Book Review:  The Battle For God (Karen Armstrong)

Book Review:  The Battle For God (Karen Armstrong)

by Darold Morgan, Richardson,Texas

Not often does this reviewer state bluntly that a new volume must be read, but that is precisely the case with Karen Armstrong’s new book on religious fundamentalism. Concentrating on Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran, she has crafted a book that is loaded with multiple insights about one of the most provocative and misunderstood movements in the world today. At first glance it appears you have in focus the rich tapestry of the three great monotheistic religions of the world. But the excellent research she has done in the historical backgrounds soon produces a surprising and almost shocking insight into the fundamentalist deviations so common in the religious scene today. Add to that conclusion, one soon senses writing skills which translate into a refreshing readability.

Beginning with the 1492 crisis in Spain (not the departure of Columbus to the New World) when Ferdinand and Isabella drove both the Jews and Moors from their borders, the author deftly brings into startling perspective most of the roots which have ultimately produced this twentieth century phenomenon—-massive clashes with modernity brought on by a peculiar religious fear of annihilation. Her writing is replete with innumerable and fascinating vignettes, theological concepts from each of these religious traditions, and cultural asides from these communities that have often been ignored. The result of these clashes is a new expression of the age-old conflict between science and religion, a militant piety popularly known in this generation as “fundamentalism.”

That we are living in a time when scientific and technological breakthroughs are being announced almost daily is a given. A secular modernity seems to be an irreversible trend that gives credence to the oft-quoted designation, “the Post-Christian Age”. Rocket probes to Mars and Jupiter and beyond, cloning of animals, DNA medical research, organ transplants, the information revolution, globalization of the world’s economy are just a few of the developments which are making this current period the most explosive and innovative in history.

For many this secularist hegemony has led to a type of cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. A haunting and strange renaissance of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is taking place now. It is not conventional, and it is not contrived. Major ethical overtones comprise this struggle; violence, mayhem, murder, and political extremism are part of the vicious reaction to our postmodern world. The author states in the introduction, “Fundamentalism in all three faiths has no time for democracy, pluralism, religious toleration, peacekeeping, free speech, or the separation of church and state.” This disturbing premise stems from the author’s study of the historic roots of these major faiths.

A word to the fainthearted is necessary. Throughout her book Armstrong makes much of two words: mythos and logos. Mythos is not a myth, and here is where the usual “hang up” takes place. Mythos comes from the Greek language and needs immediately to be disassociated from the usual connotation from stories in Greek and Roman mythology. The author uses this word as it relates to mystery and mysticism, rooted ultimately in traditional biblical and Islamic history “which gives meaning to life, but cannot be explained in rational terms.” (p. 376)

The other term is logos, a Greek word that refers to rational, logical, or scientific discourse. This use is not the logos of the Fourth Gospel, but it is a term that almost becomes a synonym for the scientific approach to life apart from the mythos of religious faith. As one works through this book, these concepts move quickly to center stage as the focal point of conflict between science and faith. The difference becomes a life and death issue in all three faiths.

Many secularists and devotees of a scientific approach to life have been unable to grasp the importance of religion to the faithful. Often there has been an arrogance and condescension that is all but completely insensitive to those who feel that their religious faith was in danger of being obliterated. That these theologies and ideologies may be rooted in fear is apparent, but modern secularism is the culprit, having drained life of its meaning and purpose. As millions of people around the globe struggle with seemingly irreconcilable philosophies of life, the rise of militant fundamentalism is inevitable.

There are major strengths in this book. One is the historical treatment of Jewish mysticism. Significantly, the author documents the strange and tragic history of European Judaism from the days of the Spanish Inquisition to the present. One comes away with some very helpful insights about Jewish Hasidism and the mystical tones of Kabbalah, major terms used for years in Orthodox Judaism. These streams of influence are essential as one endeavors to understand modern Israel and the conflicts in Zionism today.

Another strength of the book is the excellent insight the author gives about Islamic history and theology. Frankly, this is one of the finest reviews of this subject, which to many in the western world is very difficult to grasp. The author concentrates on two Islamic countries, Egypt and Iran, which in turn spotlights the major differences between the Sunni and Shiite divisions in Islam. With the increasing numbers of Muslims in both Europe and America, students of the current religious scene simply must expand their understanding of this vibrant faith. Armstrong’s book is a step in the right direction.

Her treatment of Protestant fundamentalism is fair, but not comprehensive. One concludes that she probes more deeply into the Jewish and Islamic areas than the Christian approach. An unexpected strength of her volume emerges in her treatment of millennialism as a major factor in the Christian fundamentalism mind-set.

The major weakness of the book seems to be the lack of a conclusion about the eventual outcome. In a book crammed with brilliant research and analyses, the author comes to the final pages offering only lukewarm appendages which weakly point to the obvious fact that fundamentalism is here to stay. Both the students of religion and science will have to cope with fundamentalism, is her conclusion. The serious reader keeps hoping that Armstrong will provide a third path where those devoted to religious truth and the scientific community can find a respectful and rational compromise. The fact that science and technology will intensify their amoral dominance is obvious. The fact that religious faith is incalculably important, bringing meaning and purpose to life, also is a reality. Thus the book ends! But the book is worth reading, for the challenge it addresses is of tremendous proportions

Source:  Christian Ethics Today Issue 029 August 2000 Volume 6 Number 4

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000