exploited this way. The Quran is being exploited by people, too.
    I think this is a crucial idea right now.
    One of the things I say in the book is that people do not even realize how selectively they are reading the Bible. It’s a whole library of texts with different interpretations all included in the Bible. But, people have always had a tendency to be highly selective.
    This happened when early Christians decided to select those bits of the Hebrew Bible that they felt pointed to Jesus and when they decided to ignore those parts of the Hebrew Bible that didn’t suit them.
    In Judaism, the rabbis reinterpreted whole swaths of the Hebrew Bible.
    Today, the main people who are doing this selective reading are fundamentalists and it is a problem for all of us. In Christianity, fundamentalists like to quote from the book of Revelation with all of its violent battles and slaughter — but you don’t hear them quoting all that much from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and not retaliating.
    Similarly, you have extremists in the Muslim world who are thumbing through the Quran to select extreme passages and who are overlooking the many passages that call for compassion.
    DAVID: We share the problem. We should share the solution.
    KAREN: We should. All of the world’s great religions have a strong voice in them for compassion. Together, let’s try to make that voice of compassion and charity — that voice that’s right there in our scriptures — become the voice we share.

    AND SO ENDS our Conversation this week.

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re pleased to recommend Karen Armstrong’s new book. Not everyone will agree with her interpretation of biblical history — but it is a thought-provoking book that most readers will enjoy. If you read it, and like it — tell us. If you read it and disagree, then tell us that as well.
    CLICK ON any book cover with our story to jump to individual book reviews — and purchase copies if you wish.

    COME BACK tomorrow (Thursday) for a story about how we, here at ReadTheSpirit, “read” the Web itself. We’ll be telling you about some of our favorite Internet sites — and inviting you to share your Web tips with us, too. So, don’t miss that.
    On FRIDAY, we’ll share more of our reader recommendations — so, stay tuned, because a recommendation that you’ve sent along to us just might pop up on Friday.
    If you’re particularly a fan of our Conversation With format: Our guest next Wednesday (which is the first full day of Hanukkah) will be Dinah Berland, the poet and book editor who recovered a Jewish women’s prayer book from the dusts of history — and transformed her own life along with those of many readers. It’s a dramatic true story for people of all faiths.

    As always, please: Tell us what you think! You’ll find a Comment link at the end of today’s story. (If you’re reading this via our daily Email service, you’ll need to click on the headline and jump to our site to find the Comment link.) Or, you always can Email me directly.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email