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The Beginning of our Religious Traditions

A-TheGreatTransformationOver a 700-year period between 900 and 200 BCE, dubbed the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, the world’s major pre-Christian religious traditions emerged. It was an era of great political and ideological conflict, yet each faith, from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Hinduism to Judaism and philosophical rationalism, shared a common set of values: a renunciation of violence and a steadfast belief in the virtues of compassion. Comparing the four societies (Indian, Chinese, Greek, and Jewish) that gave birth to these influential faiths, religious historian and former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong discovers that it was their deep conviction in the power of love, not strict adherence to doctrine, that gave their values a power that still resonates today.
Knopf. 496 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375413170

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Armstrong’s book is a sprawling, highly detailed history that offers readers a stimulating acquaintance with the teachings of figures from Confucius, Mozi, and Laozi in China to Buddha, the Hindu mystics, and Ashoka of India, to the more familiar giants of Greek and Jewish history." Jane Lampman

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"For the general reader The Great Transformation is an ideal starting point for understanding how the crowded heaven of warring gods, worshiped in violent rites, lost its grip on the human imagination, which increasingly looked inward rather than upward for enlightenment and transcendence. … She is particularly nimble in working her way through the Bible, tying each book to the historical circumstances of its composition and the preoccupations of its many editors." William Grimes

Baltimore Sun 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The Great Transformation is likely to irk scholars and specialists who object to an amateur venturing onto their turf. The book does seem overambitious in its attempt to survey four distinct cultures over a span of seven centuries about which reliable documentation is scant and what little is known has been overlaid with interpretation and speculation." Charles Matthews

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 2.5 of 5 Stars
"While the book is full of solid analysis of the beginnings of the world’s major religion, Armstrong fails to present the material in a readable fashion. … Readers will struggle to digest the plethora of prophets and fables she presents in each chapter." Andrea Ahles

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"We should practice self-criticism (amen), and we should ‘take practical, effective action’ against excessively aggressive tendencies in our own traditions (amen again). But after 400 pages of historical argument, the banality of such declarations is staggering." John Wilson

Critical Summary

If you’ve already written God’s biography (A History of God), surely it’s a cakewalk to tackle the era before His ascendancy in theological affairs. But making sense of four disparate cultures and religious traditions in the space of 400 pages proves to be a risky proposition for Armstrong. Critics agree that her central theme, "the gradual elimination of violence from religion" (New York Times), makes for compelling reading, as does her weaving together of similarities among disparate faiths. Though her analysis shines, many reviewers feel the book suffers from too broad a focus; centuries are foreshortened, and even her supporters feel her conclusion doesn’t do the book justice. With classic titles like The Battle for God and Islam: A Short History in her bibliography, the "runaway nun" remains our preeminent writer on popular religion, but this tome might best be reserved for her hardcore followers.