I read Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammed while we were travelling in Iran recently and enjoyed it greatly. If we close our minds to the subsequent history of Islam and make allowances for the necessary realpolitik of the survival of the early Muslim community and the imperative of recovering Mecca, we encounter in her portrayal of the Prophet a plausible and engaging spiritual leader with a vision to forge an elemental compassionate monotheism that would probably appeal to many Christians today struggling to find their way out of the intellectual and cultural labyrinths of modern Evangelicalism.
So enthusiastic was I about the book that my wife bought me Armstrong’s The Bible: The Biography, which is part of Atlantic Books’ ‘Books That Shook the World’ series. It’s an accessible history of the Jewish/Christian Bible, written from Armstrong’s rather conventionally liberal, mystically inclined, popularising perspective. It interests me because it is clear that New Perspective readings of the New Testament – if they are to be taken seriously by the church – raise difficult questions about how or to what extent a historically constrained narrative can be formative for theology and praxis today. I don’t expect Armstrong’s history of the Bible to answer that question directly, but a bit of historical background doesn’t go amiss – and so far I have enjoyed her account of the emergence of a ‘biblical’ consciousness in the history of ancient Israel.
I have quoted the last paragraph of the introduction below, however, because it touches on the theme of shalom. I will be in Brussels next week with a group of people from The Well, looking at how the life and mission of their community throughout the coming year might be informed by the idea of shalom.
Originally, the people of Israel had achieved this ekstasis [she means the religious experience of transcendence and completeness] in the Jerusalem temple, which had been designed as a symbolic replica of the Garden of Eden. There they experienced shalom, a word that is usually translated ‘peace’ but is better rendered as ‘wholeness, completeness’. When their temple was destroyed, they had to find a new way of finding shalom in a tragic, violent world. Twice their temple was burned to the ground; each time its destruction led to an intense period of scriptural activity, as they sought healing and harmony in the documents that would become the Bible. (7)
Two thoughts struck about this argument. The first is that the quotation reminds us that shalom is not an abstract or internalized ideal. It is bound up with the experience of a historical community – and I would argue that this is as true for the New Testament as it is for the Old. The story of ‘peace’ in the New Testament is the story of the reconciliation of an estranged and beleaguered people to God and of the restoration of a creational wholeness, which is always to be lived out concretely, socially, communally and historically.
Secondly, it seems to me that the church is again going through the loss of shalom – the loss wholeness, integrity, well-being, prosperity – as a consequence of the destruction of the ‘temples’ of Christendom by the amassed forces of modernity, and that this has again led to an intense period of ‘scriptural activity’, not least in the form of the New Perspective’s endeavour to recover the historical, pre-theological, pre-Reformational dynamics of the New Testament. In order to safeguard faith and negotiate the difficult transition into a new age, in order to construct new foundations for peace, we necessarily embark on a massive reappraisal of the biblical narrative.