Skip to main content

Fields of Blood review

The Guardian starts off their review of Karen Armstrong's latest this way: 
Pity the poor reviewer tasked to do justice to Karen Armstrong’s latest mighty offering. Armstrong is one of our most erudite expositors of religion....
I first came to read her in college doing my minor in religion. Her Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths was the cornerstone of our Religions of the Middle East course and it's a rather in-depth look at the history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity there. And Armstrong's The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam currently sits on my bookshelf in the living room. She is exhaustive. Other works cover Asian faiths. Muhammad, women in Christianity. etc..

In her newest book, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, she tackles about 10,000 years of history to counter the common misconception in contemporary culture that religion is somehow to blame...for everything. Not just violence but humanity's problems in general. If you browse through the book reviews, you'll find that most serious reviewers seem to think she got the job done. In about 500 pages, she successfully demonstrates (it's less of an argument than simple historical narrative) that the concept of "religion" itself is a fairly new one. The idea that modernity can separate itself from the very deep human impulse towards religion is shaky, at best. And that violence usually takes on a political-then-religious tone. It's not really the other way around.

The Introduction alone is worth opening the book. But in Chapter 1 we begin with hunter gatherer societies and their complicated relationship with killing sacred animals for food. Sumer is really our first visit to civilization and she chronicles the shift to agriculture. And, here, she has much in common with recent medical/evolutionary works who discuss human problems stemming from the rise of farming and a sedentary life. In Armstrong, it's the population boom, the rise of classes, the rise of the nobility/peasant distinction, the importance of famine and disease spread, and the need for political violence. These early agricultural civilizations have both a need for order to control thousands of people (the violence) and then the search for deeper meaning to help explain away their political oppression.

From there we shift to India, China, and then return to the Middle East where the Hebrews have a different origin story. But first, Armstrong does a brilliant job explaining the Aryan past that (if you're a language scholar) ends up giving us English from Indo-European beginnings. One thread links both Indian and, say, Germanic backstory thanks to noble warriors raiding. The Hebrew story would be different. Not aristocratic. Simple herdsman. This is old territory for the author but, as always, she presents it in a compelling way. She traces the somewhat obscure origins of the Hebrew god towards the monotheistic God we know today. The early rules we know from the Pentateuch are less about spiritual matters and more about keeping the Jewish people going in the face of empire. That theme continues into Jesus' time. In the early Bible, however, Yahweh is a war god. Not a "symbol of absolute transcendence." You've read the section on India though. So you see the parallels between horribly violent yoga (yes, yoga!) and the shift to Brahman.

The last third of the book is dedicated to modernity from 1492 onward. It covers everything from the Inquisition (a political more than religious event) to the Protestant Reformation and Osama bin Laden. The theme here is the separation of political power from what we today would call "religion." The Catholic Church stands against both absolute monarchy and reformers like Luther who want to make spiritual matters a personal, private matter of belief rather than outward practice. Armstrong has nice sections on the Pilgrims and Founding Fathers in the United States, the Spanish plundering the Americas then turning towards the spread of faith and influence of Enlightenment thinkers in forming a modern sensibility towards religion.

Probably the 3 most important sections for our current geopolitical situation are...

1) The secular Zionists who founded Israel...and the rise of the religious Jewish response post-settlement to existence of the State of Israel.

2) The rise of fundamentalism. It's a very post-modern response to the experience of modernity. Literal reading of the Bible is a new phenomenon. Wars (American Civil and the World Wars) had a great influence on apocalyptic sentiments. In the West, this primarily manifests as the Christian fundamentalism we experience in American politics and culture today.

3) The experience of Muslims with modernity--especially with the West. It was not altogether positive. And, coupled with the rise of fundamentalism, explains the situation we're in with Islamic terrorism.

Like centuries earlier, the Muslim response to global modernity has sometimes morphed into a very post-modern political violence that explains itself using religious images and finds deeper meaning in religious faith. When people feel left out or disadvantaged either politically or culturally, it's a natural human response towards both violence and trying to excuse that violence. Armstrong does a good job of pointing out that it's actually religion's typical historical place to counter that urge towards violence. Religion cuts both ways towards breaking and mending.

In that light, the current debate over whether or not Islam is a religion of violence, religion is naturally violent, or even whether we're headed towards a non-religious future...all silly discussions in a manner of speaking. The historical record would say: no, no, and no. Fields of Blood has instantly become a go-to for all these conversations and is a much-needed addition to the scholarly-popular library. It covers a broad swath of human history in an accessible, wise, and sufficiently cross-cultural way to help explain how we got here. And maybe even the way forward?