Thursday, October 21, 2004

Karen Armstrong at Lehigh; off to a conference

Tonight I had the great privilege to introduce Karen Armstrong with 300-400 people in the room. And tomorrow I'm off to Vancouver for the Modernist Studies Association. My paper: "E.M. Forster's Orientation to Islam." (If any readers are in Vancouver and would like to meet up on Sunday afternoon, drop me an email.)

Karen Armstrong: Charming lady, and a wonderful lecturer (I blogged about her most recent book over the summer). She lectures old school, Ox-Bridge style -- from notes, off the cuff -- and yet it all makes sense in the end. Again, I was impressed by the number of local Bethlehem-ites that came to the south side for a 7:30 talk.

An academic intro is also a strange document to write; I mean, what do you do with it when you're done? It basically sits in "My Documents" in the "great, congratulations, but of no future use" folder. I remember slaving over intros to Michael Hardt (2002) and Susan Stanford Friedman (also 2002), but then -- after the event -- I threw them out.

Unlike the conference talk, the academic intro is still essentially an occasional document, single use only.

Or maybe... I can also blog it? Perhaps it will be of some interest to readers...

Let me start with a short quote from the renowned religious studies scholar Diana Eck, who once described our speaker tonight in the following way:

“She has the discipline of someone schooled for years in a convent and she has the freedom of mind of someone who left it. She is deeply rooted in the soil of a particular religious tradition, but she has set herself free like a bird."

Karen Armstrong was raised in Stourbridge, a small town in the industrial midlands region of England, not too far from Birmingham. In 1962 she decided to enter the convent of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She studied to be a nun for seven years, when, after an extremely painful process of self-discovery, she decided it wasn’t for her. The convent was an extraordinarily difficult regimen – one which she has documented in books like Through the Narrow Gate and, just this year, The Spiral Staircase .

But she didn’t leave the convent just because of the difficulty, or just because of the repressive policies of the Catholic Church at that time (this was before the big liberalizing reforms of Vatican II). She left because she personally didn’t feel strongly connected to faith, or to God. And like James Joyce and George Eliot, great writers who left their religious upbringings behind to enter the secular world, Karen Armstrong decided to pursue a different track.

For several years, Armstrong aimed to have nothing whatsoever to do with organized religion. She pursued a Ph.D. in literature at Oxford, and taught literature for a time at universities and private schools around London. But soon she felt a need to come to terms with her early experiences. In 1980, she wrote a book called Through the Narrow Gate about her convent life. It was very successful for a first book, and it started her -– perhaps a little reluctantly -– down a path which would lead to a prodigious amount of scholarship about religion, albeit written from a critical and intellectual point of view, by a person who is herself thoroughly secular (or at most, as she puts it, a "freelance monotheist").

After the success of the first book, Armstrong was invited to work on British television programs on religion. This in turn led to a new kind of interest in religion, especially in Judaism and Islam, which were both new to her. She also became interested in figures like Paul, and in the uneasy coexistence between the three Abrahamic faiths one finds in present-day Jerusalem. She started to write book after book, each on a different aspect or problem associated with the three faiths. There’s a long series of titles: A History of God; Holy War; Jersalem: One History Three Faiths; The Battle For God; and the list goes on. Each book is different, and each is clear and straightforward in its presentation of ideas, information, and history. To the students in the audience, I would say this about Karen Armstrong’s books: you don’t need to have a strong background in religion to understand them, and if you sit down with just about anything she’s written you will probably find your knowledge of the subject completely transformed.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, Armstrong became one of the most sought-after authorities on the subject of Islam. Her book on the subject (Islam: A Short History) became a best-seller, as did many of her earlier books. Armstrong became a trusted and credible authority on the relations between different religious communities at a time when it seemed most commentators on television and in the print-media were only capable of a kind of high hysteria about the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.

Karen Armstrong’s a hero to me partly because she brought a dose of calm and sanity at a time when it was much needed in the U.S. and England, as well as many other places around the world. (She is internationally known) I also deeply admire her scholarly commitment -– all the more impressive because her formal training at Oxford was in literature, and her unparalleled knowledge of Judaism and Islam is self-taught. And finally, I admire her as a person who has overcome a repressive religious system, and has courageously turned her scholarly lens to the very system that was the source of so much early suffering.

Thoughts? Likes, dislikes?

See you Tuesday.


Kerim Friedman said...

Great idea to post these intros to the web. If everyone did it we'd have a great database on the internet. It would be great if they could all be "tagged" as in, allowing one to easily browse all such posts across blogs.

I encountered Armstrong's work second hand, reading Mamdani's Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. I hope to read the original books when I have time!

TMB said...

I agree. A History of God, is one of the best books I have read in the past 10 years. So many of the world's conflicts make sense in light of what is found in that book. Her ability to remain objective while dealing with such controversial topics is also a credit to her talent.