A History of God

by Karen Armstrong

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: 1993
Printing: September 1994
ISBN: 0-345-38456-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 460

Buy at Powell's Books

This is a very information-rich book. Armstrong tackles a history of the three major Western religions, covering the evolution of philosophy and theology in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam since the time of Abraham. Unless you've taken a particularly good history of religion course, you will likely learn quite a lot from A History of God, particularly if you were educated in the United States where the history of Islam and post-Christianity Judaism are sadly neglected.

The biggest problem with this book is that, sadly, it's not presented in a way that makes it easy to read. Despite the complexity of her interwoven history and the dizzying but necessary barrage of names and dates, the book is presented as relentlessly uninterrupted prose. Other than the chapter breaks between the eleven chapters and a few paragraphs of summary at the end of each chapter, the most decoration the prose receives is the occasional indented quote. There are no section headings, no timelines, and only one diagram. The handful of maps are dropped into the beginning of the book and then never referenced in the text. This makes for difficult reading, and I repeatedly had to re-read sections when my attention slipped the first time through.

Section headings don't sound that significant, but one doesn't notice them until they're absent. The effect of reorienting the reader, providing a break and summary point in the text, and providing a sense of organization is invaluable. Even better, given the temporal nature of a lot of religious influences, would have been an occasional timeline. I would have liked a quick visual check on which philosophers in the different religions were writing at the same time, and all Armstrong offers are numeric years scattered through the dense chapters. This book could have been much better with a little bit more attention to presentation.

The content, though, is fascinating, and worth the effort. Armstrong definitely has a point of view, specifically a leaning towards a mystical rather than literal understanding of God and a strong dislike of fundamentalism, but I still felt like she was including a fair range of facts. Religion is inherently subjective and it's always best to read from multiple perspectives, so I trust this sort of open bias than a pretense of pure objectivity. There were places where I wish Armstrong had been clearer about whether a position was her opinion or well-supported historically, but I'm not sure it's practical to do much better.

I found the early portions of this book more interesting than the later ones, mostly because this is the first complete explanation of the four-author theory of the Pentateuch that I'd personally read, but the section on the middle ages and early Reformation period is also very interesting and covers a section of religious history that I'd previously heard very little about. The last chapter is, naturally, somewhat less historical and more opinionated as Armstrong tackles where she sees religion going and what's needed to revitalize it, but after reading the material leading up to that chapter, her argument is interesting and worth thinking about.

Overall, recommended, unfortunately with reservations due to the presentation. There's a lot of good material here, but it's not light reading and requires focus and attention.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-03-13

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