Recommended Read: The Lost Art of Scripture

Each month, Muskeg Press will review one of our favourite books that we have on our bookshelf.
We hope these reviews reinforce a love of literature for our readers, or perhaps give you some ideas for the next book on your list to read.

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts


by Karen Armstrong

Alfred A. Knopf, 2019: 605 pages (includes glossary, bibliography, index)


One thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that it’s impossible to dislike Johnny Cash. Explaining his choice in wardrobe, the Man in Black sang:

Well we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
With our streak-of-lightning cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there oughtta be a Man in Black.

In other words, we need some compassion up front. Cash’s very presence, of a guy wearing black to symbolize the people “livin’ in the hungry, hopeless side of town,” was a constant reminder, to acknowledge that, yeah we’ve done pretty good, but there are still a lot of people out there who can’t take advantage of all the good stuff Western Civilization has to offer.

I imagine the Man in Black and Karen Armstrong would get along and have some very interesting conversations. Not because Cash was a religious soul and Armstrong was once a Catholic nun; no, they’d gel because the things that Cash sings about are also the things that Armstrong is most passionate about in her newest book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. In this fascinating and wide-ranging study, Armstrong compares the traditions of religions from China to India, to the Middle-East, America, and Europe, showing that science alone cannot save our species. Technological advances have definitely benefitted our species with fast cars, fancy cars, and a fantastic standard of living, but we seem to have lost something along the way, and Armstrong wants to help us retrieve it.

Armstrong begins her story with a small sculpture, which stands 31 centimetres tall, with the body of a man and the head of a lion. Named Löwenmensch – or, Lion Man – it was discovered in a German cave in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. It was carved out of mammoth ivory about 40,000 years ago, and is considered one of the oldest surviving figurine carvings that humans have ever created.

Archaeologists have so far been unable to excavate any fossils of homo sapiens with lion heads, so Armstrong argues that this is one of the first times that humans actually used their imagination to portray something that did not exist, but nevertheless carried profound meaning. We tend to take our imagination for granted, or perhaps dismiss it as something that comes up with silly comic-book movies or fictional novels, but in fact it is the very essence of creativity that has led to all of our scientific discoveries. At a more human level, Armstrong writes, “Lion Man also expresses a deep-seated human yearning for transformation. People did not merely seek an experience of transcendence; rather, they wanted to embody and somehow become one with it. They didn’t want a distant deity but sought an enhanced humanity.”

Imagination, Armstrong points out, comes from the right side of the brain, as does empathy, compassion, our sense of justice, and a “more comprehensive view of reality” which gives us the ability to “hold different views of reality simultaneously.” From the Enlightenment to the present day, however, the right side of the brain was held in low esteem compared to the left, which has given us the ability to logically, pragmatically, and rationally analyze problems. Armstrong acknowledges the “immense benefit” that the left-brain attitude has given to the world, particularly to the West, but points out that if we focus only on this part of the brain, we miss the holistic view of the right:

Just as it would be insane to ignore the logic, analysis and rationality produced by the left hemisphere, psychologists and neurologists tell us that to function creatively and safely in the world, its activities must be integrated with those of the right.

The two sides of the brain work better when they work together, but lately, it’s been mostly left-brained attitudes.

All right, so what does this have to do with anything? Well, if you look at Lion Man from a purely rational perspective, he doesn’t make any sense at all, and can be easily dismissed as some sort of trinket created by a bunch of innocent cavemen who had no clue about how science can explain how the world really works. However, if you look at Lion Man through the lens of the right hemisphere, and how he seems to explain something ineffable about the world that, even today, we have difficulty fully comprehending, then he becomes much more than a simple carving.

And this leads to one of Armstrong’s main arguments in her book: if we try to look at religion and God from a purely rational, left-brain perspective, then all is lost. Indeed, fields of blood have been poured because of this viewpoint. But if we see religion as something that humanity has created to see the interconnectedness of all things, and God as something undefinable that somehow captures the Other – everything outside of ourselves – that we really only mildly grasp through our senses.

Scripture, in this telling, is the door through which we can at least grasp at the ineffable. Starting with the Confucians in China, then the Jews in the Middle-East, then the hodge-podge of traditions on the Indian subcontinent, Armstrong shows how these traditions all used their scripture in more interactive ways than scholars do today. Partly this was because very few people could read, so scripture had to be passed on verbally, and repeated – often. But it was also something more, as if it was something that was brought into your very body. Scripture, as Armstrong points out, was supposed to be something you physically interacted with; one of the most obvious examples is the Quran, the Islamic scripture that literally translates into “recitation.” In some cases, dance and ritual also accompanied the readings of the scripture. This kinesthetic method also helped the novices learn the scriptures they would one day pass along to the next generation: by physically interacting with the text, you retain more of it.

This is the “art” that Armstrong refers to in her title. The second section of the book, appropriately titled “Mythos,” goes into this art in great detail. And, like most art, it doesn’t make logical sense to perform these repetitive rituals, or to dance or move to the beat of the Talmud. But, again, making logical sense isn’t the point; these are right-brained activities that attempts to see the wholeness of things through empathy, interpretation, not knowing, and admitting the very ineffability of God.

And God, importantly, is the renunciation of ego. God is the presence of everything outside of ourselves, something that is by its very nature undefinable, and once we try to define it, then it becomes senseless and almost small. This is perfectly captured by the definition of “Dao” by the Daoists. Usually translated into English as “the Way,” the Daoists described it thus:

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

The Dao, is out there, but our language cannot begin to comprehend it; the “Dao” that we speak of is not the actual Dao, it’s a step removed from it. So too with God, with Yahweh, with Allah.

But renouncing ego and yielding to the Other is probably the hardest thing any human can possibly do. To truly and absolutely take yourself out of the equation, and exist only to serve outside of yourself, is something that doesn’t make any logical sense (the ego being something that is truly left-brained), and requires a great deal of effort. Even the Buddha, after he reached enlightenment, had to go through the same practices every day, as he renounced all worldly possessions, begging for food, and teaching others how to be good people. So, the rituals, the repetition of scripture, and the very interaction with the words on the page, actually transform the participants into, hopefully, better people. Or, as Armstrong puts it: “the mythos of religion is unsustainable from ethical practice, the bodily disciplines of ritual, and the intellectual ascesis of study, contemplation, and prayer.”

But again, to what end? Why would we even want to interact with scripture in this way? Why do we need to transform? Simply, to become compassionate people. One of the most striking thing about the comparative analysis that Armstrong has undertaken in her books – and something that she frequently cites in her TED talks – is that all major religions have some version of the Golden Rule. This was most famously spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, who taught, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But he wasn’t the first guy to say this: Confucius, who lived 500 years before Jesus, said, “do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” In every major religious movement, in every one of their scriptures, this common theme of compassion, of treating others with the respect that you would like to have for yourself, occurs. Armstrong, who often repeats herself in the book, frequently brings up St. Augustine’s comment that “scripture teaches nothing but charity.” 

It might be best to back up a bit here, because this is probably the part where the university-educated humanists – skeptical, humane, and listeners of Johnny Cash – might say that religion has no monopoly on compassion. Indeed, they might say, charity and the Golden Rule are things that just make sense. People generally want to treat others nicely because that’s what makes us human.

Well, yes and no. These days, when the government is spending billions to make sure we don’t get sick, we tend to forget that, for thousands of years before the mid-20th century, the state was a total asshole. A perfunctory reading of any history can get pretty depressing when you realize that most of it involves an elite keeping a vast population under their foot to ensure they stayed in power. Yes, in some cases religion played a role, and Armstrong does not shy away from that interpretation, especially in her passages on the corruption of the Church in the Middle-Ages, which ultimately led to the Reformation. But for a good chunk of the book, she shows that, before the Industrial Revolution of the late-19th century, most states were concerned with exploiting the land for agriculture purposes and maintained their hierarchy by “ruthless exploitation.” She goes further:

[I]n every agrarian society, a small aristocracy, together with its retainers, seized the surplus grown by their peasants and used it to fund their cultural projects, forcing ninety per cent of the population to live at subsistence level. No premodern civilisation ever found an alternative to this pattern.

Try to imagine that. If you lived in the past, you are probably part of that 90 per cent that was exploited for the benefit of the top-10 per cent. Your life was probably mostly spent in the drudgery of manual labour, or afraid that disease or malnutrition would kill you and your family, or a combination of the two. With this in mind, can you really belittle people who turned to religion to find meaning in their lives? Now take a look at the world today: migrants stepping onto rickety boats in the middle of the Mediterranean because their home countries are wracked by war and corruption; workers being paid subsistence wages across southeast Asia so us Westerners can get a nice cheap shirt; many people living at the whims of corrupt rulers who use armies and police forces to stay in power. Can you blame people today for escaping to religion or spirituality to find meaning in this chaos and nonsense? 

Ah, but we’re told by economists and pragmatists that humans only do what’s right for them, and that the market will eventually sort everything out. After the Enlightenment, some of the brightest minds of Western civilization super-imposed this rational worldview onto religion itself. And this, Armstrong argues, is where everything went wrong. By her telling, this is probably where you would get the ideas that religion is unscientific, and therefore a bunch of balderdash. Thinkers like Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson tried to put a rational spin on religion. And that skepticism carried into the 20th and 21st centuries with Richard Hawkins, Christopher Hitchens and, for that matter, Bill Maher. Intense scrutiny of the historicism of the Bible – most prominently in Germany – started in the 19th century and continues to this day. Most academics laugh at the Creation story of the Bible, and are quick to point out the many ways in which any scripture contradicts itself, sometimes on the same page. (This ironically also led to a backlash of the devout, who, in protection mode, argue that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and that a clockmaker God is behind all physics and human actions. Which, in turn, causes more ridicule from the academics, which causes more bunker mentality from Millennialists. And on and on it goes…)

But, as Armstrong reminds us – many many times in this book – that was never the original point of religion. The point was to use the art of scripture to transform yourselves, to find meaning in the ineffable, to become better people, even as the evils of agrarian societies exploited the labour of its people. Indeed, Armstrong writes, “biblical truths had never pretended to be amenable to scientific demonstration, so a ‘scientific’ approach to scripture could only produce a caricature of rational discourse that would bring religion into disrepute.” So what did words in the Bible – or for that matter any scripture canon – pretend to be about? Again, compassion. Empathy. Renunciation of ego. In scripture,

the reader is encouraged to empathise with these fictional people, experience their joys and sorrows and meditate upon the baffling complexities of the human predicament.

The point of scripture specifically, and religion in general, shouldn’t be to use your words to prove that your thinking is right, and that others’ thinking is wrong. Whether it be Confucius or Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed - or whether you’re a Daoist or a Jain or a Sikh – all the traditions teach compassion and understanding of others, and the renunciation of ego to transform yourself into something better. The scriptures don’t make logical sense, because they’re not supposed to. If you were using only the left side of your brain, could you make a rational argument for the Golden Rule? No, because as Armstrong pithily points out: “we have never found a purely rational justification for human rights.”

But you can’t stop at merely reading the words in the Bible or performing the rituals of your chosen religion. Indeed, this is where scripture branches out from other arts and makes it a unique creation of humanity. You might find yourself in a transcendent state after hearing a prelude from Bach, or listening to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” at full-blast travelling down an abandoned country road, or seeing the heartbreaking strain of the son carrying a father in Carle Vanloo’s “Aeneas Carrying Anchises,” or being moved to tears when Sophie makes her terrible choice. These are things that we feel outside of ourselves – it’s transcendence that doesn’t go any further. With scripture, however, action is demanded. It’s the ethical action that happens during transcendence that creates a life of service and meaning. It’s the giving unto others with no ulterior motive other than the simple act of giving. It’s meditating on the words of the sages and transforming yourself into something better – becoming a Lowenmensch. It's Buddha telling his monks that they must go down to the marketplace after they have been enlightened. Scripture forces you to practice what you preach.

Well yes, but there are multitudinous examples of how the religious powers of the day didn’t exactly follow their own words and preach compassion, charity, and love. Quite the opposite, in fact, and Armstrong doesn’t let anyone off the hook. No matter what major religion you look at, there are examples of horrible abuses committed against the very souls they’re supposed to save.

These examples are easy enough to come by; so why don’t we try finding some examples of people who did transform from scripture, and tried to make the world a better, more meaningful place? Two examples spring immediately to my mind.

The first is Karen Armstrong herself. She became a nun but left the convent in the 1969 because she wanted to find more meaning in the world. Eventually, she won $100,000 from TED talks for advocating for a “Charter for Compassion,” a 300-word document that was written by religions minds from the Abrahamic traditions, and which has since been endorsed by over 2 million people. Scripture transformed her, and she is finding a way to use her fame and accolades to bring a more compassionate world. 

And the second is the Man in Black, who, I think, would have signed onto that Charter. The story goes that he first started wearing black for very practical reasons: he was on the road a lot, and you could wear a black outfit many times without needing to wash it. That was the original reason Johnny Cash wore black. But as time went on, he changed. Cash was a deeply religious man, who prayed with Billy Graham and even recorded the New Testament in its entirety. So yeah, maybe he began wearing black for practical reasons, but somewhere along the way he was transformed, and ended up singing that he wore black for those who had never read Jesus’ teachings,

About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think he’s talking straight to you and me.

Amen, Johnny. Amen.

~Chris Armstrong