Tag Archives: TED talks

The Book Group on Karen Armstrong on the Bible

Karen Armstrong, On the Bible (Atlantic Books UK, Allen & Unwin 2007)

1ob 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..

The meeting:
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

Lionel Fogarty’s 1995 selection

Lionel Fogarty, New and Selected Poems – Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (Hyland House 1995)

Lionel Fogarty is described on the Australian Poetry Library (APL) website as ‘a poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian post-surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities’.

I bought this book years ago and it has been intimidating me from the to-be-read pile ever since. Now that I’ve finally read it I’m not so much intimidated as baffled, which, come to think of it, isn’t so unusual for me around poetry: I remember feeling that many of Frank O’Hara‘s poems might as well have been written in Icelandic for all I could make of them. But you know, even if straightforward poems aren’t all alike, every difficult poem is difficult in its own way. I experience Lionel Fogarty’s poetry as difficult in a number of interesting ways, some of them suggested by the APL quote above.

First, he writes in a version of Aboriginal English, and uses words from Aboriginal languages. The book’s glossary is some help with the vocabulary, but the syntax isn’t always easy to follow on the page, and Fogarty doesn’t go out of his way to ease the task for white readers. He writes in his introduction, ‘White man will never really fully interpret what a black man is thinking when he is writing.’ Fogarty writes as an Aboriginal man, heir to a genocidal history and survivor of continuing genocidal policies and practices; I am reading as a beneficiary of the same history and still with a world view largely conditioned by white privilege. That probably sounds dreadfully pious, but the fact is he can quite reasonably expect me to put in some work.

In a fascinating 1995 interview with Philip Mead published in the online poetry magazine Jacket, Fogarty responded to a question about his use of language:

I think what people should do is read my poetry, in an Aboriginal way, take the Aboriginal side of my language, and then reflect back on the English side. That’s the only way you’re going to get a balance of understanding. I think my most important thing, like I always say, is to revitalise or to get a full language into practice of the detribalised areas, of the urbanised, so-called, Aborigines. That’s my main thing.

I don’t know if it’s a separate thing, but there’s also what the APL calls his post-surrealism. I take this to refer to the hallucinatory element of some poems and something that’s happening in the language that isn’t just about Aboriginal English. From that same interview:

What I like to get into people’s minds, when they read my things, is that they get a picture, they get a painting from it and that’s the only way they can really understand all the mosaic, the patterns of the words I put down on paper. At the same time they can hear my voice coming through quite clearly, then they can really understand the poet.

I need to spend a lot more time with this poetry before I can do much more than struggle with it. But so as not to completely chicken out of saying something, here are the relatively unproblematic opening lines of ‘Farewell Reverberated Vault of Detentions’, a poem that imagines a day of freedom from oppression:

Today up home my people are
indeedly beautifully smiling
for the devil’s sweeten words are
gone.
Today my people are quenching
the waters of rivers without grog
Today my people are eating delicious
rare food of long ago.

This isn’t difficult, if difficult means hard to understand. However, I do have difficulty with it. I don’t know if indeedly is Aboriginal English. In any other context I would have read it as a Ned Flandersism. Likewise, sweeten used as an adjective, quenching as something done to waters rather than by them, apparently erratic use of full stops and capitalisation: my copy-editor reflexes go wild. I don’t think that Fogarty has written these lines with an intention of discombobulating white pedants. This writing just doesn’t care about my concerns. It’s talking to someone else altogether, and if I want to keep up I have to let go. But then I’m at sea. I am as much at a loss to pick up on the nuances of this language as I am when I’m reading French or Italian – which is very at a loss.

It’s true, in the couple of videos I found of Fogarty reading, the poetry communicates much more effectively than when I read it for myself and hear it, inevitably, in my own white, middle-class, linear-syntax-conscious voice. This TEDxSydney 2010 video is fabulous, for example:

‘I am an emotional creature’

Yet another video link, this time to a fabulous TED talk by Eve (‘Vagina Monologues’) Ensler, ‘Embrace Your Inner Girl’. You may find the beginning bits about the girl cell a bit oogie boogie, but do persevere: it’s a metaphor. I couldn’t find a way to embed it, sorry!

Eve Ensler: Embrace your inner girl | Video on TED.com.