The Battle for God
by Karen Armstrong
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About 40 years ago popular opinion assumed that religion would become a weaker force and people would certainly become less zealous as the world became more modern and morals more relaxed. But the opposite has proven true, according to theologian and author Karen Armstrong (A History of God), who documents how fundamentalism has taken root and grown in many of the world's major religions, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Even Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism have developed fundamentalist factions. Reacting to a technologically driven world with liberal Western values, fundamentalists have not only increased in numbers, they have become more desperate, claims Armstrong, who points to the Oklahoma City bombing, violent anti-abortion crusades, and the assassination of President Yitzak Rabin as evidence of dangerous extremes.
Yet she also acknowledges the irony of how fundamentalism and Western materialism seem to urge each other on to greater excesses. To "prevent an escalation of the conflict, we must try and understand the pain and perception of the other side," she pleads. With her gift for clear, engaging writing and her integrity as a thorough researcher, Armstrong delivers a powerful discussion of a globally heated issue. Part history lesson, part wake-up call, and mostly a plea for healing, Armstrong's writing continues to offer a religious mirror and a cultural vision. --Gail Hudson
From Publishers Weekly
Former nun and A History of God iconoclast Armstrong delves deeply once again into the often violent histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, this time exploring the rise of fundamentalist enclaves in all three religions. Armstrong begins her story in an unexpected, though brilliant, fashion, examining how the three faiths coped with the tumultuous changes wrought by Spain's late-15th-century reconquista. She then profiles fundamentalism, which she views as a mostly 20th-century response to the "painful transformation" of modernity. Armstrong traces the birth of fundamentalism among early 20th-century religious Zionists in Israel, biblically literalist American Protestants and Iranian Shiites wary of Westernization. Armstrong sensitively recognizes one of fundamentalism's great ironies: though they ostensibly seek to restore a displaced, mythical spiritual foundation, fundamentalists often re-establish that foundation using profoundly secular, pseudo-scientific means ("creation science" is a prime example). Armstrong is a masterful writer, whose rich knowledge of all three Western traditions informs the entire book, allowing fresh insights and comparisons. Her savvy thesis about modernization, however, could be improved by some attention to gender issues among fundamentalists. The book is also occasionally marred by a condescending tone; Armstrong attacks easy Protestant targets such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart (whose name she misspells) and claims that fundamentalists of all stripes have "distorted" and "perverted" their faiths. Despite its underlying polemic, this study of modernity's embattled casualties is a worthy and provocative read. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Armstrong, author of A History of God and other books on the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions, writes very perceptively about the intense fear of modernity that has stimulated various fundamentalisms: Protestant, in the United States; Jewish, in Israel; Sunni Muslim, in Egypt; and Shii Muslim, in Iran. Each is ultimately modern in its attempts at converting mythic thinking into logical thinking and in its use of widespread literacy and the democratic ideas about individual importance that modernity fostered, but each is also at war with its liberal co-religionists and with secularists who "have entirely different conceptions of the sacred." Armstrong concludes that both sides--fundamentalists and secularists (including governments)--need compassion in order to be true to their own religious or humanistic values. The historical range and depth of this work, which transcends other treatments of the subject, make this highly recommended for all libraries.
---Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Combining synoptic and interpretive historical manners, Armstrong, author of the widely read and well-received History of God (1993), produces another splendid book that, for the considerable readership interested in religion, may prove to be a page-turner. The subject is fundamentalism in the world's great monotheisms--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Armstrong represents the dissimilar movements called fundamentalist as fearful reactions to modernity, especially the modernist predispositions for materialist reason and empirical evidence, which have increasingly encouraged denying the validity, or even the possibility, of truths expressed by the symbolic systems of religion. But, she maintains, these fundamentalisms are themselves typical products of modernity, for they tacitly accept the modern scientific devaluation of religious mythos by insisting on the literal truth of sacred writings, as in Christian fundamentalists' use of the New Testament Book of Revelation as a set of predictions of particular historical events and persons. Armstrong works out her interpretation by historically tracing the challenge of modernity and the fundamentalist reaction in the three monotheisms as parallel developments that span some 1,500 years. The typically modern pressure of politics upon religion began in the Middle Ages (Islam has never been free of it). A crucial date is 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the first rational modern state, their united kingdom of Spain, even as they dispatched Columbus, probably a Christianized Jew, in the opening salvo of modern imperialism. Intriguingly, Armstrong says the modernizing process had been launched earlier in the century by the Inquisition--a statement provocative enough to current ideas of what's modern to hook many readers, none of whom will later be the least bit dismayed about having taken the bait. Ray Olson
In our supposedly secular age governed by reason and technology, fundamentalism has emerged as an overwhelming force in every major world religion. Why? This is the fascinating, disturbing question that bestselling author Karen Armstrong addresses in her brilliant new book The Battle for God. Writing with the broad perspective and deep understanding of human spirituality that won huge audiences for A History of God, Armstrong illuminates the spread of militant piety as a phenomenon peculiar to our moment in history.
Contrary to popular belief, fundamentalism is not a throwback to some ancient form of religion but rather a response to the spiritual crisis of the modern world. As Armstrong argues, the collapse of a piety rooted in myth and cult during the Renaissance forced people of faith to grasp for new ways of being religious--and fundamentalism was born. Armstrong focuses here on three fundamentalist movements: Protestant fundamentalism in America, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran--exploring how each has developed its own unique way of combating the assaults of modernity.
Blending history, sociology, and spirituality, The Battle for God is a compelling and compassionate study of a radical form of religious expression that is critically shaping the course of world history.
"Former nun Armstrong has done it again. As in her justly acclaimed A History of God (1993), she has written a well-researched, highly informative, accessible, and otherwise superb study of the three great Western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)....[It] is so well written that it is must reading for anyone with a serious interest in contemporary religion."
-- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Provocative...Combining synoptic and interpretive historical manners, Armstong, author of the widely read and well-received History of God, produces another splendid book."
-- Booklist (starred review)
"Excellent...This is a book that will prove indispensible, not only for the student of comparative religion, but also for anyone who seeks insight into how these powerful movement affect global politics and society todya and into the future...Highly intelligent and highly readable book."
-- Baltimore Sun
"Armstrong is a masterful writer, whose rich knowledge of all three Western traditions informs the entire book, allowing fresh insights and comparisons."
--- Publishers Weekly
"Armstong succeeds--brilliantly--in placing fundamentalist movements in a historical context, showing how each is both a product of its times and typical of recurring trends...With her astonishing depth of knowledge and readily accessible writing style, makes an ideal guide in traversing a subject that is by its very nature complex, sensitive and frequently ambiguous. Her unwavering respect for the great faiths and their followers balances nicely with her apparent disdain for extremism in all its forms."
-- San Francisco Chronicle
"Hers is one of the most penetrating, readable and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
-- New York Times Book Review
"A useful and rewarding book."-- Boston Globe
"Karen Armstrong takes the bull by the horns in this richly detailed study of Fundamentalism's many faces through the ages. Part One reveals the roots; Part Two explores the process by which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have each occasionally devolved from creative faith to destructive fanaticism. The book is a timely reminder: that religious ideologies and secular advocates of the nation state, having helped create each other, must moderate their conflicts or pay the price -- in violence at the expense of spirit."
-- Michael Wolfe, author of The Hadj and One Thousand Roads to Mecca
"An impressive achievement. Armstrong has mastered a mountain of material, added some brilliant insights of her own, and made it accessible to the general reader."
-- Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and How Good Do We Have to Be?--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Karen Armstrong is one of the foremost commentators on religious affairs in both Britain and the United States. She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun, took a degree at Oxford University, teaches at Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism, and received the 1999 Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. Her previous books include the best-selling A History of God: The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths; and In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis. .
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