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The Battle for God

By Karen Armstrong
Knopf. 442 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Laura F. Winner, who is the author, with Randall Balmer, of the forthcoming "Contemporary American Protestantism."

Sunday, April 16, 2000

In the second decade of the 20th century, Milton and Lyman Stewart, Los Angeles-based millionaires, put up $250,000 to finance the publication of a dozen pamphlets. They were to be distributed to every pastor, evangelist, minister, theology professor, theology student, Sunday school superintendent, and YMCA and YWCA secretary in the English-speaking world, and were called "The Fundamentals" because they outlined the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith: Scripture was inerrant, Christ was born of a virgin, and so on. These were age-old truths of Protestantism, recently under attack by newly influential liberal Protestant thinkers who suggested that perhaps the Bible was an important but not infallible guide and Jesus a divinely inspired teacher but maybe not God made flesh. Those pamphlets gave us the name, and the movement, of fundamentalism.

Karen Armstrong, a former nun who garnered international acclaim for her 1993 book, A History of God, has taken fundamentalism as her latest subject. Armstrong does not limit her scope to Protestants but looks at Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as well -- she takes on the Baptists who avoid movie theaters and home school their kids, the sometimes wildly anti-Zionist Jews who sport the black garb of 17th-century Poland and won't allow a page of modern literature in their homes, and the Iranian Shiites who have covered their women head-to-toe. These TV-shunning, single-sex schooling, chastity-preserving fanatics, the media would have us believe, are nothing more than latter-day Luddites, trying desperately to stave off the march of modernity -- and now postmodernity -- and cling to an ever-distant past when the dominant culture was less hostile to their mores.

Although Armstrong would agree that fundamentalists are uncomfortable with modernity, she believes that fundamentalism is as much a product of modernity as a reaction against it. Fundamentalists may see themselves as returning to earlier, untainted doctrines and practices, but the religion you'll find in a primitive Baptist church or a black-hat shul has incorporated intrinsically modern standards of scientific proof and rationality. Protestants' Biblical literalism is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of premodern spirituality. The Ayatollah Khomeini's theory of Velayat-e Faqih was a shocking and revolutionary overturning of centuries of Shii tradition. Even ultra-Orthodox Jews, who seemed resolutely to turn their backs on modern society, found that their yeshivot were essentially modern, voluntaristic institutions.

That such a compelling argument as Armstrong's is marred by overgeneralizations and superciliousness at every turn is disappointing. She never defines fundamentalism satisfactorily; she seems to lump together under that rubric everyone who takes seriously the sacred text of their religion. Her discussion of Protestantism especially lacks nuance: Armstrong suggests that if you are not a liberal Protestant, if you do not question the authority of Scripture and the resurrection of Christ, you must be a fundamentalist; but, in fact, there are many theologically traditional Protestants who would never describe themselves as fundamentalists, because they do not share fundamentalists' characteristic hostility toward the broader culture. Especially curious is her implication that Billy Graham, whom fundamentalists all but disowned when he began cooperating with Catholics and liberal Protestant clergy, is a fundamentalist.

If Armstrong has a working definition of fundamentalism broad enough to include Billy Graham, she does not share it with her readers. Nor does she make clear just what the three groups in question have in common. We are so used to hearing Iranian revolutionaries and the Jewish settlers of the Golan Heights described as fundamentalists that we usually don't question the genus, but we would do well to pause and ask what the glue is that holds together Shiities wary of Westernization and Talmud-steeped Jews worried about the minutiae of proper ritual sacrifice. (Hinduism scholar Jack Hawley's argument -- that the common thread among so-called fundamentalists of different faiths is their commitment to inflexible, hierarchical gender roles in a world where women wear pants, have abortions and, occasionally, become CEOs -- might have provided the cohesion that A Battle for God lacks, but Armstrong doesn't pursue this angle.)

Even more problematic is Armstrong's pervasive and unrestrained condescension -- she has written 400 pages about people she has no sympathy for, and she makes little effort to disguise her disdain. "Fundamentalist theologies and ideologies are rooted in fear," she writes. "They see the world as simply drained of meaning, even satanic. . . . If a patient brought such paranoid, conspiracy-laden, and vengeful fantasies to a therapist, he or she would undoubtedly be diagnosed as disturbed." This is pure caricature -- fundamentalists do indeed make trenchant criticisms of modernity, suggesting that there is something wrong with a culture where family and God have taken the back seat to casual sex and 70-hour work-weeks.

Fear, of course, plays a role in the fundamentalist imagination, just as it does in any religious imagination; but love, charity, devotion and ecstasy are there in equal measure. A persuasive analysis of fundamentalists must do more than dismiss their criticisms of contemporary society as reactionary and fearful. We may not all agree with fundamentalist solutions, but we would do well to reckon with their criticisms of our anomic age.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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