Monday, January 6, 2020

Scripture and Karen Armstrong

I'm aware of Karen Armstrong's books on religion, but it hasn't been a priority for me to try to read them.  Armstrong is a former Catholic religious who broke with (lost?) her vocation and turned to writing popular inspirational and historical books on religion.  Her newest book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, published last month by Knopf, caught my eye and I decided to get the Kindle edition sample file and see what it looked like.  Since the entire book is over 600 pages long, the sample is fairly extensive.  I'm not going to spend $15 on the whole thing, and for some reason it isn't available in the public library, but I think I now have some idea of Armstrong's position.

This passage, I think, encapsulates her take on scripture:
Our modern society, however, is rooted in "logos" or "reason," which must relate precisely to factual, objective and empirical reality if it is to focus efficiently in the world: logos is the mode of thought characteristic of the brain's left hemisphere.  But just as both hemispheres are necessary for our full functioning, both mythos and logos are essential to human beings - and both have limitations. ... [Kindle sample loc 314]

The prevalence of logos in modern society and education has made scripture problematic.  In the early modern West, people began to read the narratives of the Bible as if they were logoi, factual accounts of what happened.  But we will see that scriptural narratives never claimed to be accurate descriptions of the creation of the world or the evolution of species.  Nor did they attempt to provide historically exact biographies of the sages, prophets and patriarchs of antiquity.   Precise historical writing is a recent phenomenon.  It became possible only when archaeological methodology and improved knowledge of ancient languages enhanced our understanding of the past [Kindle sample loc 314]
Ah, I thought, I see what she's doing here (aside from all the numerous factual errors and distortions): she's cheating.  (I could have said "equivocating", but better to call a spade a spade.)  Armstrong has an arguable point about "scriptural narratives," but narratives are not all there is to scripture.  About half of the New Testament, for example, is exposition, as with the letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude; and the letter to Hebrews.  Then there's the Revelation, which is neither narrative nor exposition.

The gospels contain a fair amount of non-narrative material, such as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' apocalyptic discourses, and the long theological rants in the gospel of John.  The narratives (primarily the gospels and Acts) have some funny aspects too.  They refer constantly to the Hebrew Bible, quoting passages yanked out of context to legitimize the Christian proclamation.  In a few cases they're simply made up.  This use of scripture, within scripture itself, doesn't really fit Armstrong's narrative.  And that's not because attention to context and authorial intention weren't known in those primitive times: the first-century Rabbi Hillel is credited with principles for interpreting Scripture that include attention to context.  These are all what Armstrong calls left-hemisphere approaches to interpretation, and they long predate "the early modern period."

There's a deeper problem with Armstrong's position: she claims that "the prevalence of logos in modern society and education has made scripture problematic."  Ancient education was largely rote memorization, which was hardly opposed to what she calls "logos."  But her claims rely on a dichotomy between "historically exact biographies" or "precise historical writing" and scriptural narrative that, on her assumptions, would have made no sense to the ancients, since what she sees as the necessary tools for such precision did not exist then.  Historiographers have been wrestling with this problem for many years, and when I began studying Christian origins in the 1980s there was a large and useful literature available on this subject.  It seems to me that if Armstrong is aware of this literature, she has oversimplified it for apologetic purposes. 

It happens to be false that ancient historians didn't understand precise historical writing.  The Greek historian Thucydides began his History of the Peloponnesian War, written in 431 BCE, by addressing the very problem that, according to Armstrong, he could not have conceived:
Having now given the result of my inquiries into early times, I grant that there will be a difficulty in believing every particular detail. The way that most men deal with traditions, even traditions of their own country, is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever...

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.
Was Thucydides typical of writers in his own time?  Of course not, but neither are today's logos-saturated historians.  By the time the New Testament came to be written five centuries later, the author of the gospel of Luke followed Thucydides' example.
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely [or; accurately] for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-oph′ilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed [Luke 1:1-4].
Most Christian scholars see this writer as claiming a place in the tradition of Greek historical writing, which distinguished between "romance" and the application of "severe and detailed tests" as Thucydides put it.  It's entirely proper to be critically skeptical of Thucydides' and Luke's results, of course, just as one should be with modern historians, but it's misleading to claim that the ancient world didn't distinguish between story and "the way things really happened."

That distinction was also recognized in the gospel stories of Jesus' death and resurrection.  The author of Matthew, for instance, informed his readers that although the Jerusalem authorities claimed that Jesus' followers had sneaked his body out of the tomb so that they could claim he was risen from the dead, Pontius Pilate had at their request placed a guard of soldiers to ensure that the tomb wasn't disturbed (Matthew 27:62ff).  The soldiers trembled and fainted when an angel of Yahweh appeared in an earthquake and rolled away the stone, but they still reported what had happened to the temple priests, who paid them to spread a false story.  "So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day" (28:15).

On Armstrong's assumptions about scripture, none of this fancy footwork should have been necessary: the early Christians would simply have declared that they weren't writing a precise historical account for Chrissakes, they didn't have rigorous archaeological methodology or knowledge of ancient language, they were composing a beautiful narrative to express a Higher Truth.  What this tale makes clear is that both sides thought it made a difference whether the resurrection of Jesus was a sublime myth or a fiction.  It doesn't matter to me whether the story of the guard at the tomb is factually correct or a fabrication to shore up a fiction (though of course I believe it is the latter); whether Matthew just made it up or interviewed eyewitnesses to ascertain the facts, he wanted his readers to believe that the church was telling the literal truth and "the Jews" were lying.

The literal truth and a Higher Truth were not mutually exclusive, though: since Yahweh was in control of history, real-world events were suffused with spiritual meaning.  Armstrong's position relies on a false dichotomy, and the odd thing is that according to her historical claims, that dichotomy shouldn't be necessary.  Getting rid of it, though, would undermine her approach to scripture and the nature of religion.

Incidentally, there's a similar kind of scholarly folklore around the question of Biblical authorship.  Apologetic scholarship maintains that ascribing new writings to ancient authority was normal and accepted in those days. We shouldn't fuss too much over whether Paul actually wrote the letters to Timothy according to them, whether the disciple John wrote the Fourth Gospel, and so on, because the modern idea of authorship didn't exist in those days (sound familiar?) and nobody cared.  This claim is undermined by the fact that the ancient world was fully aware of false authorship and forgeries; Paul, for example, warned that letters purporting to be from him were circulating in some of the churches, and his followers should not be fooled by them.  But it's okay, because at least some of the genuine fake letters of Paul were "quite inspired by the Holy Spirit and very much enlightened as to the nature and character of Christ."  So that's all right then.

I also think that what Armstrong treats as ancient, pre-modern spiritual wisdom is as modern as today's news.  Did Parson Weems believe that young George Washington really cut down a cherry tree and confessed the truth to his father because he couldn't tell a lie?  (Weems evidently could, however.)  Do the people who spread what have come to be known as "urban legends" really believe that a young Alfred Einstein proved the truth of Christianity to a know-it-all liberal college professor, or that Marine Todd punched another (or the same?) liberal professor to prove God's existence?  Sure they do, but if you challenge them they'll just say that they don't care, they just like the message, but it totally could be true.  That's Karen Armstrong's position right there.  Medium calls Marine Todd "the internet's true folk literature," but he's really the Internet's Scripture.  Modern logos-driven, left-hemisphere scoffers just don't get it.