Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography

Author Karen Armstrong has always seemed very fair, even generous, in her presentation of multiple, contrasting viewpoints. The Bible, in this same sense, does not disappoint.

In fact, if anything, the underlying agenda of Armstong's greater body of work in comparative religion and religious histories comes shining through in this book. Armstong in her books goes to great lengths to see the best in all viewpoints, to recognize integrity, honesty and context in every perspective - even ones she (or her readers) might disagree with - and treating ones with which her readers might agree with no less integrity or greater respect. Having read several of Armstrong's books, I think an "agenda" can be discerned: Armstrong believes that if we understand each other fairly and listen to each other generously, we can get along marvelously, and that even the most difficult questions and disagreements can be opportunities for growing in love with each other.

Armstrong says almost as much herself in the Epilogue of The Bible: "If we truly want to undertand the other, we have to assume that he or she is speaking the truth."

That being said, The Bible is an good overview of Biblical history. It moves through history at a lightning pace, hardly stopping for breath. It is a surprisingly quick read (I picked it up at an airport and read it in a weekend), and all the major Biblical historical periods, figures and movements are explained clearly and consisely. Almost too consisely at times - I wonder how much readers will get out of certain parts of it, who aren't already familiar with the material from previous study. But in this kind of introductory book covering nearly six-thousand years of ver diverse and intricate history, some summaries must be made.

Armstrong does a good job of lifting up major figures and important events in the life of the Bible, and I have always appreciated her ability to fairly capture a perspective on its own terms and yet also offer helpful, insightful commentary for the interested present-day reader. Her writing is very readable, and this text would be well suited for personal or group reading - especially among lay persons and others who might not have much scholarly experience with Biblical studies. The book would also be good for a group of mixed-level readers, as there are more than enough strings to follow if one is inspired to know more, but additional reading isn't necessary for enjoying the book and finding it useful.

I think the book would be particularly helpful for USAmerican readers, who are often caught in cultural, religio-political spasms without an appreciation of the historical place or forces at play. One unstated motive for Armstrong's biography (one in a series of "books that changed the world" from Grove Press) may be to combat the cultural phenomenon of seeing the Bible as one book that is claiming to be scientifically correct. The Bible by its very subject matter reveals the history of the Bible - its composition, interpretation, perception and use - to be incredibly varied.

The way the Bible is sometimes perceived and described in today's culture wars is not the way the Bible has always been seen, and isn't in keeping with the intentions of the narrative, its writers, or use throughout the centuries. The book, in lifting up how every age reads and presents the Bible according to its own expectations, shows that even today's post-Enlightenment orthodoxy of fact-as-truth is a lens through which we see the Bible, not as the Bible actually is. Our "scientific" expectations ask the wrong questions, set up the wrong expectations of the Bible. It's no wonder the Bible is so disappointing under these conditions! Armstrong doesn't shrink from the difficult or contradictory parts of the Bible - in fact, at times they provide the greatest impetus for commentary and creativity.

The Bible, as history, does what history at its best often does: it opens up possibilities for the future. It reminds us of the incredible variety of perspectives and convictions, offers us forgotten insights, remembers lessons learned, points out what we might otherwise overlook. In so doing, The Bible is a story of humanity, at once a history of Western civilization and the story of multiple parallel and layered understandings of what it means to be most fully human and in relationship to the Divine.

While not a scholarly book, The Bible is a book with breadth and insight, compassion and information, history and wonder. I came away from reading it feeling a deeper appreciation for the Bible as a tool in and reflection of our cultural circumstances. And for the many lessons, observations and stories peppered throughout the text, it is certainly worth the reading. But I think reading The Bible is most valuable as an example of that kind of work Armstrong would have us all do more of: applying the principle of charity toward others. In the words of linguist Donald Davidson (whom Armstrong quotes in the Epilogue):

Making sense of the utterance and behavior of others, even their most aberrant behaviors, requires you to find a great deal of truth and reason in them.

Armstrong deals charitably with all of us, and so does us a great service, enabling us to deal charitably with others - even our varied enemies.

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3 Comments:

  • Note in Dutch/Notitie in Nederlands:
    "De Bijbel; een biografie" kan gevonden worden bij Amsterdam/Roeselaere (2007, ISBN 978 90 5330 578 2).
    Voor een review in het Nederlands, kijk naar: http://meer.trouw.nl/bespreek-het-zelf/karen-armstrong-de-bijbel.

    By Blogger Christian, at 11:51 PM  

  • Thanks for the review--it sounds like it might be a good resource for our senior high class.

    By Anonymous Pam, at 12:47 PM  

  • I love Armstrong's work. I own her book on Jerusalem and have read some of her others. Thanks for the review Christian, I will have to look at picking it up.

    By OpenID jademark1, at 9:37 PM  

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