Armstrong, Karen 1944–
ARMSTRONG, Karen 1944–
Born November 14, 1944, in Wildmoor, Worcestershire, England. Education: Educated in a convent in England; earned doctorate from St. Anne's College, Oxford.
Agent—Curtis Brown Agency, 10 Astor Pl., New York, NY 10003.
Freelance writer, historian, and broadcaster. Nun with the Society of the Holy Child Jesus in England during the 1960s; head of the English department at a girls' secondary school in London, c. 1976-82. Instructor at London University and Leo Baeck College for the Study of Judaism.
Association of Muslim Social Scientists (honorary member).
Media Award, Muslim Public Affairs Council, 1999; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 2004, for The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness.
Through the Narrow Gate (autobiography), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1981.
Beginning the World (autobiography), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1983.
(Editor) Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
The Gospel according to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West, Elm Tree Books (London, England), 1986, Anchor Press (Garden City, NY), 1987.
Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, Macmillan (London, England), 1988, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
(Editor and translator) The English Mystics of the Fourteenth Century, Kyle Cathie (London, England), 1991.
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, HarperSan-Francisco (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
(Coauthor) New Millennium Spiritual Journey: Change Your Life—Develop Your Spiritual Priorities with Help from Today's Most Inspiring Spiritual Teachers, edited by Skylight Paths, LongHill Partners, 1999.
(Coauthor) The Changing Face of God, edited by Frederick W. Schmidt, Morehouse Publishers (Harrisburg, PA), 2000.
The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Islam: A Short History, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000, revised edition, Random House, 2002.
Buddha, Viking, 2001.
(Coauthor) The Once & Future Faith, Polebridge Press (Santa Rosa, CA), 2001.
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness (autobiography), Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
A Short History of Myth, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, Atlas Books/HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2006.
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor to books, including Feminist Theology: A Reader, SPCK (Louisville, KY), 1990, and The Buddha: Writings on the Enlightened One, edited by Tom Morgan, New World Library, 2002. Author of introductions and forewords to books, including Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials, by Frances Hill, Da Capo Press, 2002, and Nuns and Soldiers, by Iris Murdoch, Penguin, 2002. Also contributor of articles and reviews to journals and newspapers. A History of God has been published in sixteen languages.
(And presenter) The First Christian (the life of St. Paul), six parts, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC-TV), Channel 4, 1982.
Also author and presenter of The Holy War. Other television work includes Genesis: A Living Conversation (PBS documentary with Bill Moyers) and Tongues of Fire.
Some of Armstrong's works have also been released as audiobooks.
Karen Armstrong spent seven years of her life secluded in a strict Catholic convent, where she studied theology and church history—experiences related in her first book, Through the Narrow Gate. Armstrong's second work, Beginning the World, is an autobiographical account of her life since leaving the order, beginning with her trials as a student at Oxford. A prolific author, Armstrong has also written numerous books on religious themes and concepts as they relate to modern times, including Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a book exploring the rise of religious fundamentalism throughout the world.
Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, depicts Armstrong's life in the convent during the turbulent 1960s, where her cloistered existence kept her removed from the social turmoil of the day. For instance, Armstrong claims she prayed for a peaceful resolution to the Cuban missile crisis, but no one told her that the matter had been resolved until three weeks after the Soviets removed their missiles from Cuba. She recalls that during her seven years as a nun, she was subjected to punishing tasks and suffered mental and physical ailments, including anorexia, hysteria, paralyzing headaches, and blackouts. As Armstrong describes it in Through the Narrow Gate, her studies in English literature at Oxford University seemed to liberate her from what she came to see as a misguided calling. "Armstrong tells her short, brutal tale with such deft and dispassionate objectivity," declared Catherine Breslin in the Washington Post, "that we comprehend the missing core of her convent experience—the embrace of a loving, supportive community of women—only in the last, best pages, after she made that necessary but still resisted the decision to leave."
Beginning the World takes up where the first book left off, with Armstrong beginning studies at Oxford. She writes that she both enjoyed and felt confused by the heady freedoms of academia. She had to deal with unfamiliar tasks, such as buying clothes, as well as larger issues, such as sexuality, from which convent life had shielded her. She also recounts that Oxford turned out to be no haven; in the process of acclimating herself, Armstrong strongly questioned her faith, underwent psychoanalysis, and attempted suicide. She also was diagnosed with epilepsy, which explained some of her chronic physical ailments. Nancy Chapin, a reviewer for the School Library Journal, found Beginning the World to be a "compelling" volume and complimented Armstrong on "her ear for dialogue and her gift for narrative."
The Gospel according to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West reflects the author's deepening interest in feminism and its relationship to the Christian church. Armstrong suggests that, historically, Christianity has engendered a deep hatred of women and of women's bodies in both males and females, that still affects many today. According to Armstrong, Christian women are afforded several specific, and limited, personas that are deemed acceptable, including those of the holy virgin, the reclusive mystic, the dedicated martyr, and the loving mother. These iconic ideals, asserts Armstrong, force women to conform to male ideas of behavior and can cause sexual neuroses in members of both genders. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly termed The Gospel according to Woman an "ambitious study."
Many of Armstrong's works examine how Christianity relates to two other great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Holy War explores the connection between war and religion from Biblical times to the present. According to Times Literary Supplement reviewer Norman Housley, Armstrong's thesis holds that "despite the reverence which they share for Jerusalem, relations between Christians, Muslims and Jews-[have] been poisoned through the centuries by their propensity for waging holy wars against each other." Armstrong's biography Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time puts forward a vision of the historical and spiritual leader as a peacemaker rather than a power-monger, as he has often been portrayed, according to a critic in Publishers Weekly. Armstrong also probes the Western disdain for Islam, which characterizes the faith as "a religion of the sword." Her well-received Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths examines the historical and contemporary conflicts among Christians, Jews, and Muslims over the city of Jerusalem. "All its monotheistic conquerors," she writes, "have had to face the fact that Jerusalem was a holy city to other people before them. Since all three faiths insist on the absolute and sacred rights of the individual, the way that the victors treat their predecessors in the Holy City must test the sincerity of their ideals." Critics admired Armstrong's prodigious research and her sympathetic approach to this material. As Bill Ott put it in Booklist: "Armstrong's words reverberate wherever conquerors mistreat the conquered, and wherever barbed wire scars the landscape, sacred or secular. This is history at its most powerful." John Ash, in the Washington Post, pronounced Jerusalem "essential reading for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike."
Armstrong's 1993 bestseller, A History of God, looks at the idea of God in different cultures. Armstrong finds an essential spiritual sameness in the distinct traditions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. But the modern versions of these traditions, according to Armstrong, try to rationalize faith rather than embracing its mystery. "The end result of treating the deity as just another provable fact," commented Time reviewer John Elson, "was to marginalize God, thereby making it easier for unbelievers to proclaim that he did not exist." Norman F. Cantor in the Washington Post Book World stated: "This is a volume definitely worth the attention of the lay public, and it will flicker perceptions and memories in the informed reader as well…. It will sensitize if not cure souls." A History of God has been published in sixteen languages.
With In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, Armstrong challenges traditional interpretations of the Bible by focusing on character and psychology. Maclean's critic Sharone Doyle Driedger observed: "Armstrong explains that, as in a novel or a poem, the meaning of Genesis emerges from questioning the characters' actions and motives and relating them to the current problems of human existence." This often means recognizing the human flaws within such characters as Abraham, Adam, or Noah. "They are, like ourselves, struggling human beings," Armstrong writes. God, too, receives significant criticism in Armstrong's analysis; she sees the deity withdrawing from involvement in human affairs as the story of Genesis unfolds. Many critics noted the controversial elements of the book, but admired qualities that a writer in Publishers Weekly identified as "honesty and vulnerability."
In The Battle for God, Armstrong argues that the proliferation of religious fundamentalist movements at the end of the twentieth century—including militant sects in Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism—is both a reaction against and a product of modernity. Though fundamentalists distrust and sometimes shun the materialism and cultural relativism inherent in modern societies, Armstrong shows that they also rely, perhaps without realizing it, on modern standards of scientific proof and rational thinking in their literal reading of sacred texts. She expresses considerable sympathy for many who have turned to fundamentalism out of frustration with the spiritual emptiness of the modern world, but never loses sight of fundamentalism's tremendous destructive potential. Chris Hedges, in the New York Times Book Review, found The Battle for God "one of the most penetrating, readable and prescient accounts to date of the rise of the fundamentalist movements in Judaism, Christianity and Islam." Washington Post reviewer Lauren F. Winner, however, discerned a tendency toward over-generalization and "superciliousness" in the book, as well as a "pervasive and unrestrained condescension" that sometimes deteriorates into "pure caricature." In Winner's view, Armstrong erroneously lumps together most theologically conservative Protestants, treating them all as fundamentalists, though they do not all share the fundamentalist criticism of secular culture. Though Winner found Armstrong's thesis compelling, she concluded that "a persuasive analysis of fundamentalists must do more than dismiss their criticism of contemporary society as reactionary and fearful." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, however, lauded the book's "fresh insights and comparisons."
In Islam: A Short History, Armstrong calls for greater Western understanding and appreciation of Islam and its history. Focusing on politics and religion, she writes that Muslims consider it their sacred duty to work toward a just society, experiencing God in the arena of politics. "Islam kept the notions of social justice, equality, tolerance and practical compassion at the forefront of the Muslim conscience for centuries," she notes, pointing out that extreme forms of Islam are rooted in fear and despair that the West could help assuage through "a more accurate appreciation of Islam in the third Christian millennium." William H. McNeill, in the New York Times Book Review, found Armstrong's history of Islam somewhat biased, observing that she omits or de-emphasizes such issues as violent sects and the negative aspects of Ottoman governance. Yet McNeill appreciated the book as a "valuable corrective to the hostile caricatures of Islam that circulate in the English-speaking world."
Armstrong revisited her past in The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness. Looking back at her two previous autobiographical books, she felt she had presented a false picture, making it seem she had easily made the transition from the convent to the wider world. In The Spiral Staircase, she hoped to correct these impressions. Rather than taking a chronological approach, she reflects on important decisions and events in her life and the effects they had on her. "Armstrong is a highly skillful writer, never more so than in this volume," stated Laura Zimmerman in Women's Review of Books. Zimmerman further praised the author's "conversational tone, great storytelling talent, and wickedly witty prose."
In A Short History of Myth, Armstrong documents the evolution of myths, beginning in the Paleolithic Era. She shows how successive eras developed myths to fit their needs, and states that between 200 B.C. and 1500 A.D., myths became internalized. Reason then began to dominate, which led to a sense of spiritual impoverishment. In the twentieth century, writers such as James Joyce and T.S. Eliot have created works that take on the power of myth. Reviewing the book for Spectator, Sam Leith found that it attempted more than it could accomplish in its short length, but added that "is not to say it has nothing to offer." A Publishers Weekly writer called it "a functional survey."
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions also took on an ambitious subject, but at much greater length. Armstrong strives to provide the history of all the great world religions, focusing on a period in which Buddha, Lao-tzu, Confucius, and Zoroaster were said to have lived. She puts forth the idea that at this critical moment in the history of humankind, the ideals of tolerance and kindness entered numerous world cultures through religions as different as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism. Wilson Quarterly contributor Sandra Scham remarked that while the author's theories do not always convince, she is nevertheless "a remarkable storyteller, folding detailed information from historical, archaeological, and literary sources into her narrative without overwhelming the reader."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Armstrong, Karen, Through the Narrow Gate, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1981.
Armstrong, Karen, Beginning the World, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1983.
Armstrong, Karen, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, Knopf (New York, NY), 1996.
Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000.
Armstrong, Karen, The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
Armstrong, Karen, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Booklist, July 15, 1981, review of Through the Narrow Gate, p. 1419; May 1, 1992, Mary Deeley, review of Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, p. 1565; November 15, 1995, review of A History of God, p. 574; May 15, 1996, Bill Ott, review of Jerusalem, p. 1548; September 14, 1996, Bryce Christensen, review of In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis, p. 181.
Catholic Insight, March, 2005, Leonard A. Kennedy, review of The Spiral Staircase, p. 43.
Christian Science Monitor, November 6, 1996, Judy Huenneke, review of In the Beginning, p. 12.
Insight on the News, May 29, 1995, Larry Witham, review of A History of God, p. 24.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1983, review of Beginning the World, p. 851; February 1, 2006, review of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, p. 117.
Library Journal, May 1, 1987, Cynthia Widmer, review of The Gospel According to Woman: Christianity's Creation of the Sex War in the West, p. 73; May 15, 1996, Eugene O. Bowser, review of Jerusalem, p. 70; September 15, 1996, Robert H. O'Connell, review of In the Beginning, p. 72; February 15, 2000, Carolyn M. Craft, review of The Battle for God, p. 168.
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 2000, Mary Rourke, "Profile of Karen Armstrong."
National Review, December 9, 1996, Jacob Neusner, review of In the Beginning, p. 61.
New Statesman and Society, February 26, 1993, Peter Stanford, review of A History of God, pp. 37-38.
New York Times, July 16, 1996, Gustav Niebuhr, review of Jerusalem, p. B2.
New York Times Book Review, December 8, 1996, Serge Schmemann, review of Jerusalem, p. 13; March 26, 2000, Chris Hedges, review of Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, p. 33; September 3, 2000, William H. McNeill, review of Islam, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, July 17, 1981, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Through the Narrow Gate, p. 87; August 5, 1983, review of Beginning the World, p. 79; March 20, 1987, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The Gospel According to Woman, p. 60; January 25, 1991, Penny Kaganoff, review of The Gospel According to Woman, p. 52; March 16, 1992, review of Muhammad, p. 72; September 2, 1996, review of In the Beginning, p. 127; March 6, 2000, review of The Battle for God, p. 103; September 12, 2005, review of A Short History of Myth, p. 57.
School Library Journal, November, 1981, review of Through the Narrow Gate, p. 114; January, 1984, review of Beginning the World, p. 92.
Sojourners, August, 2004, Jo Ann Heydron, review of The Spiral Staircase, p. 42.
Spectator, October 22, 2005, Sam Leith, review of A Short History of Myth, p. 43; March 25, 2006, Jonathan Sumption, review of The Great Transformation, p. 42.
Time, September 27, 1993, John Elson, review of A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, pp. 77-78; June 3, 1996, Johanna McGeary, review of Jerusalem, p. 74.
Times Literary Supplement, January 20-26, 1989, review of The Holy War, p. 64.
Washington Post, October 6, 1981, Catherine Breslin, Through the Narrow Gate, p. C3.
Washington Post Book World, October 17, 1993, Norman F. Cantor, review of A History of God, p. 5; July 7, 1996, review of Jerusalem, p. 4; April 16, 2000, review of The Battle for God, p. 5.
Wilson Quarterly, spring, 2006, Sandra Scham, review of The Great Transformation, p. 106.
Women's Review of Books, October, 2004, Laura Zimmerman, review of The Spiral Staircase, p. 17.
Powells.com,http://www.powells.com/ (August 31, 2006), Dave Weich, interview with Karen Armstrong.*