The forgotten value and purpose of sacred scripture.
In her latest, esteemed religion writer Armstrong (Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, 2014, etc.), an ambassador for the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, once again demonstrates her encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religions. Here, she argues that modernity—and its tendency toward rationalism, literalism, and left-brain thinking—has robbed religions worldwide of the mystical and elastic power of scripture. The author champions “the forward-thrusting dynamic of scripture, which has no qualms about abandoning the ‘original’ vision but ransacks the past to find meaning in the present.” Throughout most of history, Armstrong shows, scripture did just that. It changed over time and in so doing helped adherents cope with changing times. In recent centuries, this quality has been altered, and “scripture, an art form originally to be interpreted imaginatively, had now to be as rational as science if it was to be taken seriously.” Armstrong argues that the trend of many movements to return to the source of the faith traditions behind their scriptures led believers to look backward when they most needed to look ahead. This mistaken view of scripture was further compounded by modernity’s elevation of science and reason, forcing people of faith to read scriptures literally as opposed to allegorically. Literalism, argues the author, leads either to fundamentalism or skepticism, either of which have negative consequences for any religion. Though the author adroitly switches among Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, and many other faith traditions, Western religions and Western thought are her primary reference points. Armstrong’s grasp of global religious history and thought is beyond impressive, but the depth of her analysis will overwhelm many general readers—though the 25-page glossary is helpful. For those willing to travel this road with the author, the journey is expansive and worthwhile and will make them reconsider what scripture means to those who admire it.
Excellent reading for religious scholars and students.