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Engaging Creatively: A Review of Karen Armstrong’s “The Bible: A Biography”

Karen Armstrong’s passion in The Bible: A Biography is clearly to call believers to engage prayerfully and creatively with their sacred text. She appeals to both Jews and Christians, reminding them that “midrash and exegesis were always supposed to relate directly to the burning issues of the day, and the fundamentalists should not be the only people who attempt this.” Her entire book is an homage to the Bible as a living document, made of passages which have infinite flexibility and call for constant reinterpretation.
I have appreciated Armstrong’s work over the years — she makes difficult subjects much more readable, if not always fully nuanced. In this narrative of the construction and use of the Bible from the time of the Davidic kingdom to the present, she focuses on how Christians and Jews have engaged with the books that have created their community. Her argument that the constant application of the Bible to the lives and contexts of the time makes it a living Word, a dynamic revelation of God, rings true to this reader, daughter of a Seventh-day Adventist minister. She all but calls this sort of personal engagement “present truth.”
In giving us a whirlwind history of how the Old Testament was formed, Armstrong emphasizes the context in which the texts were constructed and the flexibility with which they were used. Multiple views of God and creation and how society could best reflect him are included in Scripture, and Armstrong reminds us that this is because there wasn’t a rigid orthodoxy enforced among the Israelites until after the Babylonian captivity. In fact, it was the exile that pushed the priests and scholars to “canonize” the texts of Scripture and to draw borders around belief, consolidating what they understood as truth.
Especially compelling to me is Armstrong’s contention that the scholars of Torah believed that they were not only learning about prophecy, but that by their exegesis, by making meaning of Scripture, they themselves functioned as prophets. After all, it is by interpreting visions and dreams that prophets sometimes function, and those who find new meaning for the ancient texts bring the Scriptures to life for a new generation.
So it wasn’t especially strange that Christians built on this tradition when they made creative uses of Torah to find new meanings in Scripture, reinterpreting them in the light of their experience of Jesus and the early Christian community. The destruction of the second Temple kicked off a flurry of writings among Christians, just as the exile had done among Jews, and by midway through the second century nearly all the New Testament books had been written. The presence of Jesus was experienced, for these Christians, in the study of the Scriptures, both from the Old and New Testament.
In exploring the post-second-temple exegesis of Judaism, Armstrong again puts emphasis on the comfort given to believers by studying the Bible. Midrash had to focus on and be guided by compassion; practical piety went hand in hand with the study of Torah for Jews in the late Roman Empire. Scripture was thus “open,” according to Armstrong, and rabbis taught their students that the word of God was infinite and God’s spirit descended on scholars when they studied passages together, in a manner similar to what Christians had felt at Pentecost. The rabbis thus worked in community with each other as well as with Moses and David and Isaiah and the other prophets to form the constantly evolving and yet connected living Word.
In the early centuries of Christianity, scholars developed complex ways to study the Bible. They believed that by searching hard, Jesus could be found there, but it was difficult and had to be done by one living a life of prayer and virtue. However, the challenges of interpretation helped Christians look deeper into the Word, and thus served to push them to more creative applications. The personal application in many cases became more important than the “original” meaning of the verses. Like the Jewish scholars, these students of the Bible felt that anything that undermined charity was a misapplication or misunderstanding of Scripture.
Already in the European middle ages there were portents of the attempt to rationally understand the Bible in a literal, concrete sense — scholars who wanted to find common sense explanations of the fantastic, who developed specific systems for studying these texts as philosophy, in the process eliminating the most mysterious of their elements. As is usual with intellectual trends, the attempts to understand Scripture literally inspired a backlash, often in the form of both Jewish and Christian mysticism.
Armstrong is at her best when she shows that even as Reformation and early modern readers tried to get back to the “original” meaning of the Bible, they were doing so in novel ways that continued to allow Scripture to breathe new life and creativity into the Christian community. Neither Calvin nor Zwingli thought that it was useful to take the Bible out of its historical context and apply its literal words to the present day. They taught that God had continued to unfold himself to his people throughout time and so interpretation of the Bible was never final. The new scientific way of understanding the world continued to shape how people thought they should read their Bibles, and some of these early reformers worked to remind their congregations that God’s word required a different approach than a textbook on astronomy.
The creative new applications of the Bible allowed Puritans and other groups to develop a nationalism based on interpreting the Bible texts regarding Israel as applying literally to themselves. Sola Scriptura meant that people were supposed to take Scripture seriously, but there was still no code for how to interpret it — it remained flexible and infinitely applicable. However, Armstrong warns that “religious people were becoming acutely aware that the Bible was a confusing book, and this at a time when clarity and rationality were prized as never before.” (p. 182).
As the nineteenth century came into its own, common sense scientific faith argued for a democratic reading of the Bible. In other words, the texts meant exactly what they said and anyone who was literate could understand its points for herself. It became increasingly important to some believers that the Bible be factually, literally true in the same way that their chemistry books were literally true. With the rise of a morally indignant atheism, both Christian and Jewish conservatives found themselves on the defensive, and cast their conflict with liberal believers as well as secular thinkers in the most apocalyptic terms. It is clear that Armstrong’s burden is to show that our modern attempts to make the Bible literal and rational represent a new departure in biblical history, and that this is not helpful, is even damaging.
I was impressed with Armstrong’s reminder that it is how we treat Scripture that makes it sacred. Constant reinterpretation and the on-going process of studying the Bible demonstrate the fact of on-going revelation, even when we’re not adding texts to the canon. As a Seventh-day Adventist, raised with the idea of present truth and the continuing presence of prophecy, I resonate with her passionate fight against ossifying texts and drawing borders around their application, even as I acknowledge that her scholarship is narrow and perhaps self-serving.
I also think that even those fundamentalists who want to interpret the Bible literally are not quite as literalist as they think. They, too, apply texts to their lives in new ways and creatively choose to interact with a specific range of passages. They, too, engage with the God they find there in a dynamic manner. It just seems that they may miss out on the joy of recognizing the long tradition they are operating in, the community of people they are building on and with, and the way God continues to unfold himself in interesting and boundary-less, even law-less ways.
The love relationship that believers have with their God is demonstrated through our constant searching for him in the sacred texts — we are always learning more about him through the process of studying, searching, learning, analyzing. The best exegetical principle, Armstrong argues throughout her historical analysis, is practicing compassion and finding it in the God we discover in Scripture. Ultimately, she contends, it is impossible to experience what the Bible intended to convey without studying it prayerfully and waiting expectantly for the transcendent God to appear.
Lisa Clark Diller lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and teaches early modern world history at Southern Adventist University. She and her husband, Tommy, love being part of urban community organizations.
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