Finding meaning in fundamentalism

March 05, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

"The Battle For God," by Karen Armstrong. Alfred A. Knopf. 442 pages. $27.50.

Religious fundamentalists have become the villains of the post-Cold War world.

Whether in Hollywood caricature or political discourse, the forces of fundamentalism loom large. Images dominate of Iranians taking Americans hostage and demonstrating in the streets of Tehran after the fall of the Shah, of ultra-Orthodox Jews throwing stones at cars traveling through their neighborhoods in Jerusalem, of the shadow cast over the Republican primary by the anti-Catholic and anti-integrationist policies of Bob Jones University.

Such an important phenomenon deserves more than caricature. It calls for an honest attempt to understand its roots, its history and its future. This is exactly what Karen Armstrong, author of the well-received "A History of God," attempts in her excellent latest work, "The Battle for God."

This is a book that will prove indispensible, not only for the student of comparative religion, but also for anyone who seeks insight into how these powerful movements affect global politics and society today and into the future. In it, Armstrong looks at fundamentalism in the three major monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. She examines the rise of Sunni Islam in Egypt and Shiite Islam in Iran; the emergence of the ultra-Orthodox movements in Israel; and Protestant evangelical Christianity in the United States.

Armstrong compares the three fundamentalisms and examines the traits they have in common, as well as detailing the particular contexts from which they emerged. What they have in common is that they are a reaction to modernism, the rational, scientific and secular culture that threatens the religious worldview to which fundamentalists cling.

When the fundamentalist worldview comes into conflict with aggressive liberalism or secularism -- the socialism of the early Zionists, the humiliation of Biblical literalists in the Scopes trial, the imposition of modern political structures on an essentially agrarian societies in the Middle East -- the result is that fundamentalists become even more extreme and bitter.

Thus, Armstrong argues, fundamentalism lives in symbiotic relationship with the secularism that threatens it. But fundamentalists also see themselves as under attack and tend to withdraw from the larger society, forming their own counterculture.

But in the last several decades, fundamentalists have decided to strike back. Here is where disaster has often struck, as these groups attempted to translate the world of religious myth into political ideology.

As Armstrong points out, politics is inherently rational and utilitarian, and the world of mythos is not. And an attempt to meld the two leads to a distortion of both. Political action becomes extremist, and religion can be twisted to allow actions condemned in sacred scripture.

Armstrong divides the book into chapters covering the history of the roots of these movements as far back as 1492, bringing them up to the current scene. She covers all three religious fundamentalisms in each chapter but devotes proportionately more space to Islamic fundamentalism, to the point where her treatment of U.S. evangelicalism gets short shrift.

Perhaps this is because the U.S. story is more well known to her audience. But with the continuing influence of the religious right in this country, which is highlighted by the current presidential primaries, a little more depth would have been appreciated. But that does not diminish from the value of the insights of this highly intelligent and highly readable book.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in October 1995 and on his historic trip to Cuba. Rivera studied theology at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., where he completed a master's degree.

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