Karen Armstrong, On the Bible (Atlantic Books UK, Allen & Unwin 2007)
Part of the function of a book group, or at least of mine, is to take you (me) out of your (my) comfort zone. So when On the Bible was proposed as the title for our March meeting, I resisted my urge to reach for a proverbial bargepole.
The urge didn’t come from a Dawkinsian disdain for religion. On the contrary, atheist though I am now, I was a member of the Marist Brothers in my teens and early 20s, and I treasure the memory of a series of lectures by nicotine-stained Brother Flavian, who was supposed to be teaching us Catechetics (whatever that is) but instead shared his passion for biblical studies an hour a week for a whole year. I wasn’t keen on revisiting the subject with what sounded like a dry introductory text.
But I’d seen Karen Armstrong’s TED Talk, Let’s Revive the Golden Rule, and the chap who proposed the book was very keen., so what the hell, archie, I thought, and happily supported the proposal..
It turns out that the stuff I remember from Brother Flavian’s lectures – the story of how the Bible was written and compiled, including the varied cultural and historical contexts – takes up just a fraction of the book. Karen Armstrong doesn’t linger on the poetry so much as sketch the politics, and though I miss the poetry, the politics is often fascinating, especially when there is an implied commentary on 21st century readings. For example, she describes P, the priestly strand of the Torah/Pentateuch, as proclaiming that ‘Israel was not a people because it dwelt in a particular country, but because it lived in the presence of God’; or, something that Brother Flavian could never have said but is glaringly obvious once articulated, ‘A thread of hatred runs through the New Testament.’ (Pharisee to Richard the Third: ‘You call that a hatchet job? This is a hatchet job.’)
The US title, The Bible: A Biography, is not only catchier, it also gives a better sense of what the book is: because once it has told the story of how the books of the Bible were written and assembled, it goes on with the process of canonisation (which happened over centuries, and was still being debated in Luther’s time), and then Armstrong’s real subject: how the way they were read changed over the centuries – by Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Protestants. The Midrash and Talmud, the Platonists, the early Christian Fathers up to St Augustine, the mediaeval exegetes and the Kabbalists all brought different understandings of what the Bible was, and how it should be read, and what one was to make of its many inconsistencies. Then came the Protestant Reformation and capitalism, and Lurianic Kabbalah and tikkun olam, followed by the Enlightenment, which brought Spinoza ‘who studied the historical background and literary genres of the Bible with unprecedented objectivity’ and was the forerunner of the German Higher Criticism. We arrive at last at the mystical reading of the Hasidim, and the extreme literalism of the fundamentalism that came into being in late 19th century USA:
This was an entirely new departure. In the past, some interpreters had favoured the study of the literal sense of the Bible but they had never believed that every single word of scripture was factually true. Many had admitted that, if we confined our attention to the letter, the Bible was an impossible text. The belief in biblical inerrancy … would, however, become crucial to Christian fundamentalism and would involve considerable denial. [The leaders of this approach] were responding to the challenge of modernity but in their desperation were distorting the scriptural tradition they were trying to defend.
And then there’s post-Holocaust Judaic literalism which adopted the until-then secular ideology of Zionism, and came up with a doctrine that was in fact completely novel even while claiming to be based in antiquity:
Unless Jews occupied the whole land of Israel, exactly as this was defined in the Bible, there could be no Redemption.
The blurb tells us Karen Armstrong was a religious sister briefly some decades ago. You can’t tell from this book whether she is still a Catholic or even a believer, but there’s no hostility to religion. What does come through loud and strong is her antagonism to movements that hijack the Bible for political purposes, while disregarding the extraordinary richness of its history.
There are dry stretches, where the treatment of various Kabbalists, say, or different strands of mediaeval Christian hermeneutics amount to little more than annotated lists, potentially useful if one were to go on to further study, but skippable for the drive-by reader. Perhaps, in fact, those dry patches make up most of the book, so that in effect it’s more successful as a reference book than as a narrative. I found the bits that transcended that dryness fascinating, among other things for the way they illustrate that reading, reading anything at all, is a tremendously complex act that can transform the text being read.
I was reminded of Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll’s powerful history of anti-Jewish oppression in Christianity, especially Catholicism, which could almost read as an elaboration of one thread of this book..
In the days leading up to the meeting there was a flurry of emails saying their writers had up after a hundred pages or less, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the conversation last night had sputtered and died before moving on to the media’s nastiness about Julia Gillard. In fact, we stayed roughly on topic most of the evening – helped by a couple of the chaps having been to Seders the night before. Googling was banned for the evening, so there were interestingly speculative conversations about, among other things, the meaning of the orange on the Seder plate, and the colour and species of the animal that Jesus rode into Jerusalem.
Not many of us had read the whole thing. One had bought his copy of the US edition online from Able Books for 10 cents, no postage. The blurb on that edition referred to the book’s ‘cracking pace’, which we could all agree on, though it may have been precisely the ‘pace’ that made it hard going at times: the historical Jesus is dealt with in a single sentence, and I’m not sure if the historical books of the Hebrew Bible get even that. While a cracking pace is a good thing in a thriller, in an overview of a major element of western culture it tends to be either compacted or superficial. Still, I think there was a general respect for the book’s achievement in indicating the complexity of its subject without being impenetrable. Several of us remembered little, apparently casual observations that opened doors in our minds.
But there seemed to be a general thirst for some fiction as our next book