Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun turned comparative religion scholar, identifies a time in late antiquity called the Axial Age as a period when the quest for God-knowledge took a turn inward. The Axial Age occurred during the years 800-200 b.c.e., a pivotal time when the civilized cultures of India, Greece, and the Middle East developed new ways of thinking in response to the changing economic and social climates of their regions. Wealth and power shifted from kings and priests to the merchant middle class. The physical comforts of prosperity allowed the middle class to educate themselves and become more introspective. Inward reflection grew into conscience, fertile ground for an awareness of personal accountability for one’s actions and their impact on society at large. The concept of right living grew out of this new inwardness within and across these very different cultures in similar ways, despite their isolation from one another.

In the Middle East, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah conceived a reformed idea of Yahweh after a traumatic visitation by a deity that resembled the God of Moses and Abraham, but with a darker, moodier tone and a plea that his people practice their faith through action rather than ritual. His message warned that the Israelites would be cast out of Judah as punishment, and only hardship lay ahead. Not only did Yahweh despair of the Israelites practicing pagan rituals and sacrifice along with temple prayer to the One God (an accepted form of Jewish worship for ages); Isaiah also insisted that a deeper understanding of God could come only in the form of compassion toward others.

While the Israelites contemplated this shift from atmospheric pageantry to well-considered moral action, a chasm was forming in Judaic thought between the Hellenistic wisdom philosophies of Plato and Aristotle among Greek Jews and the revelations of the biblical Prophets among Palestinian Jews. How can one come to know God? Each discipline required a learned seeker schooled in philosophy or mysticism. However, epistemological debate concerned the upper classes only; the lower classes took the easier path of performing myth-based rituals of the...

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In A History of God, Armstrong is primarily concerned with humanity’s intrinsic longing for connection with a higher truth. A recurring theme in this search is the return to and reexamination of the early teachings of one’s faith. Through this connection, people find both inner solace during hardship and the moral clarity to interact meaningfully with their communities. In an increasingly secular world, Armstrong believes, Christians will always reevaluate the meaningfulness of ritual and tradition. As science makes sense of the external world and of the internal mechanisms of our behaviors and yearnings, we reach for more answers to the mysteries of life and eternal truth that extend beyond the limits of human discovery, continually harking back to the spiritual wisdom of ancient scripture.

When referring back to the origins of Christian thought, Armstrong warns that the drawback of Jesus worship among fundamentalists and their literal interpretation of scripture can become a dangerous form of idolatry if it is driven by fear and ignorance. If, she suggests, a Christian condemns a Muslim to eternal damnation because Jesus is not his prophet of choice, then the messenger has been woefully recast as the message. The human redeemer can, however, be a healthy and vital component of spiritual devotion. A purely abstract notion of eternal truth can leave one feeling disconnected and alone without human avatars bridging the abyss between physical and spiritual reality. They remind their communities to reflect upon the undefined mysteries of existence and to preserve the ethos of good will in their daily lives.

The complex need for meaning and connection necessitates constant revision of how a culture undertakes to do good, to identify social leaders who speak to that need and to the times, and to reawaken the virtues of compassion and tolerance. Armstrong identifies the common thread running through the fabric of historical spiritual development as the quest for self-knowledge. To know God and know good, one must first know the inner self.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Armstrong, Karen. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Supplement to A History of God. Armstrong warns that our interpretation of early doctrine is erroneously dogmatic, since scripture emphasizes compassion and repudiates hatred and intolerance.

Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Armstrong’s memoir describing her psychological struggles following her departure from religious life in 1969 after spending nine years as a Roman Catholic nun.

Armstrong, Karen. Visions of God: Four Medieval Mystics and Their Writings. New York: Bantam, 1994. Armstrong’s translation and interpretation of the imaginative, highly personal and thoughtful writings of four fourteenth century English mystics who heavily influenced Western mystical tradition.