Friday, October 26, 2007

The good Good Book book: a Review

Is it possible for a book dealing with religion to be feted by both ardent atheists and practising Christians? The answer to this question may lie in the reaction that Karen Armstrong receives for her text ‘The Bible: the Biography’.

Armstrong attempts to weave together modern Biblical criticism and a history of the spirituality of the people who wrote and have read the Bible. By focusing on how Jews and Christians have interpreted and more importantly experienced the Bible she manages to cast light and good sense on both the nature of the Good Book and the current mudslinging that passes as debate between the fundamentalist camps.

One of the focal ideas of Armstrong’s book is illustrated through the story of two of the disciples walking along the road to Emmaus after Jesus’s death, but before his resurrection was understood. A stranger joins the disciples and begins talking to them about the events of the last few days, before demonstrating how these events fulfil the writings of Moses and the Prophets. Later, as the stranger breaks bread, the disciples realise that they have been in the presence of Jesus and they ask “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Since the destruction of their first Temple the Jews had found they would experience the divine presence (Shekhinah) when they read and discussed the Torah. (p72) Now the disciples literally experienced the divine presence as they discussed the scriptures. This was carried forward into the Christian tradition – as people came before the Bible with a sincere heart they could experience Shekhinah in the person of Jesus. John emphasised this point by saying that Jesus is the word become flesh. – Jesus was the embodiment of the scriptures and the Shekhinah.

This insight in Armstrong’s book is crucial for two reasons. Firstly this understanding of the relationship between the text and the Shekhinah helps explain why Jews and Christians have been so happy to interpret, allegorise and reinterpret the Bible down the centuries. If the divine presence/Jesus is present when the Bible is sincerely discussed and studied then God himself is intervening and is leading and guiding the interpretations. This reading resonates with most Christians today. Christians would say that they find that studying and discussing the Bible can lead to a sense of a living relationship with God, which would correlate with the earlier Jewish/Christian understanding of Shekhinah.

Secondly, Armstrong demonstrates how the Bible can be read seriously without being read literally. The authority of the Bible for Christians for most of the last 2000 years (and for Jews before that) has not stemmed from its unchangeable word for word accuracy, but in the manifestation of the Shekhinah when it is read, expounded and discussed with a sincere and contrite heart. Indeed, the manifold readings, ambiguities, interpretations and changes to the texts were crucial to the spiritual exploration and growth of God’s people.

Biblical fundamentalism, which emerged in the mid Nineteenth Century divorces the divine presence from the Bible and tries to make it stand alone by arguing that any sentence of the Bible is literally and rationally true to anyone in whatever context. This approach is a travesty because by taking it out of the context of community study and spiritual approach it emasculates the Bible from its depth of richness of truth and insight – the very opposite effect to what was intended. Although there are few in the UK that would take this approach to an extreme, its influence as a school of thought with evangelicalism is still considerable and Armstrong’s emphasis on the Shekhinah is a vital corrective.

Some secular readers may be uncomfortable with the extent to which Armstrong ‘buys into’ the spiritual approach to reading the scriptures. Christians not previously exposed to academic biblical criticism may struggle with Armstrong’s ready acceptance that many books in the Bible were not written or edited in the time or place they thought; or be irritated by Armstrong’s readiness to cast doubt on why Jesus was crucified and whether Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (p56). Yet none of these reservations should prevent readers from missing the central thrust of this book.

The Bible: the Biography could be a book of deepened understanding, connection and reconciliation for both Christians and secularists. Yet as Armstrong concludes: ‘We are a talkative and opinionated society and not always good at listening…we expect immediate answers to complex questions…this makes a truly spiritual reading of the Bible difficult’ (p 226). The impact of this book will depend not solely on the text published, but on the attitude people choose to adopt as they engage, discuss and interpret it.