Given that scripture is the sacred writing of a religion, it seems nonsensical to question its sacredness. But it can be asked what makes it sacred in the first place and whether it is worthy of being treated as sacrosanct, as something so important that it should not be interfered with.
Karen Armstrong, the author of “The lost art of scripture: rescuing the sacred texts”, says that something is experienced as sacred when it is felt to transcend reality.
It can be named and written about but it remains essentially unknowable. She sees religion and scripture as art forms that helped people to live in relation to this sense of something sacred.
Scripture as a sacred text and an art form possessed a performative dimension. It was bound up with ritual and myth.
This is the basis for a comprehensive overview of the world’s major religions.
Origins and developments are looked at in secular, historically-minded terms, grounded in the Middle East but including China, India and the theatre of ancient Athens.
The compilation of the Hebrew Bible, for example, is linked with the trauma of Jewish exile to Babylon in the early 6th century BCE. The biblical exegesis known as midrash is seen as a response to the altered world of the first century CE after Rome’s destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
Followers of Jesus took a different direction, away from Judaism and towards the creation of the New Testament, though using the older religion’s scripture to validate their new beliefs.
A scriptural revolution was underway that also led to Arabic texts and the spread of Islam. The Quran is seen as a different kind of scripture, with ‘the power of an Indian mantra’, recited as a poetic experience.
The underlying principle sees all religions as expressive of a human yearning for transcendence. Problems arise when the theology is taken too literally.
Armstrong’s example is Milton’s “Paradise lost” because it reveals the inadequacy of anthropomorphising the divine: Satan becomes a tragic hero and God an unpleasant authoritarian. The Kabbalah, as Armstrong explains, avoided the literalism that allowed for critical readings of the Old Testament.
The book’s argument is that we read scripture too literally and should, instead, look back to the mystical approach of spirituality that existed in premodern eras.
But reading the Old Testament makes it difficult to accept that scripture always had a moral dimension: “essentially a summons to compassionate, altruistic action”. The God of the Old Testament embodies vindictiveness and justified colonialism. Scripture is used to justify the annexation of Palestine.
An account of Nietzsche is provided but the delirious weight of his subversive thought is not taken on board: God is dead, we must learn to live without him (always a male) and find what is divine within ourselves. Nietzsche offers a way to resacralise existence but Armstrong chooses not to go there.
“The lost art of scripture: rescuing the sacred texts” by Karen Armstrong, is published by Bodley Head.
(Images supplied by the publisher)