The Roman Catholic theologian James Allison has coined a useful phrase to describe how holy texts are harnessed in the cause of strongly-held opinions. “Clobber texts,” as he calls them, are short portions of scripture taken out of context and quoted to provide a “ta-da!” moment of rhetorical victory. A variant of what used to be called “Bible bashing,” the use of “clobber texts” is more prevalent now than ever. Especially if you can fit them into the length of a tweet.
As a modern reader (and preacher) of scripture, I am worried by the use of “clobber texts” that hurt and exclude, suppress and confine our fellow human beings. But anyone, religious or not, who is troubled by the programmatic use of holy texts to justify terrorism, territorial ambition, discrimination or religious abuses should read John Barton and Karen Armstrong’s new books.
These two formidable scholars have produced serious and inspiring contributions to a highly-charged contemporary debate. Both take it as axiomatic that scripture can be related in interestingly creative ways to ritual and belief. They also highlight that the dominant western mode of understanding religious texts—an individual reading a printed book on their own, deciding what to believe and then persuading others of that belief—is at best unhelpful and, at worst, a violation of what scripture should truly be for.
Barton has been lecturing at Oxford for 40 years. An ordained priest as well as a scholar, he writes from the perspective of having to use the Bible in everyday religious contexts as well as studying it in an academic one. Although he provides much historical description and contextual analysis here, he is also making a powerful argument. There is great difficulty, he says, in mapping Biblical texts directly on to the belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. Put bluntly: “The history of Christian use of the Old Testament is a history of attempts of varying dexterity to get the text to say things it doesn’t.” The Bible has not been a blueprint: over time it has required continual creative interplay with religious practice and interpretation.
Such creativity, he says, can have a bright future. But only if we abandon both our reliance on “proof texts”— an older version of those “clobber texts”—to shore up a religious argument, as well as the secular view that the Bible is just another historically fascinating ancient text.
For Barton, the Bible cannot be properly understood remote from its formation as liturgical text or kerygmatic (persuasive) storytelling. In his final chapter, entitled “The Bible and Faith,” Barton rehearses the ways that Jews and Christians have interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures differently depending on their spiritual needs. For Jews, the Torah (the first five books) is superior in meaning and status to the later books grouped as the Prophets and the Writings. But for Christians, the Prophetic books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Zechariah assume a greater importance, especially if they are looking for an indication that the Messiah foretold by them is Jesus Christ.
Barton’s chapter on Christmas, and the carol service at King’s College, Cambridge, is instructive. He reminds us that the sequence of nine lessons—passages taken from both the Old and New Testaments—narrates a story of “a disaster followed by rescue mission, and this fits with the nature of Christianity as a religion of salvation.” But a Jewish reading of the same Old Testament texts is not, as Christians insist, history followed by prophecy (which Jesus of Nazareth fulfils), but instead a complex story of “providential guidance” for the people of Israel.
Barton pleads for letting the Hebrew Scriptures speak for themselves in all their complexity, not reading back into them a more classically Christian need for salvation. Rather, we should hear a nuanced discussion of “divine leadership and guidance of the people as a corporate entity,” truer to their Jewish character. He is asking for a deeper appreciation of the “paradoxical” relationship between the Old and New Testaments.
The lurking danger of anti-semitism is one that Christian scholars and preachers must remain alive to. Barton argues that an eagerness to emphasise the “freedom and joy” of Jesus’s teachings can easily lead to an over-zealous condemnation of Jewish “legalism.” Martin Luther was, even for his time, viciously anti-semitic and for that reason his interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptural texts are, for many, irredeemably tainted. Barton, as one who is sympathetic to Lutheran theology, is appropriately self-aware and calls for others to be equally vigilant.
For the Church of England, Barton has a special conclusion. All priests still vow at ordination that they believe scripture “containeth all things necessary for salvation,” a quotation from the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of 1563. But, he argues, it is important to weigh this formulation carefully. It says that if anything is necessary for salvation, you will find it in scripture. But this emphatically does not mean that everything in the Bible is itself necessary for salvation.
Therefore there are things in there that people of faith don’t need to worry about—what the reformers called adiaphora, or “things indifferent.” So we can appreciate the poetry and theology of the Genesis story without needing to believe in it literally. Barton quotes one of his own teachers, the priest and biblical scholar Austen Farrar, to make his point even more forcefully with relation to the New Testament: “We are bound to rid St Paul’s pages of elements which we can only regard as 1st-century period junk.” This does not mean that Barton wants to disrespect or downgrade the text. Rather the opposite. In a recent interview with the Church Times, Barton was asked how close he felt scripture was to literature. “It is certainly not less than literature, but I am inclined to think that it is, at least in some places, more than literature.”
Karen Armstrong—a former nun who has been writing on religion for the last 40 years, including biographies of God and the Prophet Muhammad—also wants to rescue scripture from the grip of those who are misusing it for their own ends. But her description of scripture as a “lost art” puts her interpretation closer to the novelists and poets such as Samuel Richardson and William Blake whom she quotes than the historians or preachers we might have more readily expected. For her, treating scripture as literature is the best way in.
Armstrong’s magisterial story encompasses all scriptures called sacred by their adherents. She includes the Sanskrit hymns that would be collected by a priestly elite and become the Rig Veda, Ancient Chinese works as well as the Quran.
Her starting point, though, is the Lion Man found in a German cave in 1939. This 40,000-year-old carved ivory statue, she argues, illustrates a deep human yearning for beauty. In a way, the Lion Man is the controlling metaphor of her book. Just as with that remarkable object, the aesthetic dimension was of paramount importance in the creation of sacred works. The generation of any scripture comes, she says, from within the practice of a religion; and where things go wrong is when it is detached from that context. The origins of scripture are not logos but mythos.
Like Barton, Armstrong acknowledges the benefits brought by the reformation movements, enlightenment thinking and the western insistence on empirical evidence. But she also identifies significant deficits in these ways of approaching the world. The problem of the “clobber texts” we now have first arose in the 17th and 18th-centuries, when religion came to be thought of as the intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal beliefs. Even without signing up explicitly to Nietzsche’s death of God theory, “by making ‘God’ a purely notional truth, attainable by the rational and scientific intellect without ritual contemplation and ethical commitment,” she argues, “European men and women had killed it for themselves.”
She illustrates the complicated relationship between rationalism and ritualism with a neat anecdote. Karl Marx, who wanted to abolish religion as much as he wanted to abolish capitalism, tried to dedicate Das Kapital to Charles Darwin. But Darwin, whose theory of evolution presented a real challenge to religious faith, had always been respectful of the feelings of religious people. And so he declined the dedication.
Armstrong reflects not only on the meaning of scripture but, in telling its story, illustrates the development of a theology of God. For example, she contrasts a Newtonian god of “domination” with what is more often found in the New Testament: a kenotic or “self-emptying” god who gives eternally and doesn’t dominate nature. In describing scripture as a “civilised art,” she argues that “the myths of scripture are not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your way of life; rather they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart.” Scriptural narratives “never claimed to be accurate descriptions of the creation of the world or the evolution of species.” Perhaps something that Darwin seems to have understood more deeply than Richard Dawkins.
Her discussion of the movement from oral to written scriptures is compelling. Scripture in origin was chanted and sung. It was educated elites that had both the time and resources to write down and codify these stories. And their writings were a method of extending the reach of authoritarian governments (or religious authorities). Her contention is that it is a relatively recent phenomenon to ascribe more authority to written text than oral, and that this ascribing of authority is as much political as spiritual: a desire to control from the centre.
She has little time for those who attempt to speak about scripture without humility. In describing the infant baptism debates of the Reformation, which were about whether precedent could be found in scripture for baptising babies before they were able to state their beliefs for themselves, she notes that “the reformers debated this issue with an anger and self-righteousness that embedded them in the ego that the art of scripture obliged them to transcend.”
Like Barton, she gives Luther a hard time. His doctrine of sola scriptura, (scripture alone) was designed to challenge the Church accretions of doctrine and practice that so enraged him. Yet he downplayed the Bible books that didn’t fit with his own convictions. In emphasising salvation by grace, which he found in St Paul’s letter to the Romans, he didn’t really want to listen to the other New Testament book, the Letter of James, which asserted that “faith without works is dead.” Luther therefore created a “canon within the canon,” privileging those texts that supported his own belief system. For this Anglican priest, giving such an important thinker the sceptical treatment—and therefore challenging the assumptions that modern believers and non-believers have made in his wake—was both a provocation and a relief.
I found both of these (weighty) books—which ask us to take scripture much more seriously than we do—exhilarating, challenging and curiously comforting. Notably, they have been written not only with intellectual rigour and an accessible turn of phrase, but also with love.
Intellectual interrogation cannot be enough. Love is the proper response to scripture in its complexity, beauty and troubling honesty about what people are like. Both authors also emphasise, in different ways, the importance of ritual and prayer, which release holy texts from our egotistical clutches. In doing so we will more readily acknowledge the violence and cruelty of which human beings are capable when they feel themselves justified by the word of God. For believers divine life is in scripture; but so too is our hope that things—including our readings of the scriptures themselves—don’t have to stay as they are.