Monday, May 04, 2009

Reclaiming the Bible for compassion

Karen Armstrong is an author whose many books have long left me both fascinated and slightly dissatisfied. I've read a lot of them including Islam: A Short History, Buddha, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, and now The Bible: A Biography.

The breadth and audacity of Armstrong's scholarship is awesome. I give her credit for popularizing what I consider one of the most useful ideas about our current world: that fundamentalism is no throwback to ancient beliefs, but a profoundly modern response to modern pressures -- one of the varieties of human invention that characterize our time. Our fundies aren't reaching back to old values -- they are creating an authoritarian bulwark against their own societies. This doesn't work and the result is painful and the pain often leads to violence.

But I've never quite been comfortable with Armstrong as an historian. Every once in a while, when she is writing on something I actually know something about (and mostly I can't claim that), I observe her arranging facts so artfully to fit her thesis that I fear some of the jagged particularity in historical events has been sanded off. But then I relax and enjoy her extraordinarily thoughtful constructions.

The latest Armstrong book I've read is like that. The Bible is a remarkable, quick romp through the Jewish-Christian Western scriptural book's history. It is broad-brushed and enlightening -- I knew least about the Jewish elaboration of textual meanings in the period after Romans sacked the Jerusalem temple, so I found that particularly fascinating.

Armstrong is in full flower describing the triumph of a conviction of Biblical inerrancy in the southern United States. She contends that, in 1925, Clarence Darrow did make a fool of William Jennings Bryan's Christian literalism in John Scopes' trial for teaching evolution -- and that humiliation only fed the worst aspects of fundamentalism, turning its adherents away from their prior progressive populism.

The press gleefully denounced the fundamentalists as hopeless anachronisms, who could take no part in the modern world. This had an effect that is instructive to us today. Before Dayton [the location of the trial], the conservatives were wary of evolution, but very few had espoused 'creation science,' which maintained that the first chapter of Genesis was factually true in every detail. After Scopes however, they become more vehemently literal in their interpretation of scripture, and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before Scopes, fundamentalists had been willing to work for social reform with people on the left; after Scopes they swung to the far right of the political spectrum where they have remained.

I have to wonder: isn't the term "creation science" a far more modern invention by contemporary anti-evolutionists, read back here into the 1920s?

On the other hand, Armstrong is undoubtedly right that humiliation is no way to win over the fearful. In her epilogue, she argues that the world's monotheisms of the Book need to demonstrate a way to read their scriptures that repudiates its violent side.

The major religions all insist that the practice of daily, hourly compassion will introduce us to God, Nirvana, and the Dao. An exegesis based on the "principle of charity' would be a spiritual discipline that is deeply needed in our torn and fragmented world. The Bible is in danger of becoming a dead or irrelevant letter. It is being distorted by claims of literal infallibility; it is derided -- often unfairly -- by secular fundamentalists; it is also becoming a toxic arsenal that fuels hatred and sterile polemics. The development of a more compassionate hermeneutics could provide an important counter-narrative in our discordant world.

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