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The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, by Karen Armstrong.

August 27, 2019

The Lost Art of ScriptureThe Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, by Karen Armstrong.  Knopf/Random House, 2019.

FORTHCOMING: November 5, 2019

4 stars

The comparative histories of how major religious traditions have thought about and used sacred texts from prehistoric times to the present, by a popular religious writer.

Karen Armstrong has become well known for her masterful books discussing and comparing the histories of major global religions. She was born in England in 1944 and raised a Roman Catholic.  She joined a convent for seven years before establishing herself as an independent scholar with her television appearances and numerous books.  Although popular among lay readers, Armstrong is not without critics, some of them with their own biases.  I am not an expert in global religious history, and can not evaluate the conflicting viewpoints.  I do find her viewpoints fair and believable.  She has deeply researched her topics and presents them in a clear and readable manner, generally without favoritism.  What I like best about her work is here ability to write about various religions from within their own assumptions rather than the typical Western Protestant perspective.  She shows us what we can learn and appreciate from other religions, not simply as curiosities inferior to our own faith.   Several themes run through Armstrong’s books.  She downplays belief and emphasizes religious practice in terms of both ritual and compassion.

In her forthcoming book, Armstrong explores how religious traditions have treated their sacred texts, pointing out what has been lost in our “post-textual” societies.  She begins with discussion of the earliest societies where only a few elites had access to literacy.   Texts were used for bureaucratic or social control rather than the contemplation of ideas.  Religious texts emerged alongside rituals which provided oral and physical context unlike the private readings of sacred books we know today.  The Reformation, with Luther’s claim that only the Bible had authority, and the Enlightenment, with Dsecrates’s claim that only reason could be trusted, marked a break in European and American  thought which later spread to other cultures.

Armstrong has little sympathy with the varied results of this private, rational style of religion that has emerged.  On one hand, she sees fundamentalists who have placed exaggerated and distorted trust in the literal words of the Bible.  On the other, mainstream religions have sought to prove their validity through reason and historical accuracy.  Both approaches moved faith away from a focus of God.  As oral traditions and ritual action were replaced by individual study, humans proved God, rather than God giving meaning to humans.  The compassion which Armstrong believes is the common lesson of all religion was lost.

Throughout her new book, Armstrong calls for a liberal, expanded understanding of religion and humanity.  In her conclusion, however, her hopefulness weakens.  She sees the loss of ritual and mystery as critical to decline of the religions of compassion.

I recommend this book to all, even or maybe especially those not deeply interested in religion. Whatever you think or believe,   Armstrong will expand your understanding of issues today for providing context for our understanding of religion in the past.  Her writing can be overwhelming, however.  The Lost Art of Scripture is almost 500 pages of text, and more than 100 pages of notes and appendixes.  Perhaps readers will be best served by sampling this book rather than committing themselves to read straight through.

Yet, all Armstrong’s books are worth reading for their breadth and ability to encourage us to consider vital issues from different perspectives.

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