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Rediscovering the sacred

Why we need to reacquaint ourselves with the art of scripture. 

Neurologists in recent decades have suggested that the right hemisphere of the brain is essential to the creation of poetry and music, whereas the left hemisphere is pragmatic and selective, specialising in language skills, problem-solving, and law. Karen Armstrong believes that religious insights are developed in the right hemisphere. It is here in the intuitive, imaginative side of the brain that humanity produces the myths, poems and rituals that constitute religions.

A generation ago, Armstrong wrote her painful autobiography, Through the Narrow Gate (1981), describing how she left a strict Catholic religious order and set off on the life journey which has resulted in a string of books about the human religious impulse. She has written vividly about the Axial Age, a very broad period (around 800 to 200 BC) when Ezekiel the prophet changed the perceptions of the exiled Hebrews in Babylon, Confucianism was beginning in China and the Buddha was achieving Enlightenment. At the same time the Greeks were exploring the human condition first through tragedy, then through the Socratic philosophical revolution, Plato’s dialogues and the philosophical reactions of Aristotle. Armstrong has written more sanely about Islam than anyone I have ever read. Understandably, her Islam: A Short History (2000) became an international bestseller following 9/11 and the emergence of Islamism as a powerful voice in the story of our times. She has written about the connections between religion and violence.

In this new book, she gathers up all these themes and takes us on a glorious journey, starting with the Mesopotamian myths that turned into the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and ending with Thomas Mann’s rewriting of the story of Joseph and his brethren. It ranges from the mystical insights of the Bhagavad Gita to the poets and philosophers of the German Enlightenment; from the first Chinese followers of the Dao to the insights of modern psychiatrists such as Iain McGilchrist, who revealed the effects of ignoring the workings of the right hemisphere in our heads.

Much of this ground has been covered before by Armstrong, and some of it will be familiar to readers. What the book does is to provide the most sumptuous table d’hôte in which the whole phenomenon is rehearsed in one volume. If proof were needed, here is a demonstration that Armstrong is the most articulate and generous-hearted exegete of religion writing in English at the present time. If I had not been sent the book for review, I should undoubtedly be asking for it as my next birthday present.

Armstrong ends her survey with a rallying cry: “It is essential for human survival that we find a way to rediscover the sacrality of each human being and resacralise our world.” Then she quotes one of the Hermetic texts, foreseeing the end of the world, and the end of humanity, when the “fruits of the earth will rot” and, with a destruction of what we would call the environment, will come also the death of religion.

Reviewers are only human, and by the end of The Lost Art of Scripture I was not sure which of my hemispheres was reading the book, and scribbling notes every few paragraphs. For, I kept thinking, most of the mainstream religions (sustained, if not begun, in the right hemisphere) have been taken over by chaps led by the left hemisphere, and become unspiritual – hence the child abusers and money launderers of the Roman and Anglican churches, the Islamist terrorists and so forth. Whereas the spiritual, sacral characters are to be found among the Greens, and the kindlier voices in what one could loosely call politics, or in literary festivals and at poetry readings. Armstrong’s title refers to a lost art of scripture, but this is to imply that the actual, written scriptures – above all, the Bible and the Quran – were originally started by kindly-minded right hemisphere types.

This is not all she is saying, of course. She takes us back to pre-literate ages, when even the first texts of the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh would not have been written down to be read in the modern sense of reading. They were conceived as aide-memoires for those who recited the epics for a largely illiterate audience.

In China (where written scripture makes its earliest appearance), India, the later Mediterranean Christian world and the European monastic world, the scriptures were largely performed rather than read. And they meant nothing, insisted their interpreters, unless they were internalised. So Pope Gregory the Great (circa 540-604 AD) and the father of Western monasticism, Benedict, said that the point of scripture was not to teach us about the supposed history of Israel but to effect an inner change in our lives.

All this must be true. As we encounter the followers of Buddha, the Chinese Dao, the Muhammad and Jesus, we find that most of them were teaching us to be good. And, as Armstrong also says, this is also true in cultures that do not have the Western concept of the Creator-Lawgiver-Personal God, but rather a sense of the sacral nature of all life. One of her best chapters is on the Jains, who refrain from harming all living things, including insects – it converted at least the right hemisphere of this reader’s brain, for a day or two, to Jainism. (It so happened I was reading it while a friend was putting slug-repellent on his plants, while another friend protested that the poisoned slugs would be eaten by hedgehogs who would die.)

I did not doubt at any point in this book that most of the benign women and men cited by Armstrong had pursued a peaceful, sensitive life, in obedience to what Wordsworth called “something far more deeply interfused,/Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns”. Nor did I doubt that, as she spells out in her final chapter, we are now “losing the art of scripture in the modern world. Instead of reading it to achieve transformation, we use it to confirm our own views.” (In this condemnation, she includes the prejudices of unbelievers who dismiss all the riches of human religious insight as unworthy of consideration).

At the same time, the left hemisphere of your reviewer was flashing red warning signals. Let me just choose one example, but I could have found dozens, even hundreds in this book. She discusses the Sunni Muslim editors and anthologisers of their sacred text in the ninth century of our era, who produced the Hadith, or reported sayings of the Prophet. “Because many, indeed most, of the Hadith reflect theological or legal debates that occurred after the Prophet’s death, some Western scholars have dismissed them as fabrications or even forgeries. Yet we do not speak of the gospels in this way.”

Who are “we” in this sentence? Many New Testament scholars since David Strauss and Ernest Renan in the 19th century have indeed spoken of the gospel narratives as fabrications, and Armstrong, in paraphrasing the gospels, does so herself .

If you had not read the gospels, you would get an inaccurate view of them from her version. She says that “within days [of his death] his disciples had visions of Jesus, utterly transformed, standing, like Enoch, beside God’s throne in the Heavenly Temple!” True, some such vision occurred to the sage of Patmos circa 100, in the Book of Revelation, but the gospels (written around 70-100 AD) are not visionary, in this sense, at all. The risen Jesus appears to the followers not in some technicoloured vision, but eating a beach picnic, walking along the road to Emmaus, and in their upper room in Jerusalem. These stories claim to be the testimony of eyewitnesses, so such testimony does have to be accepted as plausible or dismissed as a fabrication. They seem more left hemisphere than right hemisphere.

Likewise, the left bit of my brain asked: is it true that the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian scriptures as a whole, or the Quran, are all so very peaceable and lovey-dovey as Armstrong suggests? Jihad, she tells us does not mean holy war but “struggle”. In many instances in the sacred text it is used to mean the struggle of the soul to respond to ill-treatment “with quiet long-suffering patience”. Honesty, however, forces her to quote a passage where Muslims are encouraged to fight in the Meccan haram, or holy sites: “Kill them wherever you encounter them and drive them out from where they drove you”. It is hard not to feel repelled by this bloodcurdling stuff, as you do when reading in the Hebrew Bible about the massacring of the prophets of Baal, or the early Christians gathering for the Eucharist with the doors shut “for fear of the Jews”.

There is more nastiness and intolerance in the original scriptures than the gentle chronicler will admit. Why does she assume that the right hemisphere of the brain is always benign? Might we not have malign spiritual insights, mad music? Much religious literature is in itself intolerant, bigoted, woman-hating, xenophobic, and cruel.

Some readers of this book will feel it has been downhill all the way since the earlier followers of the Chinese Dao. The poems of the philosopher Laozi, 400 years before Christ, speak of a nameless Dao (“the Way”), “silent and void”, ineffable and incomprehensible. It is “the mother of the myriad creatures”. Laozi urges us to live humbly and, when confronted by the madness of human conflict, to shrug and take off on one’s own to the woods. Good advice to apply to the Brexit debate, and perhaps, too – though this is me not Armstrong talking – when confronting the long history of religion in East and West. She sees it as a long, beautiful story of kind and insightful thoughts pouring from the ever-benign right hemisphere of the human brain and only misunderstood or suppressed by the left hemisphere. But those who attended to the right hemisphere were also capable of hideous intolerance, bigotry and cruelty.

She gives us a vision of St Benedict and his monks chanting the psalms and making them part of their inner being – in the same way that a calm Jain or Buddhist might interiorise their mantras. Armstrong’s first book told us of bigots and sadists, in her convent, driving her younger self to sorrow and worse, to near-madness. Now she tells a beautiful tale of the human quest of God. Was the insensitive cruelty of those nuns in her youth, and is the sadism of Christian monks – unearthed with such frequency now by child-abuse inquiries – just an aberration? While Gregorian chant soothes the right side of our brains with its hypnotic charm, the left hemisphere recalls St Benedict himself vandalising the ancient statues at Monte Cassino, purging the mountain of what we should consider beautiful memories of the Hellenistic past and making Europe a place fit for bigots and perverts to live in. 

AN Wilson’s books include “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic)

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts 
Karen Armstrong
The Bodley Head, 560pp, £25

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news