Friday, April 30, 2010

A History of God by Karen Armstrong

A History of God:  The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by Karen Armstrong is an intellectual exploration of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god, tracing the roots of belief to pre-Judea.  Ur, Sumer, Chaldea, and Babylon are all given their due as the foundation for monotheism.  Then each of the three primary monotheistic religions is explored more closely, often compared and contrasted with contemporaneous religious beliefs.  Although not discussed with the same depth, Buddhism and Hinduism are also present as are Zoroastrianism and Egyptian stories that are similar in tone or meaning to those upon which the book is focused.

Armstrong is erudite, able to touch upon a wealth of information without offering too many details while never compromising the overall significance of any detail by being too superficial—a commendable balance one rarely sees, especially when addressing a topic such as a monotheistic god whose presence has informed three of the major religions of our times.  She manages to also describe the strengths and weaknesses of each spiritual path without making one better than the others nor denigrating another as ineffective. 

Throughout the text are quotes, examples from history, and comparisons and contrasts that continuously develop one upon the other.  The scope of religious history presented here while not exhaustive is impressive.  At the end of the book there is a list of books for further reading; if there is a particular era or idea that intrigues the reader, the author provides a thorough list of resources.  The book was published before the events of 9/11 which makes the warnings of the final chapter all the more prescient.  As Santayana said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Armstrong has offered a history of monotheism from which we all can and should learn that is well-written, insightful, and so much more.  I highly recommend this book.

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