In thinking through how to begin this essay, I almost said something very off-target . . . which was to fall into the assumption that “religious text” = “written religious material.”
Even without getting into the broader academic sense of the word “text” (where a building or a flower arrangement or Queen Elizabeth II’s choice of brooches can be “read” for meaning), religions have had Things Made of Words for a lot longer than they’ve had writing. Whether oral or written, I suspect every faith since prehistoric times has had sacred texts, which they use for a wide variety of purposes.
The Christian Bible makes an interesting case study for this. Although we refer to it as a single text, it’s actually a collection of many different ones, belonging to many different genres. As such, I’m going to use it as an example throughout this essay — not because other religions lack parallel elements, but just because it offers a useful through-line, and one that will probably be familiar to many of my readers.
It starts off with myth — here meant in the more technical folkloric sense of “a sacred story that explains the origins of a thing” — telling how the world came to be, and humankind, and sin, and so forth. Many religious traditions have similar myths, often focused on whatever is most important to their society: agricultural peoples frequently have myths to explain the origin of their staple crops (wheat, corn, etc.), while a maritime culture like the Polynesians might be more concerned with explaining the bounty of the sea and the invention of sailing.
But mythology in the broader sense isn’t just about telling the story of where things came from. All those “begats” in the Bible? They have their parallel in other texts, tracing the lineages of important figures as a way of emphasizing that importance. Some sacred literature deliberately crosses what a modern reader might see as the line between folklore and history; in the Mayan Popol Vuh, the narrative slips seamlessly from the creation of the world all the way to leaders documented in the pre-conquest historical record, allowing the audience to draw a line from them back to the original humans.
Along the way this narrative may touch on pivotal or wondrous events, often meant to show the hand of the divine at work in the world. Alternatively (or at the same time), they may hold up individuals as exemplars either positive or negative: heroes for ordinary people to admire and emulate, or villains to be condemned. Which may sound a great deal like non-sacred literature, and indeed, the difference between them isn’t always large; I’ve seen the Indian Ramayana and Mahabharata referred to both as scripture and as not, and certainly the Bhagavad Gita, contained within the latter, is widely honored as such. More on the dividing line between these things in a bit.
Other texts are more obviously spiritual in nature. Absent the separation of church and state, the two things are often intertwined, such that religious writings form the source for law codes. These laws may govern practically anything in life, from the punishments for various crimes to the daily routines of the faithful. The Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament and Tanakh contains many examples of this, as do the Qur’an and ahadith (recorded accounts of the Prophet) in Islam. These shade over into broader moral instruction and philosophy, writings that seek less to lay down specific actions for specific situations and more to explore the underlying principles, so that those who study them can determine the correct course of action in any given situation.
The sermons of Jesus in the New Testament often show that latter approach at work, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. Proverbs and parables often serve a similar function, condensing a given teaching into a form the hearer or reader can easily remember and repeat. They may be recorded independently — there’s a whole Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament/Tanakh — or contained within the writings of a religious leader, whether at the founding of a faith or in later years, e.g. the writings of a saint. Or sometimes the account is written by an outsider, taking the form of biography or recording the teachings of a significant person, as in the case of the gospels. Many Buddhist sutras fall into the latter category. Even letters can become religious texts; we see this with the Pauline epistles (and the blogger Fred Clark, aka “Slacktivist,” has advanced the argument that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” deserves to be honored among other works of Christian scripture).
We mustn’t forget prayers, either. The Book of Psalms is a collection of sacred songs often used in prayer, and two of the Gospels include what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. But many Christian prayers don’t come directly from the Bible, because it’s quite common for religions to have more than one holy text, and for that category to fade imperceptibly into things written with religious intent, but not considered to be holy in their own right.
And finally, having started with creation, we also have to consider apocalypse — or rather eschatology, since “apocalypse” originally means “revelation,” not “the end of the world.” Not every culture has such a story, but many of them do, whether it’s the Book of Revelation, Ragnarök, or the end of the Kali Yuga. Such things often double back to operate again as moral instruction, warning people that their degenerate ways will bring disaster.
I mentioned earlier that the line between religious and non-religious text can get blurry. In part that’s because of the same thing we saw with religious practices, which is that much is in the eye of the beholder: if members of a faith agree that a particular text is sacred to their tradition, then it doesn’t matter if it’s a prayer or a hero tale or a biography of a key figure.
But there’s more to it than that. Special texts often get treated in a special fashion, marked off as being not like secular writings. A proper Torah scroll isn’t just the words of the Torah written down; it has to be produced in the proper fashion, and an ordinary bound book containing the same words does not have the same significance. There may be strictures governing who is permitted to read a text, or when an oral tale can be told; in the academic field of folklore there’s a well-known incident surrounding Barre Toelken and the recordings he made of stories told by the Navajo storyteller Hugh Yellowman, and the precautions Toelken took to ensure those recordings would not be played out of the proper season. His respect is significant, because treating a sacred work with contempt (e.g. burning it, defiling it) is often much more offensive to a member of that religion than offering the same treatment to a non-sacred work.
Blasphemy, however, is a whole can of worms we aren’t going to open right now. Come back next week for one more stop on this tour of religious topics, finishing up with leaders and hierarchy!