Karen Armstrong on Solitary Reader Paradigms
Jim West calls attention to an article in Mail & Guardian Online by Karen Armstrong. The following part caught my attention:
“Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in a purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.
“Solitary reading also enables people to read their scriptures selectively, focusing on isolated texts out of context and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections. Religious militants who read scriptures like this often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. Christian fundamentalists concentrate on the aggressive Book of Revelation and ignore the Sermon on the Mount, while Muslim extremists rely on the more belligerent passages of the Qur’an and overlook its oft-repeated instructions to leave vengeance to God and make peace with the enemy.”
As usual, Armstrong only gets half the story right. Selective scriptural reading is not the domain of fundamentalist militants. It’s everyone’s problem, even those with benign interests. Furthermore, if there is one group of people less prone to the solitary reading paradigm, it’s those from Islamic cultures where the Qur’an is engaged orally and frequently, in classrooms and on the radio. Certainly those living in third-world oral cultures, not least the ancients, are capable of understanding God as condoning violence.
Philip Esler has recently blasted solitary reader paradigms with more precision in New Testament Theology. The problem with reading-based cultures involves not only selective reading (in oral cultures, selective teaching may just as well be a problem), but more generally, the self-indulgent process by which individualists see in the text whatever they want, and supplant the author’s view with their own. The postmodern love-affair with “intertextuality” doesn’t help matters. We’re too caught up in making distant and alien texts “speak to us” this way, and to suit our agendas, however intolerant or benign. The more odious groups simply highlight the problem.
Armstrong notes that “the Qur’an insists its teaching must be understood ‘in full’ (20:114), an important principle that religious teachers must impart to the disaffected young”. Fine, but what exactly does that mean? It's possible to understand something “in full” and still end up supporting a jihad. More important is that the Qur’an, like the Bible, be assessed critically, with the expectation that parts will not -- and should not -- speak to us in the way they were meant to.
UPDATE: After reading the below comments, see Pete Phillips’ follow-up post on Postmodernible.