Descartes had heroically pioneered the Age of Reason, which would bring about spectacular advances in science, philosophy and technology, but it would also transform the way Western people experienced their scriptures. Hitherto, scripture had been an art form that had relied on the bodily gestures of ritual, on communal chanting and on music, the most physical of the arts; it had also demanded an empathic concern for humanity rather than Cartesian withdrawal and detachment.

In the West, therefore, theology and scripture would increasingly be translated into a rational idiom that was alien to them. Logos [the Greek term for rational thinking] cannot assuage our sorrow or evoke our sense of the transcendent, so it cannot convince us that, despite all the rational evidence to the contrary, our lives have meaning and value. …

Increasingly, Catholics and Protestants alike would read the biblical mythoi [things we believe are true but can’t prove] as if they were logoi. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some poets, artists and dramatists retained a more traditional approach to scripture. While theologians tended to focus increasingly on the original meaning of the biblical text, [artists] continued to interpret its narratives freely so that they could address current issues and effect within the reader the personal transformation that is essential to religion.

 

From “The Lost Art of Scripture” by Karen Armstrong ©2019. Published by Knopf.