I'm currently reading Armstrong's Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, which is a very scholarly, balanced and insightful book. I've also read and listened to some interviews with her online, which have helped me see a new way to approach religion and myth.
At the moment, I can't find much to say about Armstrong's ideas. I'm still absorbing everything, seeing where they fit in relation to all of the other stuff I've been reading. So instead, I'll let Armstrong speak for herself.
- "Going Beyond God" - An article outlining some of her ideas, mostly in the form of an interview, from Salon.com.
- "The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong" - A radio interview with her, hosted by American Public Media.
Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.
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Sacred texts have traditionally been a bridge to the divine. They're all difficult. They're not a simple manual -- a how-to book that will tell you how to gain enlightenment by next week, like how to lose weight on the Atkins diet. This is a slow process. I think the best image for reading scripture occurs in the story of Jacob, who wrestles with a stranger all night long. And in the morning, the stranger seems to have been his God. That's when Jacob is given the name Israel -- "one who fights with God." And he goes away limping as he walks into the sunrise. Scriptures are a struggle.
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[O]ur theology, I think, should be like poetry, a work like the Qur'an...
Now a poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth, we hope, into the world that changes people's perceptions. And we respond to a poem emotionally. And I think we should take as great a care when we write our theology as we would if we were writing such a poem, instead of just trotting out an orthodox formula, or an orthodox definition of God, or a catechism answer, so that when people listen to a theological idea, they feel as touched as when they read a great poem by, say, Milton or Dante.
We should take as great care with our religious rituals as if we were putting on a great performance at a theater because ritual — and theater, indeed, was originally a religious ritual designed to lead us to transcendence instead of just mechanically going through the motions of our various rites and ceremonies, trying to make them into something absolutely beautiful and inspiring, because I do see religion as a kind of art form.