The Lost Art of Scripture is an impressive achievement, presenting a wide sweep of global religious history in little more than five hundred pages. Refreshingly, Armstrong focuses on scriptures rather than beliefs and doctrines. She emphasises the ritual and devotional contexts in which oral and written traditions evolved in India, China and what we now call the Middle East, showing how over millennia the deceptively monolithic ‘world religions’ grew out of a rich and diverse social texture that was as much musical as conceptual.
There is also the concern that Armstrong’s framing of the nature of religion and the genre of scripture derives from western conceptualisations of religion and is therefore insufficient for her project. However to focus on these and other flaws is to miss the point of the book, which is to show how throughout history, the scriptures of the different religious traditions were fluid and adaptable spiritual tools that were created to help people connect with the transcendent, and furthermore that the narrow, literal reading of scripture that prevails today is a relatively recent, misguided and dangerous phenomenon.
Anyone who suspects that our attitude to holy scriptures has narrowed in modern times will find in Karen Armstrong’s new book a wealth of information to back up that view. As readers of her many previous works on religion will know, Armstrong likes the big picture and the longue durée. Here she begins the writings of ancient Sumerians and follows the story of religious and quasi-religious texts through ancient Egypt, biblical Israel and several millennia of Chinese and Indian civilisation, taking in Christianity and Islam on the way...The scope of this book is huge. Few people can be experts in all the subjects discussed here; unfortunately I doubt whether Armstrong is, either. I know little about Indian or Chinese religion, but in the areas where I do know something, I have spotted multiple errors – about Greek etymology, the Mishnah, Western philosophy, and so on. (And no, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 did not take place inside the Golden Temple.) Oh well: perhaps that is just my left-hand hemisphere talking. Try chanting the book out loud instead.
Armstrong argues — in an impressive and fluent blend of broad-brush cultural history, anthropology and neuropsychology — that the world’s scriptures have never yielded clear, unambiguous messages. Never one to shy away from a Big Idea, Armstrong hangs her thesis on the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s intriguing work on the asymmetry of the human mind...She is especially good on the relationship between scripture and mystical practices, pointing out that the former is traditionally not just a text, but also something experienced in the body through ritual and performance. She writes about how Muslim Sufis and Jewish Kabbalists unveil a hidden scripture within scripture, revealed by right-brain love and self-forgetfulness.
Armstrong is on good form in The Lost Art of Scripture. It exhibits her well-known and admired characteristics as a writer: an ability to be both authoritative on all the major faiths, and studiedly neutral as to which offers the best solutions/worst failings; a reasoned insistence that religion today is misunderstood, as much by the religious as by their critics; and a passionate appeal to our fractious and fractured world to embrace religion’s core message, its “golden rule” of compassion and respect for others.
It makes for a compelling read, impressive in the range of its scholarship, but always cogently expressed for those prepared to commit to the search to understand.