Armstrong's favorite words are "mythos," meaning the mythical, spiritualelement in religion, and "logos," meaning practical reality. A fundamentalist is somebody who has failed to learn the main lesson of modernity: that mythos can't be used to govern logos. If that's what a fundamentalist is, count me in.
Miss Armstrong informatively traces the roots of the modern age to the endof the 15th century, when a new, practical spirit spread through the West.In Europe before then, "mythos" had been understood as entirely separate from "logos." Basically this meant, in the author's telling,- that the Bible was appreciated only as a giant metaphor, not to be taken literally, certainly not as a guide to statesmanship. In that realm in particular, logos--prudence, science, logic--ruled instead. Modernity upset this precious balance, and logos came to dominate the souls of Western men.
This left a spiritual vacuum, which fundamentalists and others have sought to fill. Fundamentalist movements seek to put into practical use mythical principles that were never meant to be employed in this way.
I can only comment on the Jewish third of Armstrong's book and say that on this last point, she is simply mistaken. She cites the 17th-century craze for the "messiah" Shabbetai Zevi, who later apostatized and became a Muslim, as proof that "in the pre-modern period, myth [for example, the myth of a Messiah] had never been intended to have a practical application." But the disastrous misapplication of the messianic idea in Shabbetai's case hardly proves that it was never meant to be applied: only that Shabbetai was not the real Messiah.
So, am I a fundamentalist or not? As an Orthodox Jew, I do indeed believe that the so-called "mythic" aspects of Judaism are to be applied when the time comes. Someday, this will mean a messianic kingdom centered on the Land of Israel and, in the lead-up to the declaration of the kingdom, potentially some unpleasant warfare. I am convinced that the Torah tradition's prescriptions, in statecraft no less than in personal conduct, are to be carried out when the time is right in all detail.
This describes me pretty well, though I'd like to think I lack the "rage" and "deep hatred" Armstrong attributes to some of my co-religionists. On the other hand, she rules out groups that are far more religiously right wing than I am--more stringent in their observance of Jewish law, for example--as fundamentalists: for example, the super-Orthodox Agudath Israel, or the Hasidic Lubavitch sect.
This is curious. The treatment of Lubavitchers is especially confusing. Early on in Armstrong's story, these Hasidim enter the fundamentalist camp, having identified certain "enemies" in the secular world and having set up their reclusive yeshivas. Later, they seem not to be fundamentalist at all, with a proper inclusive attitude (that is, Armstrong's) toward the rest of the world.By the end of the book, the only two Jewish groups we can be sure are fundamentalist are two in Israel: one composed of fanatical Zionists(Gush Emunim) and another of eccentric anti-Zionists (Neturei Karta), bothhighly marginal to Jewish life, Orthodox or otherwise. Occasionally,fundamentalism becomes for Armstrong just what it is for a lot ofother liberals: not a scientifically defined category but a stick to poke inthe eye of people whose religious style she finds disagreeable.
What's left here is a broadly accurate, readable, if bland, history of some interesting strains in Judaism over the past five centuries. Note, however, that Armstrong's understanding of Jewish tradition has apparently been drawn from books, not people, and is slightly superficial. An ex-Catholic nun turned college professor, Armstrong uses the word "Law" as a synonym for "Torah"--an ancient Christian misunderstanding. Torah does not mean law; it is, rather, a holistic teaching about the relationships of God to man, and man to man.
Nor, contrary to her assertion, do Orthodox Jews read Scripture "literally." We hold that the Bible is profoundly cryptic and can only be understood through the mediation of tradition. This is the opposite of fundamentalism, as that word is generally used. On the Jewish scene, if there are any literal-minded fundamentalists at all, it's Reform rabbis. Like Protestant fundamentalists, these liberal clergypeople think the Bible can be evaluated well enough by any layman who picks up a copy.
In short, read this book for its basic survey of the facts, not forits religious interpretations. Or, as Karen Armstrong might say, for itslogos, not its mythos.