Book Review: “The Lost Art of Scripture” by Karen Armstrong
“The Lost Art of Scripture” by Karen Armstrong is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. I don’t say that lightly. It’s not an easy read. But it is well worth reading, contemplating, and digesting what the author is saying. Karen Armstrong is a prolific author who has written numerous books on a variety of theological and religious topics. Published in 2019, “The Lost Art of Scripture” does something that I’ve haven’t seen done in other books that I have read – taking the reader on a journey through history across cultures and religious faiths connecting the importance of the concept of scripture (however each faith defines it).
My biggest take away for why comes down to this – the West needs to goes on this journey because we are the ones who have lost the art of Scripture. We’ve gotten too much into our own heads and we’re more concerned with being right, rather than listening. And at the core of what Scripture is all about, it is about listening to the divine. That’s my real quick take of one of her arguments.
Armstrong starts right out at the very beginning of her Introduction talking about left/right hemispheres of the brain and what each side focuses on. While the left hemisphere is more empirical and objective and give humanity many benefits, a heavy focus has cost us too.
“The left brain is by nature competitive; largely ignorant of the work of the right, it tends to be over confident. The right hemisphere, however has a more comprehensive vision of reality, which as we have seen, we can never grasp fully; it is more at home with embodiment and the physical than the left. The left brain is essential to our survival and enables us to investigate and master our environment, but it can offer us only an abstract representation of the complex information it receives from the right. Because the right hemisphere is less self-centered, it is more realistic than the left hemisphere. Its wide-ranging vision enables it to hold different views of reality simultaneously and, unlike the left, it does not form certainties based on abstraction. Profoundly attuned to the Other – to everything that is not ourselves – the right hemisphere is alert to relationships. It is the seat of empathy, pathos and our sense of justice. Because it can see an-other point of view, it inhibits our natural selfishness.” (pg. 6)
For me, this is the summation of the challenges that we find ourselves in Western Christianity – an over emphasis on the left hemisphere. Armstrong, in one paragraph, has deftly named the key areas, at least in Western Christianity in America that the church is struggling – justice, individualism, certainty vs abstraction, empathy, and being able to hold different views of reality simultaneously.
A second major theme that Armstrong focuses in on is just as important and ties in well with the first – transformation. Throughout this book, we read how “Religion is a means of ultimate transformation.” (Pg. 8). And regardless of which faith tradition we are talking about, scriptures are about the divine touching humanity in such a way that humanity is transformed.
The third theme that runs through the book is how “Scripture, therefore, began as an aristocratic art form…Scripture was usually sung, chanted, or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words…were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right.” (pg. 10-11). This also has to do with the concept of holy myth – “A myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once by which also happens all the time.” (pg. 11). Armstrong puts this concept another way in a beautiful statement – “The myths of scripture are not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your current way of life; rather, they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart.” (pg. 11). In a way, she is tying the first two theme together with this third theme in such a beautiful poetic way.
The last point that Armstrong makes is this – “The art of scripture did not mean a return to an imagined perfection in the past, because the sacred text was always a work in progress. The art of scriptural exegesis was, therefore, inventive, imaginative and creative. So, to read the scriptures correctly and authentically, we must make them speak directly to our modern predicament.” (Pg. 15). In other words, it’s not about going back to some nostalgia, or a time in the past. Or to put it another way – “Given our current problems, the scriptures’ faith in the divine potential of all human beings seems particularly relevant.”(pg. 15)
After the introduction, Armstrong takes the reader through a world cultural-historical-religious exploration that I didn’t know was possible in just one volume, exploring ancient civilizations and religious traditions and their relationship with the divine and scripture. I found these stories of scripture origin and meaning to be fascinating and meaningful. Likewise, it was truly awe-inspiring to see how interconnected humanity really is. Even though religious traditions and beliefs are unique and different, there are consistent themes that run throughout, which Armstrong covered in the introduction.
The last two chapters bring the reader sharply into focus on Western Christianity with this statement, “By the early sixteenth century, Europeans realized that their societies were undergoing major change.” (Pg. 333). “…fundamental yet imperceptible change can be disorienting.” (pg. 335). Guess what they solution was to this disorientation. A disagreement of sorts. “The Reformation, it has been said, signaled a resurgence of the left hemisphere of the brain, which, as we have seen, had begun in Europe during the thirteenth century.” (pg. 338). A type of literal interpretation arose as a result. A concern with being right is attached with the left hemisphere of the brain. At the same time, mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross became prominent. “This was clearly a disciplined withdrawal from the dominance of the left hemisphere.” (Pg. 343).
From here, Armstrong shifts the focus to talk about how this same challenge affects other cultures and religions too, especially those that have not had this challenge in more Eastern understandings of the divine and scripture.
In the last chapter, Armstrong raises some important questions and topics for the reader to consider – questions about scripture and ideals around social justice, how scripture has always been something that has pointed towards things rather than been the last word for much of history, the relationship between politics and scripture, and more.
So much to consider. Lots of deep questions. This is the type of book to read if you want to ask questions and are not as concerned with getting an answer. Kind of like how we should read Scripture, if one were to truly understand what Armstrong is suggesting anyway. But in reading it this way, we would be changed, transformed, because in reading it, we would encounter the divine, touching the holy. And in touching the holy – how could we we not be transformed? That’s the hope isn’t it?
Scripture, at its core isn’t something to be studied, as much as encountered. Scripture isn’t something to be dissected, as much as to be ingested. Scripture isn’t something to be read in order to be understood, as much as to be taken in to become one with. For those of us in the West, it’s to move from our left brain relationship with Scripture to explore our what a right brain relationship with Scripture might be like. And Karen Armstrong offers some wonderful historical and cultural background options for us to understand so that we can let go and just be with Scripture and let it do its beautiful art. I’m grateful for her book. It was a wonderful journey.