Saturday, March 06, 2010

Book: The Bible (A Biography) (updated)

Wow. Super-duper interesting book by one of my favorite authors, Karen Armstrong, who I am rarely smart enough to read all the way through (although I loved her autobiographical works).

My computer is almost out of juice so I'll keep this one short, with perhaps some edits later.

This wasn't a book on Christianity, per se, nor was it a book about religion. What it was, was a book about a book, and how that book got written, and how people studied it throughout the ages, and what that book currently means in modern society. That book being, of course, The Bible.

It was utterly fascinating.

I got a bit lost in the first few chapters, but mostly because I am no Bible scholar. My knowledge of the Bible mostly comes from a large children's Bible my grandma gave me long ago (which I read cover to cover and enjoyed immensely), and some bits and pieces picked up along the way from various churches I've gone to over the years. But I don't even know if we have a Bible in the house. Maybe Terri has one? I think I might have a mini-one from my grandma.

Shoot, out of juice. More to come. Let this just be a teaser -- check back later in the day!
OK, sorry about that.

Anyway. Back to Bible-talk. So, the book was incredibly interesting. She describes how the Bible started out as a collection of writings from different authors, some contradicting each other. They did not start out as a book at all. Over time, these writings were collected and various Jewish scholars assembled the Old Testament (which I believe is part of the Torah), which purposefully left in conflicting statements, as the study of the Bible was originally meant to be discussed, not taken literally. In fact, the original assemblers of the Bible were not sure there should be a written document at all, as the "Living Word" should be spoken and discussed, not set down in stone where there might be danger of misinterpretation and literalism. (ahem)

Later on, once Christianity was saved from obscurity by Constantine, the New Testament was put together in similar fashion. No one is entirely sure who actually wrote the various parts of the Bible. They are attributed to authors such as "J" and "E" and "Mark" and "Paul" but we don't know who these people actually were. And again, we have conflicting stories. And again, the Bible was originally intended to be a starting point for discussion and personal truth-finding -- not a literal document at all.

Various scholars later on studied the Bible (exegesis) with various results. The one that I liked the best and felt most optimistic about (and indeed, Karen Armstrong seems to agree) was one ancient rabbi who said that scripture should be read with the most charitable interpretation being the most accurate. Basically, don't look for reasons to hate, make war, or kill your neighbor in the Bible. Look for reasons to love, understand, make peace, bridge gaps.

Anyway... this little book was entirely crammed with super-interesting history. She stays away from opinions until the epilogue, where she writes a very nice chapter on how, in this time of fundamentalist Christianity/religion and fundamentalist secularism (where each automatically assumes everyone else is dead wrong), we ought to use the Bible as a tool for reconciliation, understanding, and peace-making. I really appreciated this viewpoint, since I have often felt conflicted about my own feelings towards religion.

I loved reading my children's Bible and mostly just read it for the Old Testament stories -- once we got to the New Testament, I got a little bored, although I always have loved (and still do) Jesus stories. In the words of King Missile, Jesus was way cool. I have no beef with Jesus. I don't really love modern extremism Christianity (or any extreme version of religion, which I think isn't really religion at all but dangerous fanaticism), but I am sort of fascinated with the Bible and religions in general.

Since this was not a book about Judaism or Christianity, but a book about the Bible, I didn't come away feeling like I was being preached to in any sense -- rather, it was a highly interesting history lesson that left me with a lot to think about. It really gives you a sense of how we really are all interconnected on a big level, no matter what your religion or nonreligion or race or culture. We can get so bogged down in minutiae that we lose sight of the important things: being kind, reaching for understanding, looking for the good, and making peace.

Now, it's time for something a little less heavy. I'm reading that medieval murder mystery (about the death of Edward II) and also a friend is lending me the full canon of SIP!!! Oh my goodness, I might just have to read the entire series start to finish.


Stefanie said...

This book sound really interesting. I'm going to have to put it on my tbr list. I love stuff like this too!

Lesley said...

This is the second recommendation I've seen for this book (the other is from a coworker's staff pick) and it does sound very interesting. I'm going to add this to the list of possible selections for next round of my church book club's picks.

Anonymous said...

Karen Armstrong does have a way of explaining religious phenomena, or religions. I do think she has her own particular view and agenda (that started when leaving the cloister) but I really enjoy her books nonetheless. I'll be sure to pick this up when I see it around somewhere.

Tammie said...

this book sounds fascinating.
definitely something i would want to read when i have a bit more mental energy though.

Tammie said...

oh and i had to snicker at king missile. every now and then ill catch jay singing "detachable penis". such a silly song.