Not Just the Same Old Story
Roberts, Michele, The Independent (London, England)
In the Beginning by Karen Armstrong, HarperCollins, pounds 14.99 Genesis: translation and commentary by Robert Alter, W W Norton, pounds 18.95
Who reads the Bible nowadays? Insomniac travellers grateful for the copies scattered around the world's hotels by the Gideon society? Postmodern novelists with writer's block desperate for material? Karen Armstrong, in her new interpretation of the book of Genesis, is convinced that the Big Book goes on attracting a wide modern readership because "sacred scripture has been one of the principal means of introducing people to a world of ultimate truth, beauty and goodness". That sounds quite conventionally Christian, until you realise how much Armstrong is stressing the pleasures of reading: "people have turned to their holy books not to acquire information but to have an experience."
This comes intriguingly close to the French concept of jouissance - the sensual bliss you might also get from art, poetry or indeed love-making. With the death of God-as-Author has come a renewed interest in the Bible as literature, a complex narrative pattern of symbols and stories woven by generations of sophisticated creators who combined reverence for inherited myths with boldness and innovation at the levels of syntax and image. Karen Armstrong rescues Genesis from purely literary criticism by seeing it as a collection of rather baffling teaching stories, and argues forcefully that we have to struggle for the meanings embedded in the often mysterious text, much as Jacob wrestled all night with God in the shape of an angel. Like the gnostics whom Elaine Pagels has described in her books on the composition of the Bible, Armstrong encourages the reader to dig deep for a satisfying reading. Her passionate sincerity shines through her pages. For her, Genesis is less an often irritating myth of origins than a sequence of timeless tales designed to "bring to the reader's attention important truths about the human predicament that still reverberate today". The main narrative drive shows humanity's separation from God, God's withdrawal as actor from the human stage, and people's subsequent need to begin to discover the sacred in one another. This approach yields valuable insights into the concept of sin. Armstrong sees human beings endowed with the need and desire to live as fully as possible, to experience the richness of being that the Hebrews called "blessing". Only when this tips over into too much greed do things go wrong. So Eve in the garden, stretching out her hand to acquire the fruits of knowledge, was acting out of a deep part of her nature. The Fall, in this sense, was inevitable. Armstrong's compassion, her tolerance and insight, chimes with her indignation about the horrors of which we are capable, our cruelty towards children, our devastation of the planet. She has no good words to say for Noah, who didn't seem to mind that everyone else got …
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Publication information: Article title: Not Just the Same Old Story. Contributors: Roberts, Michele - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 22, 1997. Page number: 6. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.