We must recapture the lost 'art' of scripture: Karen Armstrong

Former Catholic sister Karen Armstrong describes herself as a freelance monotheist. She focuses on the sounds, rituals and power of scripture, all of which she fears is endangered in our secular, digital age. She joined Nahlah Ayed to talk about recovering what she calls “the lost art of scripture.”

'All religious language ... must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe.'

Karen Armstrong is the author of numerous books on religion and spirituality, including her most recent one, 'The Lost Art of Scripture.' The book explores the world's major religions and the moral necessity to re-engage with holy texts. (Michael Llonstar, Penguin Random House)

* Originally published on January 6, 2020.

Karen Armstrong describes herself as a "freelance monotheist," a moniker that suits the bestselling author of books about Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Not that she confines herself solely to these faith traditions — for her latest book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, she also turns to spiritual practices in China, India and other parts of the world.

The reason: Karen Armstrong believes that we've lost something crucial: what she calls the "art" of scripture.

As she told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in November 2019, the power of scripture is its potential to lift us out of the everyday, and out of our ego-bound selves toward the transcendent.

"Sacred speech... has a transformative power irrespective of its meaning — and when we speak or hear it, we are ourselves transformed."

Karen Armstrong notes that literalist readings of religious scripture have had an increasingly toxic impact in both the West and around the world. (The Associated Press)

The transformational potential stems from the way sacred scriptures were — and should be — enacted: historically, they were sung, chanted, danced to, in a communal setting, rather than simply read silently by ourselves. 

In this sense, scripture was less a written phenomenon, despite its etymology as something inscribed, and more a preformative act. The goal wasn't to indoctrinate. It was to connect to something beyond ourselves, to reach a state of ecstasis — not ecstasy in the way the term is used now, but more in line with the ancient Greek meaning of moving beyond one's self.

Spiritual evolution

Armstrong acknowledges that scripture has been used to buttress religious, ethnic and ideological bigotry. But she also argues that sacred texts "concur that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own people but must honour the stranger and even the enemy."

The prescriptions and proscriptions must be placed in historical context, as they were in ancient times. Premodern societies had a better grasp of myths and their authentic function. We now tend to equate "myth" with falsehood or legend.

"But traditionally," Armstrong writes, "a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once, but which also happens all the time."

Karen Armstrong argues that scripture should be seen as continually evolving and echoing in the present. (The Associated Press)

She eventually left the convent and finished her degree with top marks. Armstrong stayed on to pursue doctoral studies, which ended in failure.

It was after a short stint as a teacher at an all-girls school in South London, Armstrong embarked on a career as a journalist and TV personality. Ultimately, her spirituality became the jumping off point for successful career as a writer, beginning with the publication of her 1981 memoir Through the Narrow Gate, which charted her life inside the convent. 

Echoing the present

Armstrong's own belief is that scripture needs to be enfolded into the present, something capable of continued interpretation and discovery. She argues that by seeing spiritual texts as ever-present stories, we can return to a less literal — and therefore less dangerous — way of understanding them.

"Too many believers and non-believers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner," she writes."[It] is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality."

So while sacred texts don't prescribe specific moral acts, they do call us to act morally, to reach for a better version of ourselves.

As she writes in The Lost Art of Scripture: "We should all, perhaps, as a matter of urgency, reflect on the Prophet's last speech to the ummah, which ended with a quotation from the Quran in which God addresses the whole of humanity: 'O humankind, we have created you all from a single male and a single woman, and formed you into tribes and nations so that you may get to know one another'."

Selected books by Karen Armstrong:

The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West (1986)
A History of God (1993)
Islam: A Short History (2000)
The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2000)
Buddha (2001)
The Bible: A Biography (2007)
The Case for God (2009)
The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (2019)

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly


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