Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Book Review: “The Battle for God” (Jan-Feb 2002)

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By Margaret Smith Roark
January-February 2002

Margaret Smith Roark lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She recently earned an M.A. in Literature at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and is particularly interested in the ethical dimensions of literature—how stories can bring about change in their readers. She is a happy employee of Davis-Kidd Booksellers which supports her reading habit.


On the afternoon of September 11, United States poet laureate Billy Collins spoke on National Public Radio to a mourning, stunned nation. Collins recited no poems, acknowledging the poverty of words in the face of such loss. Still, he suggested that we could do worse, on this day, than to read the Psalms. If you are familiar with the Psalms, this advice makes sense. Psalms express sorrow, uncertainty, anger, and confusion, and yet at the same time affirm a God who is the opposite of these things: a God of joy, constancy, love, and abundant life. From a place of darkness, the psalmist recalls light.

The world feels like a dark place right now. How should we respond as citizens who desire harmony and peace? How should we respond as believers in a loving God? Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God, believes it is crucial to learn why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have developed fundamentalist branches in the twentieth century whose exclusivism and acts of violence seem so contrary to most believers’ concept of the sacredness of all human life. Armstrong qualifies her use of the term fundamentalism, which she believes can be misleading, suggesting conservatism when actually these groups are highly innovative, very much influenced by modern culture; and each has developed very differently from the others, within a particular context and history. But all three strands see themselves engaged in battle against a modern secular society that seems to leave no room for God and thus threatens their very identity. Their response involves a shoring up of past doctrines and practices and a withdrawal from mainstream society. Fear of annihilation eventually causes some fundamentalists to strike out against their perceived enemies in alarming ways. Armstrong’s study reveals modern challenges that face all believers; her insights into the causes, means, and problems of fundamentalists are especially instructive for people of faith as they try to live with spiritual and ethical integrity and attempt to envision faith for the future.

The first part of the book examines how modern economic, political, and intellectual revolutions, beginning in the late fifteenth century, profoundly impacted Christians, Jews, and Muslims, compelling them to move away from pre-modern forms of faith. The second part of the book examines more closely the three religions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to show how particular fundamentalist groups developed. Armstrong focuses on several specific fundamentalisms–American Protestant fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran—placing them alongside each other in a comparative analysis. The book is worthwhile to read for its comprehensive, compassionate consideration of modern religious history, especially in its interpretation of the hurtful effects of Western colonization of the Middle East. Armstrong, a scholar of Judaism and Islam and a former Roman Catholic nun, is uniquely qualified to undertake such a study. She brilliantly and sympathetically negotiates a mountain of information in an accessible way. A glossary of religious terms helps the reader follow the complicated developments within each religion.

Armstrong reiterates several salient points throughout the book that are particularly relevant to believers. One of the foremost is the distinction she makes between two alternative ways of arriving at truth, mythos and logos. Mythos, the predominant mode of knowledge in pre-modern faith, is concerned with timeless and eternal truths, with meaning rather than practical matters. It is expressed in narratives and embodied in rituals and ceremonies and points to “the unseen dimension of existence.” Logos is the scientific, rational thought that allows us to function efficiently; it is concerned with facts, “external realities,” and practical means of getting things accomplished. In pre-modern times, these two modes of knowledge were, for the most part, complementary but distinct from each other. When truths of mythos formed the basis for practical political agendas—as in the Crusades—great atrocities were committed in the name of religion. Armstrong believes that religious fundamentalists have similarly conflated mythos and logos. For Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, this has meant the reduction of complex religious teachings into ideologies that provide streamlined blueprints for action that grossly distort religion in the service of practical agendas. American Protestant fundamentalists have tried to use modern tools of scientific reasoning to “prove” biblical truths that are not meant to be interpreted rationally but instead address questions about the meaning of existence. This overemphasis on the scientific truth of Scripture has weakened Christian fundamentalists’ ability to address deeper levels of meaning and provide a resonant alternative to modern humanism.

Armstrong also points out that modern faith in secular reason and human progress has been greatly undermined by the horrific events of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, for example—that have been undertaken in the name of reason. Fundamentalist movements reveal the flaws in a secular ethos that fails to provide ultimate meaning and guidelines. But fundamentalists’ tendency to respond in fear to this perception of a godless society has resulted in theologies fueled by hatred and revenge that fail as religions. Fundamentalists and secularists speak two different languages and their mutual incomprehension of one another threatens to intensify. Armstrong believes that “fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions” while “secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and needs” of fundamentalists. As Christians caught in between fundamentalists and secularists, we face the challenge of how to be motivated by a spirit of love instead of fear and hate. Now especially we have an urgent responsibility to find creative ways to affirm a God of loving-kindness—a constant source of light in the midst of great darkness.


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