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Karen Armstrong on "The Bible"

David: This idea goes way back to the roots of the Bible, you point out.   

Karen: And many of the greatest rabbis wanted to keep pulling new meanings out of it over time, many meanings that bore little relationship to the intentions of the original writers. And, for centuries, readers relished highly allegorical ways of reading the Bible. There was no attempt to stick to a single literal sense.

David: Pretty much from the opening pages, right?

Karen: If you look at the creation story, for example, there are two quite different creation accounts put side by side at the beginning of Genesis that are mutually incompatible. If you're trying to take a literal point of view toward what is written there, then either one is true or the other is true. But the original writers didn't see it in those terms at all. They saw it as two different ways of talking about something that really is ineffable and inexplicable. There was no attempt to iron it out and say definitely it was the six-day approach -- or it was the God-planting-a-garden approach. These were both held by many people, at the same time.  In the ancient world, there were many versions of myths.

David: Okay, you've hit an important term here: Myth. That's trouble for many readers. You've written an entire book about the importance of myth. And you remind us that myth isn't a dirty word. It's a great, important idea, right?

Karen: Today, the word myth is used in popular language to mean: It's not true. If you say a politician is lying about something, you say his statement is a myth. But, in the pre-modern world, myths were taken very seriously as ways of talking about things that no one ever expected to tie down into single rational statements. Certainly, not in the way we think about tying things down in rational statements today. Too much of the world is impossible to explain. It goes beyond the grasp of human understanding.

David: This is going to be hard for people to accept ­-- this idea that readers in the first centuries weren't as literal minded as we are today.

Karen: People always took the literal sense of the Bible seriously, but a literal reading was only one of the senses in which they took the Bible.  Jewish and Christian traditions had sophisticated, metaphorical, mystical, and allegorical ways of thinking about the Bible. People did this far more naturally in the pre-modern era than they do today.

Here's an example: In churches there were great frescoes of biblical stories painted on the walls, showing biblical characters wearing what would have been modern dress at the time they were painted. People saw the stories as essentially still unfolding. They weren't trying to take the stories literally. It was fine to put the biblical characters in modern clothes. What is new in our era is the idea of isolating one, single literal sense of the Bible ­-- and declaring that the only way to read the Bible is literally. That's actually new in the whole history of the Bible.

David: Catholics may understand this better than Protestants, I would think, reading your book.   

Karen: Actually, Catholics retained the allegorical conception of the Bible, so this literalism hasn't hit them as hard as it hit Protestants.  

David: A good example would be a character like Veronica, right? Catholics know about this woman from the Stations of the Cross. She supposedly comforted Jesus on his way to the cross. And this comes from a long tradition of interpreting the biblical stories, even the stories about Jesus' life.   But most Protestants have never heard of this Veronica. She's not in the Bible at all. A literal reading would say there's no foundation for thinking she existed, right? Protestants wouldn't understand the deep religious meaning that has sprung up around Veronica.

Karen: The Protestant idea of relying only on scripture would have a problem with that. Veronica has an important place in the spiritual lives of many people, but this new idea of isolating only a literal reading of the Bible ­-- that makes no room for Veronicas.

David: We should make it clear to readers of our conversation that your book provides lots of examples of what we're talking about here. You've really written a fascinating history. We just talked about Catholics, so let me mention a Protestant example from your book: the evangelist John Nelson Darby, this 19th-century guy who came up with the concept of the Rapture.

Karen: Darby is interesting. He was a Brit who developed this entirely new reading of the book of Revelation. I don't need to go into the Rapture theory for people. People in this country know about that idea particularly well, don't they?  But, Darby had no takers in the UK, so he came to America where he was a resounding hit. In a sense, as bizarre as it may sound to say it: This was quite a modern way of reading the Bible. As strange as that may sound, Darby's whole idea about how the Bible was divided into eras was in line with scientific thought that was current in his day. Just as Darby based his ideas on great ages and great stages of history, this is what scientists were uncovering in that era in their studies of cliffs and rocks.  And, then, he took a very literal reading of the book of Revelation and, hence, he was modern in that respect, too. The traditional reading of Revelation was highly allegorical. Darby pointed to a literal reading. If there was going to be a Battle of Armageddon, then this would happen in a given place, a given time.  Until the modern period, people didn't see Revelation in this way as some kind of program outlining the last days. The book was seen as a highly obscure pattern of symbolism.

1/20/2010 5:00:00 AM