Friday, December 4, 2009

Bible History - In Fast Forward

I just finished Karen Armstrong's The Bible, A Biography. I want to start this review with a warning: depending on who you are, you might not like this book. It might even make you angry. Armstrong writes from a historical, academic perspective, not a faith perspective. Some people of faith are uncomfortable having their sacred text examined and deconstructed through the lens of critical history. If this is true for you, there are many other great books about the Bible written from a faith perspective that you might enjoy.

With that said, this is a great book and I think it adds a lot to our dialogue and understanding as Christians. In my New Testament Survey class, I begin by reminding the class that we all read scripture through a lens. We may think that we read the Bible with pure eyes, unaffected by our own context, bias or understanding, but this is simply not true. The eyes of a middle class 38 year old male Christian living in 2009 in San Antonio, Texas can't possibly see the words of scripture the same way as 25 year old female Jew living in the first century living in Palestine (if she could read and had access to Torah scrolls - which is pretty unlikely.) They can't possibly see the words in the same light as a 60 year old new believer living in Rwanda. I think the brilliance of Armstrong's book is that she gives a history of this lens. The way we read, study, interpret and consider scripture today is based on the history of not just scripture itself but thousands of years of rabbis, priests, reformers, theologians and pastors who have considered scripture in a myriad of different ways and debated, argued and even fought violently about how we should approach the sacred texts.

Armstrong takes us through the development of the Torah and how it became the writings (or scriptures). She sets up the context for the development of the New Testament. She then moves into a number of chapters on how we began to interpret these writings: through midrash (the rabbinical interpretation of the Old Testament); the the lens of the early church fathers who looked through the lens of charity, through the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina. Through all this, we hear how different people used different means to draw meaning out of the texts and how these different means created different meanings.

Armstrong then moves through the reformers who tried to get back to the original texts and make those texts available to all to empower all believers to consider their own interpretations and meanings. The book ends with a look at the forces of modernity and how the way we read the Bible today is affected by modern thinking and by the push back against modern thinking.

The reason I titled this post "Bible History - In Fast Forward" is that the author does indeed fly through the history of the Bible. I have read some critiques that she makes some arguments without really defending them. Although that can be problematic, I believe had she paused to fully articulate each point the book would have never ended. She does offer excellent notes in the back should you want to follow the argument deeper.

Again with the warning: even if you are open to this type of scholarship, Armstrong might step on the toes of your belief at times. I believe that is okay. You don't have to agree with her or even the scholars she cites. I believe points of disagreement strengthen us. In fact her epilogue speaks directly to that. We could all benefit from a little more listening, even to people we don't agree with.



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