A History of God

By Karen Armstrong

I offer notes on this only because it was a New York Times’ bestseller. Its very title (A History of God or HoG) is a bit misleading; it isn’t “a history of God”; it is an admirable attempt to cover the history of the people’s changing perceptions and views of the supernatural and the major religions that have evolved – all intended to quell human fears, to prevent despair and inspire hope, especially for an afterlife, but, although the book is almost 500 pages of very fine print, it simply tries to cover too much ground. Its summaries of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, Jainism, Confucianism, etc., are abbreviated often brutally. The many books that concentrate on any one of those faiths do a much better job. By attempting to do so much, she misses the mark on all of them, and the text jumps back and forth among them in a confusing manner, leaving this reader cold, and it misguidedly praises some faiths about which she is misguided. Her defense of the Islamic faith is tiresome and flat wrong in its facts.

The author was raised a Catholic. She came to agree with James Joyce, in his Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man: “I listened to my share of hellfire sermons. In fact, Hell seemed a more potent reality than God…” So, the author, although believing in God, is not devoted to a particular faith.

The author is a careful student of the Christian Bible, and she is troubled by the accuracy of its “historical” events. For example, throughout the O.T., God is presented as with conflicting personae: God lunches casually with Abraham but is remote to Moses (“Come no nearer…Take off your shoes…Moses covered his face, afraid to look at God” Ex. 3:5-6 and “No man can see my face and live…” Ex. 33:20); the O.T. was materially “edited” by The Church at various times to forge more generally palatable texts (HoG, p.54 et seq); in the famous contest of gods, wherein Elijah “proved” Yahweh’s superiority to the gods of Baal (by various feats of fire, etc.), after Elijah prevailed (in front of King Ahab and the latter’s idolatrous wife, Jezebel), Elijah demanded that the 450 prophets of Baal be “slaughtered” on the spot (I Kings 18:20-40); if Jesus is God, as some maintain, why did he utter his mysterious cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”; we know very little about Jesus: the first full account of his life appears in Mark, which is believed to have been written 70 A.D., or about 40 years after Jesus’ death (or ascension to some), is thought by many to be the most reliable; and on and on.

In one of the saddest revelations of the author’s views of life and love (and the lack of the latter in her life), she says, “Love is essentially a yearning for something that remains absent, which is why so much human love remains disappointing.” (HoG, p. 235) In sum, this book glosses over a wealth of material but remains necessarily superficial and sometimes inaccurate. It isn’t worth the time.

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1. The O.T. was originally written mostly in Aramaic, only partially in Hebrew, and neither tongue had vowels (nor did the Sanskrit in which the Koran was written), and “Yahweh” was written as YHWH.