Karen Armstrong: An Accidental Expert 6 December 2016
It’s rare to have an opportunity to meet your heroes, and even rarer to have an opportunity to interview them. I had such an opportunity in October 2016. Karen Armstrong, the religion author and (former) broadcaster and nun, was visiting Cardiff to speak at event held by the Muslim Council of Wales. After requesting a few favours, I managed to secure a breakfast interview with Karen on the morning after.
For those unfamiliar with Karen Armstrong’s career, it’s one that’s spanned several decades. Her first bestseller was A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but she has also written popular works including a biography of the Prophet Muhammad and the Buddha. More recently, she authored Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. For many, Armstrong is an anti-Dawkin. A popular author furthering understanding of religion. It was in fact History of God that pushed me to study religious studies at university, fascinated by the breadth of the story of humanities diverse relationships with God.
So on the first properly cold morning of October 2016, I meet her in the hotel she is staying at.
AA: When I think of religion communicators, it’s pretty you by yourself, you’re the only one. Was that intentional?
No. Never. This was the last thing I intended to do. I wanted to be an English Literature professor. That was what I studied at university. I did my PhD in it. But failed it, with terrible publicity. And then I became a school teacher, and I lost that job because of ill health.
I had written my first book by that time, about life in the convent, Through the Narrow Staircase. Around that time Channel 4 had just started in 1982, and the Commissioning Editor for religion had seen me publicise this book, and rang me up out of the blue, and asked me if I would like to write a 6-part documentary on St Paul, for an Israeli film company in Jerusalem, and of course I said yes, I was unemployed. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had done a little bit of theology in the covenant, only ladylike theology, it was Christian, Catholic even, never mind Protestant. But when you’re in Jerusalem you see the other faith traditions, and you can’t escape them in a sense.
I did several television programmes, before my television career failed in ignominy. I did another TV series with this Israeli company but this time they embezzled all the money that Channel 4 had given them – it was a terrible scandal that completely changed the culture of Channel 4. It started off like “do what you like, we won’t be like the BBC, breathing down your neck all the time”, but after that, they really had a bloody nose, and I was sort of tainted with this, and there was nothing else to do at that time, so I wrote a lot of books just to keep bread on the table. There wasn’t much money in them. But they were very much angry books, because I was very hostile to religion.
Then after the TV career collapsed, I went off, and wrote a book called A History of God. And that changed me, because there was no television crew to egg me on to be outrageous, there was just me and text, I was living on baked beans and tomato sandwiches, I had no money. But I realised, theology is a kind of poetry, and you can’t read poetry in a nightclub, you need a bit of quiet, and I finally had that, and so started to see the scripture in a different way. History of God turned out to be an international bestseller, so then I started talking about religion.
AA: So fell you into it by accident?
Yes, by complete accident. After 9/11 mainly. By that time, I had written other books, one on Jerusalem, one on religious fundamentalism, and my biography of the Prophet, a brief history of Islam. And then 9/11 happened, my publishers turned on their computers on September 12th to find a flurry of emails saying “we want to see Karen Armstrong”, and that changed my life. I was in the United States at the time for three solid months after 9/11. I was meant to be at Harvard researching a book, but as it happened, I didn’t see the inside of the library, I was just continually on the radio.
My colleagues, my dear friends at Harvard, some who are in the divinity school, said “you can do what we can’t do”, I taught myself all this, I didn’t know any of the jargon. A PhD is meant to be unreadable, and if you want to write publicly, you have to drop that! But I failed my PhD! I was once at a conference, in Canada, about Islamophobia, and there were two guys from the Divinity School from Harvard having a conversation on stage, and the guy next to me said “these guys, they’re trying, but they can’t get out”. They just couldn’t speak without saying “but what about this”, and there is a footnote here, and god forbid we get caught out making a generalisation of any sort.
Also also having been a school teacher, you cannot stand in front of class and read a lecture, you have to look at them, and see who is paying attention, who is bewildered, who is passing a note, and changing the stream if you see they don’t get it. Most academics try and come up and read a script. And if you don’t , they will try and teach you to do so. I got in real trouble because I just spoke, and some loved it, others were horrified. I just can’t read off the script.
AA: Having spent time on both sides of the Atlantic, how does religion vary between the United Kingdom and the United States?
They are very different countries. And it isn’t just the fundamentalists. There is a lot of intelligent thinking going on about religion in the United States. This thinking doesn’t hit the media, in the same way you only hear about the “bad Muslims” in the press, but it is happening.
My friend Diana Eck in Harvard, she works in pluralism, and she says that America is the second most religious country in the world – second to India. But America is a very new country. India is a very distinguished old country, with centuries of religion and culture behind it. Whereas there is something raw about the United States.
In Britain, if Tony Blair, who is religious man, had mentioned God more overtly it would have been the end of his political career. But in the US, it’s so much more visible, “God bless America” all the time, and hand on the chest, and prayers. But Britain is a particularly secular country, more than we realise sometimes.
I’ve just been in Sweden, and we think of the Swedes as being very secular, I was at a book fair in Gottenberg, and the biggest stall was the Church of Sweden. But if the Church of England had a stall at the London Book Fair, people would roar with laughter and sneer. In Sweden, the Church is more significant, they’re a religious country.
AA: I suppose you had to break the news to the Swedes. So your most recent work, Fields of Blood, it’s a big book, and a long one. What made your write it?
Look at the topic – everyone has a view on religion and violence. I often say I am sick of getting into a London taxi and the taxi driver asks what I do, and I say write on religion. And I get this lecture telling me religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.
It is enshrined in our secular consciousness – but of course it’s nonsense, two World Wars have not been fought for religion but secular nationalism. Hiroshima wasn’t dropped for God, it was dropped for nationalism. Even the crusades were imbued with political and religious fervour – it was a cocktail – and the point is, while we continue dumping things on religion we are not looking sufficiently a the other aspects.
If you look at the media coverage of Charlie Hebdo, it was all about the magazine, and freedom of speech, and all this nonsense, and not that freedom of speech is nonsense, but David Cameron and all these people who were marching for freedom of expression supported regimes, and had done in the case of Britain for centuries, in Muslim majority countries that allowed their people no freedom of expression.
And we need to see our past. There was very little coverage of the Jewish supermarket siege during the aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The individual said he was acting on behalf of the Palestinians, a statement that didn’t get enough coverage. It’s a huge issue where the west can’t say “we are innocent of this”, Britain particularly, we set it up.
When I went to Jerusalem for the first time, I knew nothing about the conflict, but I found the one thing Israelis and Palestinians agreed upon was how awful the British had been. And you summarise – that is not the Middle East problem, it is our problem too. So as long as we go dumping it on religion and making it a scapegoat, we are not seeing our situation in this very difficult time, rationally. And if we want peace, we must address these political issues.
AA: So its not always about religion?
Before the modern period, religion imbued all activities,including warfare and statecraft. And as the state is inherently a violent institution, peaceable religions – like Chrisitianity – were swept into maintaining it. I mean Jesus died at the hands of a Roman Governor, nailed to a cross. Three centuries later you have a Holy Roman Emperor who is Christian and who is planning to build a capital in Constantinople, moving from Rome, in order to fight the Persians in the name of Jesus.
And similarly, with Islam, the Quran is a cry for equality. Look after each other, the poor. And then you have a Muslim empire, and when you have an empire, you have an aristocracy, and a segmented society. Most of the great movements began to say “what do we do with this empire?” “How do we live it?” All with different answers.
We are meaning seeking creatures, we are always looking for meaning. Now it’s Nationalism. Nationalism has become the religion of the secular world. The hand on the heart. The lump in the throat. Die for your country. But with awful consequences. Its flaw of course is that it cannot tolerate minorities – in the secular state, the ethnic minority has often replaced the heretic.
AA: So what are you plans for the future? Any new books planned?
I’m writing now a book about scripture in all traditions. I’ve written a book about the bible. But there is so much nonsense written about scripture, for example, people quoting odd little verses to prove you can’t use contraception. Then there are people like Tony Blair who at Christmas said he has read the Quran and decided it has a theological problem, and he will sort it all out!
People always say, I’ve read the Quran, it’s terrible, that’s not how you read the Quran! Before the modern period we all listened to our scriptures, before all this literacy and all this printing, and you have an entirely different relationship with scripture – so I am looking at all scriptures, Chinese, Indian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, alongside the monotheistic scriptures and the Jain scriptures. Why we have scripture is a strange thing. To take an ancient text, miles removed from contemporary culture – even at the beginning, the Chinese text, for example, reflected a society that had long since vanished – and yet to build a life upon that, a value system on that, it tells us something about what human beings are.
AA: You’re one of the few still doing comparative religion.
Yeah, it’s so much more interesting. It was the study of other religious traditions that saved me for religion. Because I found in other traditions things that I could relate to, and it also made me see what Catholicism was trying to do at its best. In our global worldwe need to know about the other traditions, otherwise we will never know about one another. How will we ever get to know the Muslim world if we have only read the Quran like a Protestant?
The hatred of the West of Islam goes right back to the crusades. When Europe was struggling out of the Dark Ages, and Islam was the United States, the global superpower. It was everywhere, the Ottomans, the Indians, everywhere. The crusading hatred is how some Muslims feel about the United States today. Comparisons help.
AA: You say reading the Quran like a Protestant. Are you looking at the particularity of Western literacy?
Yes. One of the things that print does, as opposed to memorising and reciting it, is it encourages objective rational thought. Plato, quoting Socrates, said that when you write down a thought, it becomes dead. That’s why Socrates never wrote anything. He transmitted it all orally. The Rabbis, transmitted the Talmud and the Mishnah all by mouth. The Quran makes no sense unless you listen to it. It means recitation.
But printing helped to trigger our modern scientific society in the west, with its rational objectivity, which is essential for science, but not very good for religion. Interestingly, the Chinese had their printing revolution way back in the twelfth century. Until this revolution, the Confuscians had thirteen different scriptures. After the revolution, the Confuscians said “we can’t have this, people are reading in a superficial way, so cut down the scriptures from thirteen to four, four very short texts, and we go back to memorising, and going deeply into these”. I mean, I have a Kindle with over 500 books on me, that’s a very different way of reading a text then the Confuscians intended.
And this business of modern objective thought, it makes people very rigid; the only tradition that suits this modern thought is Protestant Christianity, because it is very different from Catholic Christianity. We used to chant our scriptures in Latin, and we had this terrible moment, when the Vatican considered saying we have to go the English.
And if you can imagine, a large huge church full of well-bred polite English nuns, warbling politely “oh god, smash their teeth in their mouths”. It’s very good to have these things in a foreign language
AA: And when can we expect this new work on scripture?
April 2018 I’m enjoying it I must say, and it raises all kinds of things. I still have 6 months of research, and a year to write it.
AA: Karen, thank you!