Monday, 19 August 2002

The battle for God & Northern lights

Listening to:

Mozart, Così fan tutte.

Just read:

Karen Armstrong, The battle for God.

This book describes the evolution of religious fundamentalism in the world's three great monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Armstrong starts her story in the 15th century with the unification of Spain in 1492, and the triumph there of Christianity. Armstrong's basic design thereafter is to cycle through the faiths, examining each in turn within chapters that cover successive chronological periods.

Within her coverage of Christianity, Armstrong quickly moves her focus to Protestantism in the US. For Islam, Armstrong splits her coverage in two, dealing with Egypt and Iran. For Judaism, she is not wedded to anywhere in particular until the latter sections of the book, where she turns to Israel. This structure seems reasonable, and I can't think of a better, but it means that readers need to keep all of the four parallel tracks' principal actors in their heads at once. I felt overwhelmed with detail on more than one occasion.

Nonetheless, there's plenty to value in this book. I was particularly impressed with the coverage of early Judaism (exiles in Amsterdam, Messianism in Eastern Europe and the near East), and the Iranian revolution. The latter includes a brief discussion of the difference between the Christian and Islamic conceptions of Satan. According to Armstrong, the Islamic Satan is not the very embodiment of ultimate evil as in Christianity. Instead, he is an evil figure, bound to the material world and incapable of wisdom or good, but still capable of being forgiven by God at the end of time. Thus, calling the US the Great Satan is not quite the insult that Christians might imagine. Armstrong had less that was novel to me to say about modern Jewish and Christian fundamentalism, but was still informative on many levels. For example, I don't think I'd appreciated how secular Zionism was initially, nor that there is still a strong anti-Zionist strand of Jewish fundamentalism.

Philip Pullman, Northern lights.

I found this a very enjoyable fantasy. It's a definite page-turner, with an exciting, fast-moving plot, coupled with many interesting mysteries about the nature of the world that the characters live in. It's the first part of a trilogy, and the two successive parts are on the List, so I'll get to continue with the exciting story soonish. (That "soonish" is a result of the List's rapidly shrinking size, heh.)

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Northern Lights, but will save more considered reflection until I've finished the whole trilogy. To be going on with, here's a profile of Pullman from the Observer.

To read next:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.