A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Karen Armstrong

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Over 700,000 copies of the original hardcover and paperback editions of this stunningly popular book have been sold. Karen Armstrong's superbly readable exploration of how the three dominant monotheistic religions of the world - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - have shaped and altered the conception of God is a tour de force. One of Britain's foremost commentators on rel...

Title:A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
Author:
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ISBN:0517223120
Edition Language:English
Number of Pages:460 pages

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Reviews

  • Leslie

    Whew. I thought I'd never finish this book. But two months later, I somehow managed to get to the end. Now, what to say about it?

    I started this book knowing a moderate amount about the history of Christianity, a small amount about Judaism, and much too little about Islam. I relied heavily on my previous knowledge of Christianity and Judaism to make sense of Armstrong's extremely dense, often repetitive, and (to use her favorite word) esoteric prose. I found it a real challenge to keep up with he

    Whew. I thought I'd never finish this book. But two months later, I somehow managed to get to the end. Now, what to say about it?

    I started this book knowing a moderate amount about the history of Christianity, a small amount about Judaism, and much too little about Islam. I relied heavily on my previous knowledge of Christianity and Judaism to make sense of Armstrong's extremely dense, often repetitive, and (to use her favorite word) esoteric prose. I found it a real challenge to keep up with her train of thought; her chapters are very long (as well as her paragraphs) and she has no sections or headings whatsoever to help prime and guide the reader. I came away with a much fuller understanding about the evolution of the concept of God in Christianity and Judaism, and a somewhat better understanding of the origins of Islam. But not knowing much about Islam to begin with, I felt at a disadvantage as I tried to follow along and take in the massive amounts of information she shares. This is not the right book to introduce you to any of these religions. You will gain much more if you already have a moderate level of knowledge.

    On a personal note, as I am someone for whom religion (organized or otherwise) has played very little role in my life for close to ten years, this book sparked a great deal of introspective processes for me. Some of her writing confirmed my frustrations with organized religions while other portions encouraged me to have a more open mind about the innumerable ways to conceive of and worship God. I have appreciated this book immensely in this regard.

    A final note: Armstrong seems to have considerable beef with Christianity, and to an extent Judaism, and she considerably elevates Islam above the other two. Just a note to be prepared for that if you read this book. It didn't bother me too much given that I don't consider myself a member of any of the three faiths or prefer one over the other, but I can see how it might really annoy others. It's not an attempt to be objective or balanced, by any stretch.

  • Paul Bryant

    A MAJOR PROBLEM WITH RELIGION

    (You may have already thought of a few, but this is my current thing.)

    Religious thought is metaphorical and the constant danger is that the unlettered will take the metaphor literally. For instance, the Holy Trinity in Christianity - sorting out a satisfactory formula expressing the relationships between God the Father & Jesus the Son & the Holy Spirit presented hideous problems which took around 300 years to resolve and - it seems to me - the whole enterpris

    A MAJOR PROBLEM WITH RELIGION

    (You may have already thought of a few, but this is my current thing.)

    Religious thought is metaphorical and the constant danger is that the unlettered will take the metaphor literally. For instance, the Holy Trinity in Christianity - sorting out a satisfactory formula expressing the relationships between God the Father & Jesus the Son & the Holy Spirit presented hideous problems which took around 300 years to resolve and - it seems to me - the whole enterprise was utterly - utterly - futile because it stemmed from a misreading of a metaphor in the New Testament, i.e. Jesus as Son of God.

    You don't need to figure out the relationships between metaphors, but if you think they're actually describing realities, then you do.

    Fundamentalists appear to be unable to either grasp the idea of metaphorical language, or, allowing them that degree of intelligence, unable to accept that the Bible is poetry which uses metaphor

    And indeed, Christ is a metaphor - that is, the idea of his incarnation, and the idea of him being a sacrifice for our sins, and the idea of salvation itself - all metaphors.

    Religion has its educated few and its unschooled many - the elite develop the metaphorical philosophical reading of the text and leave the credulous literal reading to the laity and they bowl along on separate levels, mostly. But then it comes unstuck.

    You can see the incorrect understanding of metaphor right there in the New Testament. Various parables of Jesus have been transformed by error into miracles of Jesus - the stilling of the storm, the feeding of the 5000, turning water into wine, and the weird story of the withering of the fig tree - these make no sense until you read them as parables. We recall that Jesus explicitly rejects miraculous acts of this sort in the Temptation:

    So these mistakes were being encrypted into the canon at the point where the oral tradition was being written down. It was simple confusion, but it sowed the seeds for centuries of wrongheadedness.

    Karen Armstrong makes the excellent point that by the time of the Reformation even the learned in the West had become literalistic, and that this exposed their faith to the undermining effects of science as science extended its authority. The Church painted itself into a stupid corner. If it had remained the mystical transcendental Church it wouldn't have had to make any of those numerous embarrassing climb-downs it had to do. But maybe it would have been abandoned by the majority if it had.

    A MAJOR PROBLEM WITH THIS BOOK

    Karen Armstrong is a poor writer. Other goodreaders say stuff like :

    Earnest readers drag themselves through this book. That can't be good. She has the knowledge but she is turgid, she has no light touch, no human anecdotes, no humour, okay what was I expecting, Bill Bryson? No, but Karen really got on my wick. She's boring. You have to keep plugging away, then another big thinker from 17th century Lithuania hoves into view and you think... hey, I haven't watched Paranormal Activity 2 yet! I did not read every word of this. i flipped forward, backwards, sideways, hemmed & hawed, put it down for months, walked around it glaring at it, hoped someone would steal it, they didn't, finally took it on holiday where there wasn't a wifi connection, and really, I think the whole thing needed some oomph. It was oomphless. It was an oomph-free zone.

    A FAVOURITE ANECDOTE FROM PAGE 431

    Speaking as an atheist, I love this story. In fact, I revere this story.

  • maha

    الكتاب موسوعة كبيرة سيستغرق وقتا طويلا لاكماله.. قراءة اساسية لمن يدرس الثيولوجيا (علم العقائد)، الميثولوجي (علم الأساطير) ومقارنة الاديان

    سأذكر نقطة منه علقت بذهني

    فهمت منه مفهوم شخصنة الاله.. عندما جسد البشر الاله بحيث يكون بعيدا، ليس كمثل اي شيء نعرفه، اصبح الاله بعيدا، ولم يعد البشر يشعرون بالقرب منه

    فهنا جسدته بعض الديانات بصفات نفهمها نحن البشر ونشعر بها، كي نشعر نحوه بالتآلف والقرب، وهنا اختلف المسيحيون عن بقية الأديان الابراهيمية، بحيث أنهم حولوه الى رجل، أو أب حنون محب، بينما ركز المسلمون

    الكتاب موسوعة كبيرة سيستغرق وقتا طويلا لاكماله.. قراءة اساسية لمن يدرس الثيولوجيا (علم العقائد)، الميثولوجي (علم الأساطير) ومقارنة الاديان

    سأذكر نقطة منه علقت بذهني

    فهمت منه مفهوم شخصنة الاله.. عندما جسد البشر الاله بحيث يكون بعيدا، ليس كمثل اي شيء نعرفه، اصبح الاله بعيدا، ولم يعد البشر يشعرون بالقرب منه

    فهنا جسدته بعض الديانات بصفات نفهمها نحن البشر ونشعر بها، كي نشعر نحوه بالتآلف والقرب، وهنا اختلف المسيحيون عن بقية الأديان الابراهيمية، بحيث أنهم حولوه الى رجل، أو أب حنون محب، بينما ركز المسلمون واليهود على اعطاؤه صفات بشرية (كالغضب والفرح والحب والبغض والغيرة) ونسب له اليهود صفات بشرية تدل على الضعف كـ(التعب)..

    الكتاب حول الى فلم وثائقي تحت نفس العنوان.. هنا الرابط له

    في الفيديو أيضا ملخص اخر له

    كانت عقيدة كارين بحد ذاتها تحيرني، كونها تركت الديانة الكاثوليكية بعد كونها راهبة.. هل هي ملحدة أو أغنوستية ترى أن الدين ظاهرة مفيدة وصحية للشعوب؟

    أعتقد انه بعد السماع لمحاضراتها أنها "موحدة" تميل لفهم يهودي للاله، مع أخذها لخلاصة رسائل الديانات المونوثية الثلاث.. أدرك أنني أمارس التقنين عليها ولكن الفضول يحركنا نحن البشر لتصنيف من امامنا :)

  • Huda Yahya
  • Jan-Maat

    This is at once a very simple and a very complex book. Simple in its argument, complex in the array of detail marshalled to tell Armstrong's story.

    Her view, it seemed to me, was firstly that monotheism was wide spread - well beyond the limits of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but that there was always a tension between two basic ideas within that belief across all these religions. On the one hand a faith in an objective reality of something like an old man with a beard out there somewhere who

    This is at once a very simple and a very complex book. Simple in its argument, complex in the array of detail marshalled to tell Armstrong's story.

    Her view, it seemed to me, was firstly that monotheism was wide spread - well beyond the limits of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but that there was always a tension between two basic ideas within that belief across all these religions. On the one hand a faith in an objective reality of something like an old man with a beard out there somewhere who was generally keen on smiting people, on the other hand a subjective individual striving within oneself that can lead to a sense of the numinous (

    (p259) ). She approves of the latter, while disliking the former whose finest or worst examples depending on your point of view she finds in the Western European Catholic and Protestant traditions which finally, in her opinion, hoisted themselves on their petards by embracing a literal faith in the Bible shortly before the age of Lyle and Darwin and Mendel.

    Armstrong's history of God then is the history of styles and manners of belief in God. The problem with the way she does it is that she unleashes, not hell, but such a mass of prophets, mystics, and philosophers upon the reader that we can move across the thought and ideas of three or four people in a single page - almost all of whom are men, Julian of Norwich, Bridget of Sweden, and Theresa of Avila just manage to squeeze in. I did wonder how representative and reasonable some of the judgements were at times - but then this is always the case in dense surveys like this.

    What is particular, and maybe refreshing for some readers, is that Armstrong doesn't much like her own native Western European tradition of Christianity. Every other approach to faith comes across as simply better. Sufis, Buddhists, and Hassidic Jews among others leap out of the pages as less anxious, more compassionate, kinder, and generally less inclined to self abuse. This may or may not be fair, but in the context of a post colonial world is certainly interesting, although I suppose not original. If belief in a single God is widespread, so is faith that the grass is always greener in the next field. Still her passion and commitment towards certain kinds of manifestation of faith is clear as evidenced by phrases like "religions such as Buddhism, which have the advantage of being uncontaminated by an inadequate theism" (p251), one can't claim that she hides her point of view.

    The sense of her struggle with her own religious background is palpable, but also the relief and comfort that she has found through learning about the three major monotheisms. The ideal reader for this book might well be someone who for all their Jewish, Christian, or Muslim faith feels estranged or simply somewhat distanced from the particular Synagogue, Church, or Mosque they are familiar with. This is a book that can provide that reader with a broader perspective.

    She compares trends in Hinduism and Buddhism to the big three monotheisms, this is something she could have made more of. The way that Buddhist Nirvana is described seems to her to be analogous to the experience of God as experience by mystics from the monotheistic religions for instance. Her survey is a wealth of detail, often curious. I particularly liked her account of the disappointment of the pagan philosopher Plotinus that he didn't get to visit India to study with its sages, he had thought of joining the Roman army as a means of getting there. Somehow turning up in armour, sword in hand, doesn't strike me as the best way to introduce yourself and your philosophical longings to the wise people of a different land. Maybe a similar thought occurred to Plotinus. Another point that caught my attention was the question of if the God of Abraham and the God of Moses were one and the same, equally she didn't soft pedal the polytheistic sides of Hebrew practice prior to the Babylonian captivity.

    Something that Armstrong I felt did well was the sense of how ideas from one tradition oozed over to others. The influence of the pagan philosophers on Christianity is, I imagine, fairly well known, but she points out as well the interrelationships of developments in Judaism and Islam, and Islam also had a strong engagement with Aristotle in particular. She even makes Origen's self-castration, as inspired by the Gospels, sound like a reasonable action for a good half a page

    .

    On the downside the mass of characters can be overwhelming, and you are probably best off approaching a book like this with a reasonable background knowledge to start with. If you don't know your Avicenna from your Aquinas this book may well be a struggle.


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