Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The deficiencies of Karen Armstrong

I have the telephone number of the local NPR station (WNYC) programmed into my cell phone so I can pull over to the side of the road and argue with the person uttering absurdities about Christianity (it happens often)--but I never, ever get on the air. So here is what I want to say to/about Karen Armstrong, who was interviewed for the umpteenth time on the Brian Lehrer show (I am not at all interested in reading her books, for reasons that will be clear):

No one working from within the Christian tradition would recognize the Jesus that she talks about. It is not responsible to speak about a religious tradition without working to acknowledging its own understanding of itself. Yeah, I know she was a nun, but it didn't take. Calling Jesus an "axial sage," a "towering religious genius" (among other TRGs, of course) or a "paradigmatic human being" (among other PHBs) misses the point entirely.

Ms. Armstrong has forced Jesus into a framework that serves her own theories about "religion," but no reputable New Testament scholar would agree with her depiction of him as one of several "axial sages" who, turning away from Iron Age violence, sought to nurture "transcendence within the self." What Jesus actually did (at the very least) was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God in his own person.

Moreover, comparing Jesus to Mohammed (or Buddha, for that matter) as though they were essentially the same is intellectually (not to mention religiously) preposterous. All these people who talk about Jesus as a "sage" forget, or overlook to the point of perversity, that the faith proclaims him as the crucified One who was raised by God from the dead. Without that, the Christian faith is nothing. As Will Willimon writes with his typical pungency, the people working with the "sage" or "religious genius" notion share one fundamental assumption: Jesus is dead.

If the Karen Armstrongs of the world want to renounce the Christian confession, they may do that, but those who are leaders in the church should make it clear that such people (and they are legion, though few are so articulate as Armstrong) twist the Christian confession out of all recognition and then present it in such a way as to support their own history-of-religion theories. It really is important for Christians who care about the content of our faith to speak up about the deficiencies in the work of this very popular and influential writer.