Both secular liberals and fundamentalists see Scripture as words to be taken literally, the former to ridicule and the latter to embrace. Karen Armstrong wades into these debates and says that both sides are wrong ... A British writer and former nun, Armstrong argues in her magisterial new book, The Lost Art of Scripture, that Scripture shouldn’t be interpreted literally or rigidly from a pulpit or in a library. She argues that Scripture is flexible, evolving, contextual and more like performance art than a book ... In effect, Armstrong has written a highly rational tribute to the murky wingman of our lives that exists beyond what is material and rational ... In juggling texts in Hebrew, ancient Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit and other languages, Armstrong covers a vast range and inevitably wades into areas in which she is not expert ... while I found the broad arguments at the beginning and end of this book to be fascinating and persuasive, I yawned periodically over details of the Rig Veda, neo-Confucians or Sikh ideology. Yet this is a dazzling accomplishment, a reflection of an encyclopedic knowledge of comparative religion and of a wisdom about spirituality in the human species. What shines through is the way Scriptures in so many traditions were an art form, like an opera or poetry reading, meant to elevate us, not simply to give us ammunition to support preconceived views.
...a different, time-honoured and inspiring take on the role of scripture ... scripture was never intended, [Armstrong] insists, as the last word, something sealed for all time, immutable and inviolable. Instead it was always understood as a work in progress, something revered as a way, above all, of conveying meaning about the human condition ... Armstrong is on good form in The Lost Art of Scripture. It exhibits her well-known and admired characteristics as a writer: an ability to be both authoritative on all the major faiths, and studiedly neutral as to which offers the best solutions/worst failings; a reasoned insistence that religion today is misunderstood, as much by the religious as by their critics; and a passionate appeal to our fractious and fractured world to embrace religion’s core message, its 'golden rule' of compassion and respect for others. It makes for a compelling read, impressive in the range of its scholarship, but always cogently expressed for those prepared to commit to the search to understand.
The introduction and conclusion of The Lost Art of Scripture have the tone of a manifesto, but this hefty work is otherwise a panoramic tour of religious history. In it, Armstrong does not deeply explore any single scripture. There is no exegesis nor any original ideas — she’s a scholar but not an academic. She repeatedly refers to scripture as an art form. And despite the book’s title, she doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the art is 'lost' or the sacred texts need 'rescuing.' But Armstrong is an exceptional storyteller, and The Lost Art of Scripture is an amazing story. It is, admirably, a compendium of religious philosophy ... With meticulous sections on Talmudists, neo-Confucians, medieval theologians and Kabbalists, Armstrong continues the story through the Great Awakening, Hasidism and the rise of modern fundamentalism — easily the most misguided religious development in the book ... if there’s a unique slant in her book, it’s her attempt to screen religious history through a neurobiological lens ... by filtering scriptural understanding through this right-brain/left-brain prism, she falls into the same trap she condemns: trying to understand religion rationally ... Perhaps she’s trying to appeal to skeptics, but even Armstrong admits that such an approach is misconceived ... Armstrong’s mission to spread compassion through understanding is certainly laudable. But despite being extensively researched and lucidly written, the aims and means of The Lost Art of Scripture are unfortunately confused.