Friday, August 28, 2009

The Bible: A Biography (Books That Changed The World), by Karen Armstrong

This is a neat, clearly written short history of the Bible, starting with the myths and oral traditions that created the basis for the text we have today as the bible, then following the way the Bible has been interpreted and read right up to the current day.

Many of us who don't study Biblical history think the Bible just kind of sprung into life a couple of thousand years ago, with one God as its centre piece. The wonderfully humanistic scholar Karen Armstrong shows how the text of the Bible is in fact the work of many authors whose work overlaps each other.

The Bible, we learn, is a work of extraordinary and intense editorship. Not only that, it's a living, breathing work that has been reinterpreted and re-imagined throughout history.

This is the main lesson that Armstrong wants to draw: the Bible resists literal interpretation. The modern idea, favoured by so many evangelicals and fundamentalists, to read the Bible as literally true, is wrong. Some groups even want to bring back Old Testament Law, an idea close to madness.

The Bible Karen Armstrong presents here is one that has fired the imagination and creativity of millions throughout the millennia. The modern religious insistence of literal readings are against its history and purpose and even, paradoxically, its meaning.

Armstrong's The Bible ends on a bummer note, with the fundamentalists having hijacked the Bible for their own purposes. I guess Armstrong's lesson is that the Bible is extraordinarily rich in complexity and ambiguity, and that it can be read by secularists, as well as the devout, as deeply rewarding literature.

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