The children of Abraham, the heirs of Jerusalemaic faith, the Peoples of the Book: Call them what you will, they are witnesses to the power of peace and reconciliation. They witness, that is, to a God who can wear a benign face. That same God can also scowl, however. God makes and licenses war. In the modern world, God's peoples--Muslims, Jews, and Christians--often forget peace and benignity. They become fierce, sometimes restricting themselves to verbal expressions but oft-times, in a world made more dangerous with the advance of weaponry, using lethal expression aimed at the death of "the other."

This last type of expression is referred to by most scholars, by people in statecraft, and by the media as "fundamentalism." In her brisk and creative synthesis on the fundamentalist phenomenon, "The Battle for God," the British author Karen Armstrong doesn't spend much time hassling over the appropriateness of the term. She could call it "X" or "Btlfsk," and it would still offend those who don't want to see themselves synthesized with any other group. Fundamentalists see themselves as distinctive, even unique. But Armstrong's fairness to each of her three religions is a hallmark of the book, as she bows and bends to do justice to their idiosyncracies. Along the way, she also manages to be very illuminating.

Not to say that her attempt to place the three fundamentalisms on the same time line doesn't show signs of strain. But she never strains so much that the reader will lose the plotline, of which Armstrong is a dedicated and lively manager.

One example of strain comes at the beginning of Armstrong's section on Protestant fundamentalists, which she starts in 1492, before there was Protestantism. This is a bit forced. The term "fundamentalism" was invented in the United States early in the 20th century by Protestant leaders who wore it as a badge of honor, a badge they wore on a suit of spiritual armor as they set out to "do battle for the Lord." But in a few pages, we begin to romp through the Reformation and make our way into modernity and into North America and fundamentalism's beginnings.

I stress the modern here, since Armstrong sees fundamentalism rightly as a reaction to modernity and modernism, however these get defined. And precisely how the faithful define modernity has determined what in their bag of basics--which "fundamentals"--they would parade and use as barricades. For the American Protestants, modernism has specifically meant biblical criticism and scientific theories of evolution. Jews and Muslims, also getting their fundamentalist acts together early in the 20th century, were untroubled by both. Therefore Jews fundamentalized story, and Muslims fundamentalized law, while Protestants fundamentalized doctrine.

Doctrine, however, cannot be kept hermetically sealed: Ideas have real consequences, and Armstrong shows how Protestant ideas about the Second Coming and the place of Israel--informed by three visionary books of the Bible--stirred claims about fortress America. Fundamentalists turned themselves into super-Americans who were militants in the Cold War and critical of morals at home.

If I had an hour to question Armstrong, however, I would concentrate on her choice to see fundamentalisms as motivated primarily by fear. Of course, many fundamentalists were and are fearful in the face of threats they see in pluralism, relativism, and moral change. Fear is a component in every social movement I can think of, no matter how impressive their outward machismo. But it is only part of a much more complex mix.

Many are drawn to fundamentalism more by positive lures than negative threats. Newcomers to fundamentalism find unambiguous meaning where they had been upset by life's--including religious life's--contradiction, paradox, and complexity. They find acceptance in a company of the like-minded, whom they think have much to offer.

And that's not all fundamentalism grants its followers. As Armstrong herself points out, they also get to bring an "insider" sense to their reading of history and the news. They see events as part of a cosmic drama that poses Christ versus Anti-Christ, God versus Satan, We versus They. There is an almost aesthetic sense of what they found when they "found it." Armstrong might well have stressed some of these philosophical, social, intellectual, and aesthetic elements, and thus put the exploitable fears of fundamentalists (along with many other late-modern people, of many sensibilities and outlooks) into context.

Armstrong's last chapter is titled "Defeat? 1979-1999." Even with a question mark, is that title credible? True, the Shiite movements in Iran and Algeria, of Gush Emunim in Israel, and of the New Christian Right in the United States once seemed unstoppable--a cause for fear among non-fundamentalists. The surge has shown signs of slowing now, and in some cases of being stopped. But what Armstrong calls defeat, in the eyes of fundamentalists, who claim that God is on their sides, is only a setback.

In her afterword, Armstrong uses an inclusive "we" that hardly works in the wildly pluralist world of her readers. She presumes that we are all with her as she says, "We are now oriented to the future.... We are not unlike Newton,... However hard we try to embrace conventional religion, we have a natural tendency to see truth as factual, historical, and empirical." She qualifies her statement by noting that the "we" she's referring to are "those of us who have been shaped by the rationalism of the modern world." But that very rationalism is being called into question these days by the children of the rationalists. And many science-conditioned people are finding more than empiricism to look at the world.

If fundamentalists "battling for God" are to be slowed or thwarted, the company of non- and anti-fundamentalists has to include far more than those working with possibly dated, narrow models of rationalism. But no doubt that varied company will profit from reading Armstrong's interpretation. And while this book will not bring them into the trenches, they will come back with some fine reconnaissance impressions and images.

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