Karen Armstrong

Books: History | Religion | Biography | Philosophy | War

Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World (1988), Muhammad, A Biography (1992), A History of God (1993), Visions Of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings (1994), In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (1996), Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (1997), The Battle for God (2000), Islam: A Short History (2000), A Short History of Myth (2005)

I really enjoy reading Karen Armstrong's books, although I'll admit that it is easier to catch all the details listening to the audio versions. Since the tragedy on September 11th, Karen Armstrong has been in demand as a religious scholar for her knowledge of Islam and the fundamentalist extremists in the Middle East.

A Short History of Myth (2005)

I love Karen Armstrong's writing and her books on religion. I picked up A Short History of Myth several years ago, and then never got around to reading it. Having spent a couple years trying to get through Heredotus (I'm still only 2/3rds of the way through) I've mostly given up on it and moved onto other non-fiction, and am actually starting and finishing books now.

A Short History of Myth does not focus on any particular mythologies, but instead takes a shallow look at how myth developed and changed over time.

This is not a book for those who take the bible or any form of religious literature, literally.

Today the word 'myth' is often used to describe something that is not true… Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what the event had meant.

It's an interesting and very important point that I think many people don't get. It is a modern idea to take these stories and see them as factual history, rather than as stories written to explain the world, to explain the past and why the present is as it is. We are so far removed from oral histories, we presume that history worked for those who came before us the way it works for us now: an event happened, it was immediately written down and documented, and that's it. No embellishment or additionally story telling elements.

A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behavior. It's truth will be revealed only if it is put into practice–ritually or ethically. If it is pursued as if it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.

Trying to use the scientific process to prove the historical accuracy of the bible changes the stories from ethical lessons to, as she says, the incredible. By insisting that the bible should be read literally, people who see themselves are evangelicals are hurting their cause rather than helping it. By insisting upon a singular interpretation of events–an interpretation that looks upon those events as historical fact rather than myth, these individuals end up damaging the cause of faith and driving away those who might otherwise turn to religion as they seek meaning.

Father, Son and Spirit were not objective, ontological facts but simply 'terms we use' to express the way in which the 'unnameable and unspeakable' divine nature adapts itself to the limitations of our human minds.

These myths do not seek to give us a scientific explanation of faith and God, but only to help us see that there is more to the world than we can begin to comprehend, and any term or explanation we might make to clarify these ideas is going to be limited. We can only say that we do not know and cannot truly know, and that's perfectly alright.

She also goes onto say that when we close the myth of God out of our lives, we continue to seek out myth in other forms.

(T)he experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation… (Readers) know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside… like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.

I find it interesting that many of the agnostics and atheists I know are also avid readers. Perhaps it is true that mythology plays an inexplicable part in our lives–one that we need to live a healthy life, whether our mythology comes from religion or novels or epic movies.

All I know is that I believe we need stories in our lives. The form these stories take varies from faith to faith and culture to culture, but we need stories.

I love Karen Armstrong's writing, because I think she tries to make mythology and religion accessible, and to explain that despite the outward differences, it serves the same purpose in almost all cultures.

Rating: 8/10