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The Bible: A Biography (Books That Changed the World) Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 10, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Of all the Books That Changed the World-the recently launched series to which this book belongs-surely the Bible is among the most important. And of all contemporary popularizers of religious history, surely Armstrong is among the bestselling. Who better, then, to recount the history of the Bible in eight short chapters than this former nun and literature professor who relishes huge topics (The History of God) and panoramic descriptions (The Great Transformation)? Armstrong not only describes how, when and by whom the Bible was written, she also examines some 2,000 years of biblical interpretation by bishops and rabbis, scholars and mystics, pietists and critics, thus opening up a myriad of exegetical approaches and dispelling any fundamentalist notion that only one view can be correct. Readers unfamiliar with ecclesiastical history may feel overwhelmed by dense chapters that read more like annotated lists than narrative-a hazard of trying to cover so much in so little space. (A glossary helps to anchor the bewildered.) At her best when she pauses long enough to expand on a topic, Armstrong offers intriguing insights on, for example, the allegorical method developed by Origen in the third century and the mystical midrash of the Kabbalists in medieval Spain and Provence. (Nov.)
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For the Books That Changed the World series of brief "biographies" of momentous books, Armstrong accepted the arguably most daunting assignment. What other book has as long a history of influence as the Bible, or has affected more people and societies? The author of the sweeping histories of religion The Great Transformation (2006) and A History of God (1993) is, of course, up to the task and provides an excellent précis of the writing and compiling of the Bible and the ensuing centuries of biblical interpretation. Armstrong traces the Bible's transformation from a miscellany of texts into scripture, to which the Jesus movement added the Gospel and the other New Testament texts pretty much in tandem with the development of midrash and the Talmud by non-Christian Jews after the 70 CE destruction of the third temple in Jerusalem. She shows both Christian and rabbinic traditions of interpretation subsequently converging upon charity or love as the essence of God. The subjects of the last three chaptersthe medieval monastic practice of reading the Bible called lectio divina, Martin Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura, and intellectual modernityare each considered for the ways they gave rise to interpretive movements that affected Christianity directly and spurred reactions in Judaism. This is one terrific little book. Olson, Ray
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In other words, enough of the lazy thinking.
Not that Armstrong herself would ever be rude enough to use a phrase like that. On the contrary, she simply lays out her theory, and lets the evidence do the talking. She clearly recognizes the strong opinions that people today have on her chosen topic, which is precisely why she has focused on it. She equally clearly believes that their exhausted cliches simply aren't up to the task of describing the far more complicated reality. Indeed, religious violence, she states flatly, may have less to do with religion than with politics and social order.
To make her case, Armstrong goes all the way back to the Sumerians, and the rise of agrarian societies that produced a surplus: a surplus that was purloined by the elite, who kept the vast community of peasants at subsistence level and kept them in line with their religious order. Indeed, in Armstrong's analysis, from the earliest days until the Enlightenment and the modern era, the sacred was tied intimately to political authority and political legitimately. And it was balanced. If violence was religious (the Inquisition; the crusades) so, too, were thoughtful leaders advocating peace and harmony (the Buddha, the Jains, on down to St. Francis and even Salah-ad-Din, who allowed Christians to leave Jerusalem unharmed at the height of the crusades.) After all, the Bible inspired both holy warriors like the inquisitors, and the Quakers, who refuse to bear arms. That being so, how does one discuss "religion" and "violence" in the same breath, intellectually speaking?
Armstrong forces the reader to reconsider what we mean when we glibly use the phrase "religious violence": we may think it's the inter-communal battles waged by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in India, or between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, and indeed, that's the most obvious meaning. But her broader and more important point -- and one that I hope isn't lost in the fuss that will undoubtedly ensue as people skim the book and fail to read it in the depth it demands, or look for evidence that supports their existing theories -- is a far more subtle one. She is making an argument about the link between the way a state or society views religion as a tool to oppress and to assert dominance, especially when that society (or its elites) or state feels under threat. That, she argues, has been true from ancient Mesopotamia until the Ottoman Empire. Armenians had lived relatively peaceably within its borders for centuries; it wasn't until the Sublime Porte had become the "sick man of Europe" in 1915 that the first genocide to be so labeled began in the name of defending the Ottoman Empire by eradicating Armenian Christians and seeking to establish a more "pure" Muslim Turkish society. Within each of the major religions, she argues, there is a tug of war between these pacifist tendencies and violence, and it may be politics rather than doctrine that determines which surfaces at any given point.
The book covers a tremendous amount of ground -- perhaps too much, starting with the Sumerians, and moving on to the modern era and the way in which the absence of "religion" hasn't resulted in the death of violence. It's sprawling and sometimes feels slightly breathless in tone, as if Armstrong were building an argument and keeps running back to tell us "oh, and one more thing!" It doesn't help that the first few chapters -- devoted to the earliest settled and documented civilizations, in Mesopotamia, China and India -- are not her primary area of scholarly expertise and end up sounding far more dry and remote. In its own way, it's an act of faith to get through them, although it's definitely worth the effort. As, I think, it will prove worthwhile for me to settle down and re-read large swathes of this slowly, supplementing it with other material.
Armstrong clearly has a point of view and, although she doesn't sound like a polemicist, she equally clearly wants the reader to think about her arguments. In some ways, that would be better served by a shorter and more streamlined book, one that confines itself to a single religious tradition as an exemplar of the whole. But in that case, what was gained in coherence and accessibility would be forfeit in scholarly authority, so perhaps there's nothing to be done but accept her decisions and live with them.
So, is religious violence actually religious at all? Armstrong's great service is that she forces us those of us tempted to use that as a starting point in any debate to question our basic assumptions and ask that question at all. That she tries to answer it herself is deeply impressive and that she does such a coherent job of it is almost awe-inspiring. That doesn't mean that this is a book for everyone. If you're a die-hard believer (and I use the word advisedly) in the likes of Sam Harris, who doesn't think that this question about religious violence should even be posed because the answer is so self-evident, then odds are this will drive you slightly crazy. Then, too, if you're looking for fingers pointing solely at SOME religious traditions, you'll be disappointed.
Still, even if we're willing to rethink our preconceptions, delving into a dense, sprawling and perhaps overly-ambitious book to do so may be another matter altogether. I found it fascinating and worthwhile, but think you do need to be prepared to devote the time to this book and to approach it with an open and a curious mind. Armstrong is not assuming a scholarly level of theological knowledge among her readers. Nonetheless, you still need to commit yourself to reading every chapter, as the narrative unfolds, to follow the logic of her argument, over centuries and over several continents. It's a demanding read -- but then, given the subject matter and its importance, shouldn't it be? If you feel like tackling the task, you'll feel exhausted at the end of it, but whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing with her thesis. But I have a hard time imagining that you'd feel anything but more thoughtful and better informed.
Because she picked thousands of years to review, the book is long and each period is reviewed with missing component. The pure historians may be frustrated. Sociologists would want to have more data about these trends, such that, as another review noted, it raises doubt about if she thinks we are getting worse because of nation-states or better with curbing violence.
I felt she failed to show examples where religion may have been the instigator of violence and not just a co-opted participant. I agree that nation-states do have a natural national preservation mentality that motivates weapon stockpiling and aggressive dominance. The United States has become one of those aggressive countries. However, religious groups can also have their own potential "subtle" desire to control and create "religious states" where the religion sentiment drives and is driven by the national so that the violence of state and religion are the same. I think she could been more effective at showing the religious sentiments driving violence, especially among abortion clinic bombers and ISIS supporters.
Despite these drawbacks, this is still a book worth reading and discussing with others.