Today is Palm Sunday, the mid-point of Passiontide, the two-week period leading up to Easter, Christianity’s foundational feast. It is also the beginning of Passover.
It has been my custom, since leaving the seminary in 1948, to read something appropriate to the time during this period. Over 35 years of writing this column, I have often used Palm Sunday to comment on the wide variety of the books so consulted: works of orthodoxy and heresy; fiction and non-fiction; scholarship and meditation. This year’s selection is one of the most stimulating and moving I’ve encountered: "The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts", by Karen Armstrong.
It is a dazzling work: the bulk of it a survey of sacred writings across the major faith systems, starting with the earliest sources of the Hebrew Bible, continuing into the development of Christianity and Islam, but extending as well into Hindu and Sikh texts and Buddhist and Chinese philosophies. The breadth of her knowledge and her careful tracing of sources and ongoing revisions is exhaustive but easy to read.
She begins with the workings of the human mind: it’s left and right brain functions, illustrating that all scripture began as oral tradition and that it remains its best mode of expression. She writes that "in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning. Scripture was usually sung, chanted or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words — a product of the brain’s left hemisphere — were fused with the more indefinable emotions of the right."
She faults our modern age for insisting on a literal reading of the words we have, forgetting that they developed over long periods of time, changing as they were elaborated, reinterpreted, and adjusted to changing times. Once we entered the age of the printed press, scripture began to become ossified. She insists that we misunderstand how scripture was conceived and used. "A work of art," she writes, "be it a novel, a poem or a Scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre."
In writing of the Quran, she says that it unites two scriptural forms: "the Semitic tradition of the Heavenly Book" and "the Eastern tradition of the sacred sound." When listening to Muhammad recite his revelations, his companions "had to allow the sound to percolate through their consciousness and the beauty of the words to fill them with awe." The purpose was "not intellectual conviction, but commitment and worship."
In China and India, sacred insight and rituals were memorized by reciting them over and over, only later turned into texts, which were altered and replaced as one great teacher after another developed further understanding of a person’s relationship to the divine and to one another.
Across the great diversity of religious traditions she explores, one finds striking similarities. An emphasis on helping the poor runs from the Code of Hammurabi through all other ethical and religious writings. The great inequity that resulted from the foundation of the first agrarian society has continued into modern times, and has been faulted by all religious teachers. Still it persists.
It has been interesting, over most of my life, to read the many studies, dissections, and validations of the Bible by scholars both skeptical and convinced. What impresses me most about Armstrong’s work is that she adds to her immense scholarly achievement, a concluding "Post Scripture" chiding contemporary religionists for approaching Scripture the wrong way. "Instead of reading it to achieve transformation, we use it to confirm our own views — either that our religion is right and that of our enemies wrong, or, in the case of skeptics, that religion is unworthy of consideration.
"Too many believers and non-believers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality.
"Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a 'Creation science' claiming that the Book of Genesis is scientifically sound. Not surprisingly, all this has given Scripture a bad name."
She concludes her lengthy, but fully engrossing work by reminding us that "it is essential for human survival that we find a way to rediscover the sacrality of each human being and re-sacralize our world." The final word she gives to Asclepius, who worried what will happen when the world grows old and we lose an awareness of its ubiquitous holiness:
"This (earth), so good that there neither ever was, nor is, nor will be anything better, will be in danger of perishing. Men will regard it as a burden and will despise it. No one will lift his eyes up to heaven. The pious will be thought mad, the godless wise, and the wicked good. The gods will take leave of men — O painful leave-taking!
"In those days, the earth will no longer be firm, the sea will cease to be navigable, the heavens will no longer hold the stars in their course; every godly voice will inevitably fall silent. The fruits of the earth will rot, the soil will be barren, and the air itself stale and heavy. That will be the old age of the world: the absence of religion, order, and understanding."
Karen Armstrong has given us a number of excellent books on a variety of topics, including a history of Muhammad, a history of God, the story of Jerusalem as seen in three faiths, and a riveting personal account of religion’s new meaning in her life, "The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness."
"The Lost Art of Scripture” brings together her encompassing scholarship and her deep insight into our often tortured relationship with the Unknowable, the Divine. Outside of the treasured rituals of Passover and Easter, I cannot think of a better way to spend Holy Week than with this book.
Don Wooten is a former Illinois state senator and a regular columnist. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.