Let's Talk Books by Ian Fraser

The book reviews offered in St Mary's website include books about our faith, our church and our country. The titles selected are from books I have read over the last two, perhaps three years, which I think are well worth reading to increase our understanding and appreciation of our world. The reviews are presented under the heading, Spirituality, because that includes in the broader context, what we believe and how we understand concepts like religious faith, love of our country, and the anonymous 'other' who, in Christian understanding, is 'our neighbour'.

Reviews of two books are presented over the coming few weeks under this introduction - one is about the sacred scriptures, and the other is about our country, Australia.

Ian Fraser

The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong

From Palestine, Europe, and Arabia; from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Karen Armstrong explores the changes in meaning attributed to the scriptures – how the scriptures are used, interpreted, and amended. Armstrong emphasises the right side of the brain over the left side, to glean the real meaning of sacred texts – that is, she places intuition over logic, and ritual over study.

In the Introduction, she explains “…in recent decades, neurologists have discovered that the right hemisphere of the brain is essential to the creation of poetry, music and religion. It is involved with the formation of our sense of self and has a broader, less focused mode of attention than the left hemisphere, which is more pragmatic and selective. Above all, it sees itself as connected to the outside world, whereas the left hemisphere holds aloof from it.”

For Christians, the tradition of reading the scriptures as moral story, based on the Old Testament prophets and the oral testimony of Jesus’ disciples, changed during the Reformation. The Protestant reformers encouraged reading the scriptures as history, not only the Gospel stories of Jesus, but also the Old Testament to be read as the history of the Israelite people and even from the very beginning, as the history of creation of the world and humanity.

The tradition of reading the scriptures in Judaism changed much earlier, after the temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered far from Jerusalem. The introduction of midrash, i.e. investigative exegesis by the rabbis, after destruction of the temple, “was the search for something fresh since the old rites and meanings no longer applied”.

In Islam, Al Quran, written by Muhammad, ‘the last prophet’, as the word of God dictated by the Archangel Jibrail (Gabriel), is never to be changed. But the tradition of reading is influenced by ijtihad – independent reasoning by properly trained experts, which allows new interpretations to resolve new problems as they arise in the Muslim community.

Armstrong does not neglect other world religions, commenting also on reading the sacred scriptures from India – Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Theravada Buddhism; and from China –Taoism, Confucianism, Mahayana-, and Chan/Zen-, Buddhism.

So, from what does Armstrong believe the sacred texts need to be rescued? From rationally constrained, left hemisphere understanding, which leads to literalism and fundamentalism; from fading into irrelevance as outdated history and myth; from relegation to liturgy only, to no longer provide meaning in everyday life.

She contends that free-ranging, intuitive, right hemisphere appreciation of the scriptures will keep the sacred scriptures in all faiths alive as a significant part of the everyday lives of the faithful. In the Epilogue, titled Post Scripture, Armstrong presents some modern literary interpretations by Jewish and Christian writers, as examples of how the Bible continues to influence the more artistic minds in Western society.

And what is the role of the sacred scriptures in your life?

Ian Fraser