Ms. Armstrong, who calls herself a “freelance monotheist,” is among the foremost religious historians, writers, and thinkers in the world. A former Catholic nun, she’s written biographies of Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed, and St. Peter as well as the best-selling books The Battle for God, A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. Ms. Armstrong talked to me about her writing and research process, her struggles with life after leaving the convent, religious fundamentalism in all its many forms, and Islam in the modern world.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: When did you start to write?
KAREN ARMSTRONG: My first book, about my life in the convent, was published in 1981 — it was a long time after leaving. I found people tended to introduce me at parties and suppers as, “Here’s Karen. She used to be a nun.” I would spend the entire meal being questioned about it and I didn’t have time to explain why — the interior stuff and the rationale that made sense of all these things. So I told funny stories and trivialized the experience. After awhile, I wanted to remember it as it was and try to deal with it in some way. The first drafts were very angry. My agent at the time asked, “If it was that bad, why did you stay so long?” The book was a way of coming to terms with the experience and seeing the positive side as well as the negative. Now writing is my living. It’s what I do.
FLJ: Why did you take up the religious life?
KA: For a number of reasons, because motivation is never simple. There was a religious aspect to it — I wanted to find God, or what I thought might be God. I had a teenage oversimplified view: I would find the divine, be filled with peace and serenity, lose all that adolescent anguish and misery, and overnight become a wise saint. I was also very shy and very uncomfortable socially. I was okay at lessons and exams, but socially and emotionally? In the early 60’s, before things loosened up, it was a bad time to be a woman, if you weren’t pretty. Now you can find your own style.
FLJ: And why did you leave?
KA: Nobody stays in a convent very long if they’re looking to escape, because what you find in there is yourself. I was no good at praying, because the kind of meditation we were taught really wasn’t my bag. Not every kind of prayer is right for every person. You have to find your own path, like you do in exercising — something that works for you. It was the wrong kind of prayer for me. I was hopeless at it. I couldn’t keep my mind on God for two minutes, where I could study for hours at a time without even noticing. I seemed to open myself to God and nothing happened.
I began to think there was nothing out there. Gradually I felt God slip away because I tried — rather arrogantly — to give Him the opportunity to take me on board and He declined the option. God had never been much of a reality for me. I had the wrong idea about God. So I left the convent and had a very difficult time for many years adjusting to the world again. But you might say I never left the religious life: I never married, I live alone, and I write, think and talk all the time about God and spirituality. It’s almost as if the convent was a first shot and by trial and error I stumbled into what I do now.
FLJ: What did you do after leaving the convent?
KA: The convent sent me to Oxford University to take a degree in English Literature so I could teach at a Catholic school. I left the convent half way through the undergraduate course, but continued and did post graduate work. In 1973 I worked in the junior division of London University teaching 19th and 20th Century literature. That appointment lasted three years. I didn’t get another job until I became a school teacher. But I lost that job because of ill health — I’m epileptic. The school was very good about it, but it was difficult work and the drugs I take are debilitating.
Someone at an Israeli production company saw me promoting my first book on Channel 4 and rang me up. They wanted me to do a six-part documentary series on St. Paul. I said yes. The budget was absolutely laughable — $100,000 to do the entire thing. They had no teleprompter and hardly any footage. I was parked in front of a ruin and talked into the camera for as long as possible to fill in time. The Israeli producer said it was a religious film in only one respect — it was a miracle it was finished. There was something rough about the film, but it worked.
FLJ: Is that when you become interested in religious history?
KA: Yes. While I worked and lived in Jerusalem, I became interested in Judaism. I had to learn a lot about 2nd Century Judaism to understand St. Paul. At the same time, I became acquainted with Islam and aware of how profoundly interconnected the two religious are and how little — in spite of my intensely religious past — I knew about either Judaism or Islam. Channel 4 gave me a couple of smaller shows which involved more research and I started researching and writing.
For television you need a certain superficial knowledge — you’re one step ahead of your audience. The film company I worked with got another commission from Channel 4 to do a film about the Crusades and they embezzled all the money. Three years work down the drain! They had made another film for South African TV and used the footage for my film, but they didn’t have the copyright. It was awful and caused extreme consternation at Channel 4. They were a young idealistic company and always said filmmakers should be free. But I was left high and dry and that was the end of my TV career.
I didn’t have many choices. With a bad health record, I wasn’t going to get another teacher’s job. I thought I was too old to start anything else, but it turned out great. I went off to the library, lived on beans for three years and started to research The History of God. I got to delve into stuff instead of looking for something clever and polemical. I had three years of just thinking, but it looked like a hopeless project. I couldn’t find a publisher for it. People said, “You can’t write about God and the three religions in one volume! The religious people won’t want to read it and the secularists and atheists won’t want to read it either. It’s pointless.” Nevertheless, I went on. After a year, a British publisher bought it for very little money. The first publisher who had the option in San Francisco declined so it went to auction in the U.S. It was a best seller here for over a year.
FLJ: What’s the writing process like for one of your books?
KA: The big books take three years — not the little ones where it’s just a summary of the research like Islam. The Battle for God took two years just for the research — which is the part I love the best — I’m a scholar. There’s nothing better than sitting in libraries, taking notes and underlining things in red. Eventually, I have to call a halt to the research, because I could go on forever.
The first drafts are about three times as long as the final book — turgid, awful. It’s a bit like a horrible building site, you’re mashing all the material, there are clouds of swirling dust, you can’t live in it, and it’s an amalgam of what everyone else thought. In the second draft you start seeing what it’s all about. It can be that you’re reading a book and you suddenly think “Oh, that’s what it is!” That’s what happened to Jerusalem. I was racing for a taxi, picked a book off the shelf and it showed me what it was all about. With the last book, my Danish translator gave me a book — a dry tome — about myth and rational thought. Suddenly everything fell into place. I just love that — the process of something coming together. I read all these tomes by scholars in the process of research and I acknowledge them in the books, but I like to think something of mine — a little different — comes out.
The whole intensity of having to work to a deadline is important. It gears you up, the adrenaline flows; you push yourself very hard, beyond normal. It’s a mysterious process and a long one. In the end you’re depleted. It’s like having a baby, except after you’ve had it, you give it to someone else to look after for a while
FLJ: What’s your creative day like?
KA: It’s a job, just like any other job and you have to go at it the same way. I usually go to the gym in the morning — exercise, shower, have breakfast. At half-past nine, I go to work either at home in my study or at the British Library, which is terrific. The new building of the British Library is about a mile from my home so I walk there and back. It’s not a very scenic walk, but it’s good for me. I have a short lunch — a micro waved meal at home or sandwiches if I’m at the library. At six-o’clock on the dot, I stop, have a glass of wine and watch the news. I’m tired then and it’s no use going on because I won’t do good work.
FLJ: Who’s your audience?
KA: It’s very interesting — in the U.K. there is no interest in religion at all. Over here I’m impressed with how religiously adventurous Americans are. They come to the bookstores — it’s very refreshing. Americans want to learn. The questions they ask show they are really pushing the limits. The last time I spoke in New York, a chap sitting in the front row (a truck driver) said “I’ve heard you speak three times now. Would you mind doing me a favor and moving to New York City so we can hear this kind of talk about religion more often?”
Our image of American religion over in the U.K. is that everyone is born again or rather happy-clappy and it’s just not so. There are very exciting things happening in the religious world in America — young people, old people, middle-aged people are asking good questions. They’re interested in learning about other faiths. They realize their own traditions teach them a great deal and that’s where they want to stay, but they also realize there are things they can learn in our global world. It’s no more realistic to confine yourself to one tradition than it is to confine yourself in any other way — the horizons have broadened so much.
FLJ: How has your work been received by the academic community?
KA: Here, very generously, because I’m a popularizer, but in the UK that’s bad news. I don’t understand why, because these are important issues — too important to keep to academia that actually tends to write for one another. In England, religion is a dead subject at most universities.
In the U.S., I’ve been received with immense generosity. There are a few who turn up their noses at me and sometimes write to that effect. I’ve been invited to give a lecture and tutorials at Harvard, which I’m looking forward to. I’ve been invited as a guest scholar for several weeks at Georgetown University and Notre Dame University. In America, you might not have the right credentials to get a job, but they are quite generous. You have one of the best Islamic scholars in the world and he’s been nothing but supportive. Here I am in my impudence, self-taught and not knowing the languages — but there is a huge sense of openness and generosity.
This interview continues in Part II where Ms. Armstrong discusses her book the Battle for God and rise of fundamentalism around the word. Part III covers the history of Islam and its place in the modern world.