Saturday, April 22, 2006

Book Review- A History of God, From Abraham to the Present: the 4000-year Quest for God

Title: A History of God, From Abraham to the Present: the 4000-year Quest for God
Author: Karen Armstrong
Pages: 511, Pub: Vintage, 1999

  The author has helped me to appreciate the history of Jews, Christianity and Islam from different points of view. The introduction in 1st paragraph contains an extract from The Origin of the Idea of God, first published in 1912, by Father Wilhem Schmidt: "In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him any more. Eventually he was said to have disappeared." This paragraph has whetted my appetite for the book. The self-introduction by the author as an ex-Catholic nun who has somehow distanced herself from the faith promised the book to be different from what I have been exposed to.

  The book is organized in chronological order and the glossary at the end of the book comes into use frequently. The historical lineage of the monotheism faith has been traced to Abraham and the author has shown how the name El and Yahweh have come about. The comparison between this God and the transcendent emphasis of Buddhism has been made from point to point throughout the whole book. The author has made a convincing case of the validity of Graf-Wellhasuen's JEDP document theory. The author has adopted the theories espoused by New Testament liberal scholars on the mythical Jesus. However, the author did not make good use of the current archeology findings to question the premise of the adopted narrative on the biblical characters throughout the book. F. F Bruce's The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable? and Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ have argued a good case for Christians to believe the Jesus in the gospel tradition. The fact of the empty tomb, the sacrifice of the apostles' life for the gospel, the radical change from to the Trinity God from Jewish' traditional view of God are strong arguments for the fact of the resurrection, but these have been ignored by the author.

  As history continues to unfold, Islam comes into the picture. From the history of the responses of people who had been approached by angels, I question the possibility of a person who have might be unsure when such incident did happen. However, knowing that Muslims have the duty to create a just, equitable society where the poor and vulnerable are treated decently makes me feel appreciative of this religion. The history of Islam occupies a bigger share than the other two monotheism faiths in the book; hence the evolution of the early Islam is clearer than that on Judaism and Christianity. The political struggle portrays in the early Islam world will help one to acknowledge the fact that politics has intricate relationship with religion, irregardless of Islam or Christianity. It also chronicles the period of political weakness and decline of the military might of the Roman Empire and the stalemate of technological and intellectual progress and breakthrough in Europe.

  As the book progresses, the readers will see how the religious faith interact with philosophy and how the main stage of philosophy is shifting from the Middle East back to the Europe Continental. The flowering of mysticism has added spices to the religious outlook in the monotheistic faith and the author has made an effort to compare with the Tibetan Buddhism. The Reformation received a brief treatment in the book and John Calvin received an unfair assessment from the author by saying that "In 1553 he had the Spanish theologian Michael Servetus executed for his denial of the Trinity". More adequate information on the background will reveal that had Calvin not intervened for a lighter sentence, Servetus would have suffered the normal death sentence for being a heretic by being burnt on a stake by the authority in Geneva. The Enlightenment period in the subsequent chapter shows the reader how religion and humanism were segregated and religion was eventually replaced by the Death of God climate in the 19th century. I think the whole picture on the future of God would be more balanced if the last chapter had included the following:
i) The gaining of battleground by Christianity in the 20th century, which was lost to the intellects in the 19th century;
ii) The conflict in Middle East leading to a militant Islam and;
iii) The pressure faced by the Israel nation since their miraculous come back in 1948.

  In all, the book is highly readable and I would recommend it to those who are interested to know a brief history of the relationship of the three monotheistic faiths.

(Written in Oct 2002)

1 comment:

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Arthur,

Nice review of Armstrong's book. She deserves such a critique on her unjustified bias and her intention to paint a different picture of Christianity in that book.

As a member of the Jesus Seminar, there aint much evangelical expectation from her works.

Cheers