With religious fanaticism on the rise, have we forgotten how to read holy texts?

Pages from the Book of Judges in the Gutenberg Bible
Pages from the Book of Judges in the Gutenberg Bible Credit: AP

Noel Malcolm reviews The Lost Art 
of Scripture by Karen Armstrong

Something has gone horribly wrong with the way people – some people, at least – interpret their holy writ. Take the Sword Verse of the Koran, which includes the words “wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them”. For centuries, traditional Muslim commentators said little about this as it clearly referred to Arab idol-worshippers, a category of people that ceased to exist soon after Mohammed’s lifetime. Now it is cited by Islamist terrorists as a general justification for killing non-Muslims.

Or take the Christian Reconstructionist movement in the US, a product of the late 20th century, which has called for implementing all the laws set out in the Bible. This includes death sentences for homosexuals, adulterers, and children who curse their parents. Stoning is the preferred method, not only because it is mentioned in the Bible, but also because stones are cheap, and it would be quite wrong to burden the law-abiding majority with unnecessary costs.

This is not, of course, a modern phenomenon. Religious fanaticism has a long history; Puritans in early Massachusetts thought seriously about taking their laws from the Old Testament, while some of their counterparts in England were touring cathedrals with hammers and ladders, smashing the statues.

It may feel more shocking to find such black-and-white views of scriptural duties in our rational, modern age, but I was once told by a university chaplain that the most extreme converts to ultra-literalist evangelicalism were usually science students – the ones for whom all statements are black or white, with no shades available in between for metaphor, poetry and myth.

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.

Most of her story is about the things we have lost from these various traditions. She notes that religious scriptures were bound up with ritual performances, often with formalised recitation or singing; in a striking phrase, she says that reading them as we do now, cold on the page, is like studying an opera libretto without the music. Similarly, she emphasises the physicality of the experience: these rituals involved bodily movements. And, where the texts are concerned, she stresses that for a long time, there was no closed “canon”; materials were added and adapted all the time.

This is all very interesting. Yet Armstrong’s underlying purpose is not to map a pattern of historical change, but rather to mount an argument about religion itself. To put it simply: the things we have lost are the ones that expressed the true nature of religion, while the things we have preserved, such as the careful study of scriptures as texts, are of only secondary value.

According to Armstrong, it’s all the fault of our brains, which are divided into two hemispheres. The right-hand one, which is non-verbal, does empathy and intuition; it is attuned to music and is “at home with our embodiment”. The left-hand one uses language and abstract thought; it is also “competitive” and “self-centred”. For some reason, which she cannot – and never really tries to – explain, there has been a historical shift from the one to the other. We now live in a left-hand world, where we read our scriptures as if their precise meanings mattered, and fail to see that we should stop worrying so much about the sense and start singing and swaying instead.

To call this whole approach question-begging would be a huge understatement. The biggest unquestioned assumption is the idea that the warm feelings supplied by the right-hand hemisphere convey deep and genuine truths. That hemisphere “reveals” or “sees” the “profound interconnectedness of all things”, we are told; but what if a strategically placed electrode could produce exactly those feelings?

Armstrong clearly thinks that truths are involved here, and has written a big book to say so. You can’t get more verbal than that – so which part of the brain was she using when she wrote it?

Again, part of her argument is that religion promotes compassion and moral behaviour, because the right-hand hemisphere does empathy. Perhaps a general desire to be nice to other people does flow primarily from that side. But morality involves a lot more than beaming beneficence. To be fair and just towards others, we must think about intentions and consequences; moral reasoning really does require reason, however less than certain its conclusions sometimes are.

Ultimately, for Armstrong, the point of religion is what she calls “divinisation” – turning a human into something united with, and thus resembling, God.

This is what used to be called Gnosticism; and the great irony here is that Gnosticism was a mystico-philosophical religion that didn’t really need holy scriptures at all. So why write a 549-page book about them? Why not just let the right-hand hemisphere get on with its own intuitive business, climbing its ladder of perfection in mystic silence?

One answer, I suppose, is that she wants to criticise the fundamentalists; the aim is laudable, though it’s hard to see that any of them would begin to accept her assumptions. But another answer is that her approach ultimately blurs all religions: it appears to take their scriptures seriously, but then reduces them, generically, to a means towards something else. Non-fundamentalist believers in these faiths may have their own good reasons for rejecting that.

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.

The Lost Art 
of Scripture is published by Bodley Head at £25. To order your copy for £20 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop