Very Short Reviews: Karen Armstrong’s _Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence_

Fields of Blood

Since many people associate religion with the contemporary conflicts we have witnessed across much of the globe since 9/11, it seemed to make sense that this blog review Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. In other words, One Thing after Another read the book so you don’t have to.

Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Anchor Books, 2014).

  1. Armstrong asserts that her primary motive in writing this book consists of refuting an assertion repeated to her relentlessly “like a mantra” by people from all walks of life: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”
  2. Attempting to disprove this assertion makes it unclear who this book is for; scholars do not make these kinds of generalizations in academic forums, and laypeople who do make these kinds of generalizations are unlikely to read an overlong book larded with so much detail that the thesis is occasionally lost.
  3. Along the way, Armstrong does remind her readers of some important, well-established truths: religion is difficult to define; until the emergence of the modern age, people could not really make a distinction between religion and politics; over time, religious traditions have been interpreted in a variety of ways and therefore have no true “essence” (although she undermines this argument by claiming from time to time that a religious tradition was not implicated by the violent acts of its adherents because they were not acting according to the “true” spirit of that tradition); and most faiths have experienced an ambivalent relationship with violence.
  4. Armstrong’s main argument is that the responsibility for the great majority of violence lies with the state and that in the contemporary period, war is the product of imperialism or the strains of modernization; religion has been distorted by these forces and often reflects rather than instigates them.
  5. So far from being the problem, she argues, religion is the solution: “Somehow we have to find ways of doing what religion—at its best—has done for centuries: build a sense of global community, cultivate a sense of reverence and ‘equanimity’ for all, and take responsibility for the suffering we see in the world.”
  6. One of the main problems with this book is that it is too broad (it starts with the Sumerians and proceeds to the present), which means that Armstrong often ventures into areas where she has no experience or background; to name just one of many examples, she claims there is little evidence that humans fought one another before the advent of agriculture and civilization—but since Laurence Keeley wrote War before Civilization (1996), scholars (backed by mounting archaeological evidence) have increasingly taken the view that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were pretty violent.
  7. As other reviewers have pointed out, her history inclines toward an economic and social determinism that tends to be superficial and poorly explained; culture does not display much autonomy in her narrative. (See The Economist:
  8. It is not clear whether Armstrong’s sources influenced or express her stance, but her notes and bibliography are idiosyncratic and often do not reflect the latest literature in the periods or topics she studies.
  9. There are important contradictions in her argument; to name perhaps the most important one, if, as she states, religion could not be distinguished from politics up until the modern period, and political motives generally inspired warfare, it would seem that religion is still culpable.
  10. Or, to look at the same problem from another angle, as Mark Juergensmeyer writes in his Washington Post review of Armstrong’s work, “Religion — in the sense of what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the repository of symbols’ — has also had long relationships with grandiose power, violence and blood. So religion is not totally off the hook.” (See the Washington Post:

Hugh Dubrulle

Professor Moore Studies “The Lived History of Vatican II”

Our Lady of Lourdes Atlanta GA

One Thing After Another’s recent ruminations on anniversaries pointed to many milestones and turning points. In addition to the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and the brutal murders of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman, 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s electoral whipping of Barry Goldwater. Johnson’s victory opened the door to his Great Society programs (in addition to the Civil Rights Act, think Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty). This year is also  the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the British Invasion. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones toured the United States for the first time in 1964.

Some events (like the British Invasion, frankly) cannot be pinned down to one year, but their anniversaries are just as important to recognize. In this category—especially important for Catholics—is the Second Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII (SAINT John XXIII as of Sunday April 27), announced the Council in 1959; its first session convened in Fall 1962. John XXIII’s call for “aggiornamento”—or bringing the church up to date—would fundamentally alter the Church. Between 1962 and 1965, Catholic bishops met in Rome for four sessions. By the time they were finished, they had, among other things, changed the Catholic Mass from Latin to the vernacular, opened up the possibility of ecumenical cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, and encouraged a re-thinking of the Church as the “people of God” rather than a hierarchical institution.

As historians know, however, what those in authority (like bishops or the pope) tell people (like the world’s Catholics) to do and what actually gets done are two very different things. Now, fifty years on, historians are taking up the question of how “regular” Catholics actually lived the reforms of Vatican II. Since 2012 Professor Andrew Moore has worked on a research project sponsored by the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame called “The Lived History of Vatican II.” Fifteen scholars have been examining dioceses around the world, conducting close-grained studies of how Catholics experienced the reforms of Vatican II. Some weeks ago that project culminated in a conference, in which those fifteen scholars joined more than twenty others to present their research about Vatican II.

The conference program can be found here.

In short, these historians found that Vatican II often fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. What the bishops intended was not always what happened. That was true for Professor Moore’s case study, the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He focused his research on one parish, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, which is in the “Sweet Auburn” neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. For most of the twentieth century, this neighborhood was the heart of black Atlanta. Ebenezer Baptist Church (home church of Martin Luther King, Jr.) is down the street, for example. Our Lady of Lourdes was an all-black parish founded in 1912. When the civil rights movement rolled around, its members participated in demonstrations in Atlanta. After Vatican II, the archbishop and other archdiocesan leaders believed that the central message of the Council was that they had to close black parishes and force integration between black and white Catholics. This was not easy, however, and many whites moved to the suburbs to avoid “urban” problems like integration. For their part, black Catholics felt like they were being treated as problems to be solved. It would not be until the early 1980s when black Catholics finally felt like they were truly a part of the local Catholic Church and that their contributions were taken seriously. That was a good result of Vatican II, but the route they took to get there was longer and more circuitous than anyone expected.

After this conference, the plan is for the papers from the project to be collected into a book. The gears of academic publishing grind slowly, but all the authors hope that the book will appear next year, in time to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.