A Review of The Battle for GodThe Battle for God, author: Karen Armstrong
Reviewed by Greg M. Johnson, pterandon at yahoo dot com.
A few errors in scholarshipArmstrong's writings on Luther contain a few factual errors:
- Armstrong says Luther's theology advocates "retreating to the monastery" rather than being "involved in the social life of society"
On the contrary, Luther's writings on Matthew 25 criticize the approach to monastic life which involves holing up in a monastery to serve God and thereby ignoring a hurting world. Luther condemned holing up in the monastery and "just letting perish what is going to perish."
- Armstrong says Luther's theology made the "Eucharist only a symbol."
On the contrary, the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist is that Christ is truly present in the sacrament.
Mythos . . .Armstrong says that good ol' religion was something called mythos, which entailed:
She holds that these are all good things, but apparently that this is all religion was supposed to be. Our reasonable ancient forebears, she claims would "be content to confine [religion] to immediately personal and private areas of their lives."[p.x] She also reports with dismay that too many (49%) of Christians believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, a common theme in the Gospel of John, the writings of Paul, and the confessions of the church.
- "approaching the deeper regions of the psyche" [p.36],
- "bringing to light the obscure regions of the subconscious realm,"
- a source of significance, which was to prevent despair, to explain where we are, "give meaning to life",
- "an ancient form of psychology,"
Her mythos would make the "divine" not truly and literally what the creeds or confessions of the Christian church have held it to be.
. . . versus LogosAccording to her view, in the old days, mythos provided people with inspiration. They never asked if it were true, according to Armstrong, because that would be confusing it with logos, which involves:
Armstrong's main thesis is that mythos was never meant to be taken as logos. "You were not supposed to make mythos the basis of pragmatic policy," [p.xix] she writes.
- "rational, pragmatic, scientific thought., [p.x],
- "logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action'"[p.xix],
The horrors of fundamentalismFundamentalists, those she defines as having made this error, have been responsible for many grossly antisocial acts. Across her book one can find examples such as:
She holds that those who would engage in murder are a rare minority, but that all of the above are the dangers one ought to expect when mixing mythos & logos.
- the atrocities of the Crusades,
- the expulsion of Jews from Spain,
- racist Texas parents advocating the removal of material from history textbooks which they deemd to be "unsympathetic to slaveholders and sympathetic to slaves," or had any economic data which made America look worse than the Soviet Union.
- forbidding interracial marriage,
- opposition to the rights of homosexuals,
- bombing abortion clinics,
- an embrace of violence, guns, and militaristic exploits in the Third world,
- being "opposed to the positive values of modern society" [p. ix],
Her work often ties these problems with biblical literalism. It is my view that far too many of both liberals and fundamentalists have come to the faulty conclusion that a literal view of the Bible necessitates most of the above.
The world's problem: not enough mythos in our LogosI would assert there have been two kinds of phenomena where mythos has been combined with logos:
Both movements involved having a "high view" of Scripture, taking the content of our religious books as a pragmatic program for action; both are in a sense literalists. What then is the difference?
- The bad literalists:
- the Terry Randalls,
- the Gary Norths,
- 1960's segregationists,
- that Texas schoolbook committee,
- the guy who spends a "tithe" of his income on enough bullets to kill his entire neighborhood in preparation for a race war.
- The good literalists:
Dr. King for example was not content to contain his mythos to the "immediately personal aspects of his life": King proclaimed that there is a real personal God who was dissatisfied with the conduct of us all. King puported to tell other people what to do based on what he read in the Bible, and God bless him for having done so.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.,
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
- Dorothy Day,
- Ronald Sider,
- Dr. Franz Jagerstatter,
- the guy who writes letters of complaint to his local gas station about the amount of pornography they sell, with titles in plain view of minors.
Ways to Differentiate between Good and Bad LiteralistsThe problem is not with the words in Scripture but in a fundamentalist approach to the literal truth of Scripture. Among the dangers of literalism include:
- One-verse literalism vs. whole-bible literalism, or Hero Emulation vs. the Self-Examined Life.
Bad literalists might say that King David was called by God to kill bad people, therefore I'll be ready to do so whether it be civilians in Iraq or the "upcoming" race war in my town. They might ignore reams of scripture on nonviolence, love for enemies, sacrificial love, warnings against "harming our neighbor's body in any way" apparently without any conditions, etc. An extreme example is the Phineas cult. In the Old Testament, Phineas apparently was called to execute an interracial couple in the midst of copulation: therefore they hold that it is a fitting calling for modern Christians as well, despite all the biblical warnings to the contrary.
- "My Exegesis While in a Literalist Mood" vs. God's Literal Intent.
Any form of literalism involves exegesis. Old Earth- and Young Earth Creationists would both hold that Gen 1:1 is literal history. One side would hold that it literally describes what has happened at the very start of Day One (the creation of planets, stars and sun); the other that it is the literal summary of the activites about to take place on Days One through Six. What one rascal extracts from one literal reading of the Bible is not the fault of the authors (or Author) of scripture.
- "Just the Bible" vs. sola scriptura.
We must be careful never to deny the work of the Spirit in the faith life of any Christian. There is however, a lot of wisdom in Luther's warning of caution of any "spiritual influence" that has no interest in Word and Sacrament. My hunch is that the fundamentalists responsible for those antisocial acts aren't acting as much on the full scope of scripture but on a bravado, a bubbly self confidence that they've interpreted as the annointing of the Spirit.
The worst guys: pure separation of mythos from logos:
- The priest and Levite
In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke10), Jesus seems to have as much disdain for those religious folk (were they deeply in touch with their inner psyche?) who "passed by on the other side" as he did for the robbers.
- Luther's example of a bad approach to monastic life:
"[Monks] exonerate themselves very nicely from these works of mercy which Christ warns will be expected of them in the day of judgement. Matthew 25:34-40. If a monk sees anybody who is hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, captive, and all the rest, he is warned that he cannot leave the monastery to visit the sick and comfort the sad. He just lets perish what is going to perish." [Luther's Works, Vol. 44, p. 329.] These monks in Luther's example apparently were content to keep religion confined to the immediately personal areas of their life, they no doubt spent much time in prayer and in touch with their deeper psyche.
- [You guessed it:] The Holocaust
In my town, a man was found to have killed nearly a dozen prostitutes and hiddent parts of their decaying bodies in his house and buried in the back yard. The smell apparently was noticeable from the street. My understanding from news reports is that there were several people living in the house with the man who were not in any way involved with the murders. I have, however, a greater sense of shock and outrage at the non-murderers content to live in that smelly house than I do at the one murderer. I like to imagine the murderer's housemates spending much time in that house "in touch with their deeper psyche," perhaps through prayer or music. The confining of religion "to the immediately personal" by thousands of Christians in Nazi Germany helped speed along the Holocaust, in my view. I have often imagined Christian folks hurrying past the death trains on their way to teach Sunday School or practice for the choir.