Book Review: The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong

[1] The Lost Art of Scripture by Karen Armstrong is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. I don’t say that lightly. It’s not an easy read. But it is well worth the effort. Karen Armstrong is a prolific author who has written numerous books on a variety of theological and religious topics.  The Lost Art of Scripture does something I haven’t seen done in other books that I have read –  it takes the reader on a journey through history across cultures and religious faiths connecting the importance of the concept of scripture (however each faith defines it).

[2] My biggest take away comes down to this – the “West” needs to go on this journey because we are the ones who have lost the art of Scripture. We’ve gotten too much into our own heads and we’re more concerned with being right, rather than listening. And at its core Scripture is all about listening to the divine.

[3] Armstrong starts right out at the very beginning of her Introduction talking about left/right hemispheres of the brain and what each side focuses on. While the left hemisphere is more empirical and objective and gives humanity many benefits, a heavy focus on the left brain has cost us too.

The left brain is by nature competitive; largely ignorant of the work of the right, it tends to be overconfident. The right hemisphere, however, has a more comprehensive vision of reality, which as we have seen, we can never grasp fully; it is more at home with embodiment and the physical than the left. The left brain is essential to our survival and enables us to investigate and master our environment, but it can offer us only an abstract representation of the complex information it receives from the right. Because the right hemisphere is less self-centered, it is more realistic than the left hemisphere. Its wide-ranging vision enables it to hold different views of reality simultaneously and, unlike the left, it does not form certainties based on abstraction. Profoundly attuned to the Other – to everything that is not ourselves – the right hemisphere is alert to relationships. It is the seat of empathy, pathos and our sense of justice. Because it can see an-other point of view, it inhibits our natural selfishness.(p. 6)

For me, this points to a challenge we face in Western Christianity – an overemphasis on the left hemisphere. Armstrong, in one paragraph, deftly summarizes key areas with which Western Christianity in America struggles – justice, individualism, certainty vs abstraction, empathy, and being able to hold multiple perspectives on reality simultaneously.

[4] A second major theme for Armstrong – transformation– ties in well with the first. Throughout this book, we read how, “Religion is a means of ultimate transformation.” (pg. 8). Regardless of which faith tradition we are talking about, scriptures are about the divine touching humanity in such a way that humanity is transformed.

[5] In a third theme that runs through the book Armstrong explains, “Scripture, therefore, began as an aristocratic art form…Scripture was usually sung, chanted, or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech, so that words…were fused with the more indefinable emotions….” (pg. 10-11). This also has to do with the concept of holy myth – “A myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time.” (pg. 11). Armstrong puts this concept another way in a beautiful statement – “The myths of scripture are not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your current way of life; rather, they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart.” (pg. 11). In a way, she is tying the first two themes together with the third theme in a poetic way.

[6] The last point that Armstrong makes is this – “The art of scripture did not mean a return to an imagined perfection in the past, because the sacred text was always a work in progress. The art of scriptural exegesis was, therefore, inventive, imaginative and creative. So, to read the scriptures correctly and authentically, we must make them speak directly to our modern predicament.” (Pg. 15). In other words, it’s not about going back to some nostalgia, or a time in the past. It speaks to us now, “Given our current problems, the scriptures’ faith in the divine potential of all human beings seems particularly relevant.”(pg. 15)

[7] Armstrong takes the reader through a world cultural-historical-religious exploration that I didn’t know was possible in just one volume, exploring ancient civilizations and religious traditions and their relationship with the divine and scripture. I found these stories of scriptural origin and meaning to be fascinating and meaningful. Likewise, it was awe-inspiring to see how interconnected humanity really is. Across unique religious traditions and beliefs, there are often consistent themes that run throughout.

[8] The last two chapters bring a sharp focus onto Western Christianity with this statement, “By the early sixteenth century, Europeans realized that their societies were undergoing major change.” (pg. 333). “…fundamental yet imperceptible change can be disorienting.” (pg. 335). Guess what the solution was to this disorientation? A disagreement of sorts. “The Reformation, it has been said, signaled a resurgence of the left hemisphere of the brain, which, as we have seen, had begun in Europe during the thirteenth century.” (pg. 338). A type of literal interpretation and a concern with being right is connected with the left hemisphere of the brain. At the same time, mystics such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross became prominent, which was “clearly a disciplined withdrawal from the dominance of the left hemisphere.” (pg. 343). From here, Armstrong shifts the focus to talk about how similar challenges affect other cultures and religions.

[9] In the last chapter, Armstrong raises some important topics for the reader to consider – questions about scripture and ideals around social justice; questions regarding how, for much of history, scripture has been understood as pointing towards things rather than serving as the last word; the relationship between politics and scripture, and more.

[10] So much to consider. Lots of deep questions. This is the type of book to read if you want to ask questions and are not as concerned with getting answers–kind of like how we would read Scripture, if we truly understood what Armstrong is suggesting.  In reading it this way, we might be changed, transformed, because in reading it, we would encounter the divine, touch the holy. And in touching the holy – how could we not be transformed? That’s the hope isn’t it?

[11] Perhaps Scripture, at its core isn’t something to be studied, as much as encountered. Scripture isn’t something to be dissected, as much as ingested. Scripture isn’t something to be read in order to be understood, as much as to be taken in to become one with. For those of us in the West, it might be to move from our left brain relationship with Scripture to explore a right brain relationship with Scripture. Karen Armstrong offers some wonderful historical and cultural options to help us understand so that we can let go and just be with Scripture and let it do its beautiful art. I’m grateful for her book. It was a wonderful journey.


Matthew Best

The Rev. Matthew Best serves as pastor of Christ Lutheran Church on Allison Hill in Harrisburg, PA as well as the Director of Health Ministries of the Christ Lutheran Church.  He resides in Carlisle, PA with his family and has a blog – – where he writes prayers, posts on theology and politics, and more.