Book Review: Fields of Blood (Armstrong)

Fields of BloodFor many people living in the West, an assumption exists that religion is inherently violent. After all, they say, just look at the evidence: religion has caused wars, the Crusades, terrorism, religion has made people hate and kill others for nothing more than the ideas that were in their heads. According to this view, religions are not only necessarily violent, but they are responsible for much (if not all) of the violence in recorded human history. However, an explanation of the history of violence is not so simple, argues Karen Armstrong in her latest book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 512 pages). According to Armstrong, though violence is an unfortunate reality of human history, evil and warfare are not necessarily religious in nature nor does violence always arise from religion. In the impressive and exhaustive tome that is Fields of Blood, Armstrong traces the relationship between religion and the history of violence, arguing that “We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in world.”

In the first part of Fields of Blood, Armstrong considers ancient agrarian communities and their transition to civilization. Chapter one traces ancient religion, recounting tales from ancient Sumer, Mesopotamia, Caucus, Greece, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and Northern India. Armstrong does an especially good job in this chapter summarizing important literary evidence from these ancient regimes and coalescing it into an overarching portrayal of the relationship between what today we would classify as warfare, socio-economic power, politics, and religion, demonstrating the unity of these facets of ancient life.

Darsan in HinduismIn chapter two Armstrong turns to India, examining the relationship between organized theft and violence in the ancient world, and how rituals began to make difficult practices easier. Outlining the integration of Aryan thought into Vedic practice and development of the Indian caste system, Armstrong succinctly and accurately discusses the emergence of dukkha (awry-ness of life), samsara (cycle of rebirth), karma (deeds determine existence), and moksha (liberation from awry-ness and rebirth) in Indian religion, as well as the renunciant dissident movements of Jainism (who followed Mahavira) and Buddhism (who followed Sidhattha Gotama). Central to the grand theme of Fields of Blood is Ashoka’s dilemma, which inquires if a king may rule compassionately, resisting the violence of others and not perpetuating that violence himself. This problem Armstrong labels the “dilemma of civilization,” and though the Bhagavad Gita proposed something of an answer for the Indian context, it is a problem that human civilizations would visit again and again throughout history.

Almost no one talks about Chinese religion, especially in books written for Western audiences, where Chinese thought, let alone ancient Chinese religious reflection, are extremely foreign concepts. Fields of Blood, however, does not shy away from engaging ancient China in the third chapter, where Armstrong talks about the Way (Dao) and how the ancient Chinese conceived of warfare as a legitimate Way to Heaven. This chapter also outlines the way in which the writings of Kongfuzi (Confucius), Mozi, and the Daodejing influenced religious reflection. As in India, a central problem for the Chinese was that the growth of empire depended on force and intimidation, which were necessarily antithetical to the ren, the ideal of altruism and peace.

Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong

In chapter four Armstrong tackles ancient Hebrew religion. As this story is more familiar to her audience, Armstrong more clearly underlines her revisionist position on the history of the people of Israel than in her previous chapters. While the internal logic and message of this chapter is clear enough (the Hebrew Bible was rewritten several times to explain new situations and new instances of violence), it would have been nice to see more engagement with “traditional” sources and contextualized explanations from the Hebrew Bible. In other words, for readers not familiar with contemporary scholarship on the Hebrew Bible, this chapter will likely elicit a good deal of resistance. Instead of meeting readers where they are and offering a correction of their views, Armstrong begins with her correction and then offers reasons for why this particular view fits her overarching thesis. Unfortunately, chapter four ends with a perplexing section on the bloodlust of the ancient Hebrew prophets, who apparently sought vindictive retribution from the newly minted monotheistic deity they were proclaiming. This serves as a fitting end to a chapter that tries to do too much for the argument Armstrong advances.

Early Christian SarcophagusIn the second part of Fields of Blood, Armstrong outlines the development of religious violence from the time of Christ to beginnings of the modern period. The fifth chapter weighs in on Jesus and his early followers, suggesting that “Jesus was born into a society traumatized by violence. His life was framed by revolts.” Armstrong emphasizes early Christian apocalyptic attitudes (and connects this nicely to Jewish conceptions of apocalyptic), the reality of Roman colonialism of ancient Palestine, and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God as an alternate to the existing socio-religious and political situation in the first century. However, the presentation of early Christianity in this chapter is severely lacking. The posited explanation of the resurrection is historically unconvincing (even a short footnote would have been a better explanation than the philosophically naturalistic bunk that a vision launched Christianity). Armstrong’s understanding of early Christology is so ill-informed that she doesn’t bother to cite a source for her views. This chapter has some redemptive qualities in its focus on the religio-political aspects of early Christianity, especially when the discussion shifts to third century Christianity (though this section is not without its problem either). Yet even on this topic it would have been nice to see more explicit consideration of how early Christian theology transformed attitudes about Rome and politics. However, any value from these sections does not outweigh the train wreck that composes the rest of the chapter. As someone who studies early Christianity, this was simply appalling. I would not recommend this chapter of Fields of Blood for someone interested in ascertaining an accurate picture of early Christian faith and practice.


Chapter six discussed how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman/Byzantine Empire(s). In a treatment far more balanced than that given to the earliest Christians, Armstrong outlines the rise of Constantine and toleration of Christianity, recounts the life of Saint Antony and formation of desert monasticism, and gives a “who’s who” of fourth century theologians and their interactions with imperial power. Central to this chapter are the Christological controversies, especially how they became increasingly politicized and violent. Justinian, for instance, and his penchant for proper doctrine and persecution of the Jews receives treatment (though the fact that he was a trained theologians does not). In the end, Armstrong contrasts Maximus the Confessor’s concept of deification and “realized eschatology” with the tyranny of the emperors and certain bishops, an apparent demonstration of the “two ways” in which Christian attitudes toward religious violence were developing.

The next chapter traces the life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. Here too Armstrong locates the central conservation between religion and politics, the balance between “ruthlessness and mercy”, on display in the Qur’an. Coverage of the Muslim conquests of the (Christian) Roman Empire is relatively brief, though Armstrong takes the time to underline a couple instances of Muslim toleration of the Christians whom they had conquered. In fact, this chapter dwells more on how conceptions of violence were shaped through Islamic civil war than on conquest of the lands that had been “Christian” for hundreds of years. Attention is also given to the Sunni and Shi’ite split, as well as the solidification of Islamic theology. Overall, this chapter serves as a helpful contextualization of the early years of the Islamic Empire and Muslim views on religious violence.

Jihad and CrusadeThe title of chapter eight needs no introduction: “Crusade and Jihad.” After offering an overview of medieval Europe and its struggle for power between popes and emperors, Armstrong delves into the motivations behind the launching of the crusades, ultimately finding them to be a mix of religious, political, and uninformed impulses, alternatingly manned by blundering, murderous fools in search of wealth and adventure and pious Christians on pilgrimage doing with will of God. In any event, the Muslim’s were shocked by the Crusades and responded in like violence against any gains the Crusaders made. All in all, this chapter follows a fairly standard presentation of the Crusades as unwarranted incursions into Muslim lands and the Muslim response to the atrocities committed by the European Christians. One wonders how different this period might be in popular historical consciousness if historians focused on the fact that the Muslim Empire first invaded Christian lands and the relationship between the Byzantine Empire and Islam.

Part three of Fields of Blood examines religion and the history of violence in the modern period. Lest this review become too long, only brief summary of these sections will follow. Chapter nine discusses the arrival of Christianity and colonialism in the New World, the Inquisition in Spain, and the violence that accompanied attempts at theological reformation in Europe. Following the lead of William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence, Armstrong problematizes the common conception of the “Wars of Religion” of the 16th and 17th centuries. Yet she also rightly notes that these wars were not all political either: religion and politics were still intertwined categories at this point. With the writings of John Locke, a new player arrived on the scene in the West: religious toleration in the name of a “separated” church and secular state. In chapter ten, Armstrong outlines the development of these ideals, focusing on the American and French Revolutions and then briefly tracing world history through World War I. Chapter eleven focuses on the rise of religious fundamentalisms—Christian, Jewish, and Muslim—that sprang from disagreements with Modernity. Likewise, chapter twelve examines the modern history of terrorism and chapter thirteen engages jihad. These last three chapters, while not perfect (or always entirely fair) in their representations of various religious groups, nonetheless offer balance and insightful reading on how contemporary religious violence and contemporary attitudes about this violence have emerged. Armstrong concludes with the following statement: “We have seen that, like the weather, religion ‘does lots of different things.’ To claim that is has a single, unchanging, and inherently violent essence is not accurate.”

World ReligionsOverall, Fields of Blood is something of a mixed bag, though this is not entirely surprising given the incredible breadth of the book. This work would serve as an excellent basic introduction to the place of politics and religion in the earliest recorded human civilizations. Additionally, the treatments of ancient India and China are insightful and informative. Armstrong’s treatment of Judaism is academically informed, but perhaps not best-suited for a popular audience. As noted above, the engagement with early Christianity remains severely lacking, although interactions with imperial Christianity more balanced. Christianity in the medieval and modern periods is treated fairly enough, though the historian within me was often hoping for further contextualization and nuance. The presentation of Islam, while not without its occasional oversimplifications, offers much needed insight and nuance into a religion that is too often characterized in totalizing terms as extreme—either extremely violent or extremely misunderstood.

The section on violence in the modern period gives readers much to think about, and may serve as a valuable problematization of contemporary conceptions concerning religion. On the topic of religion, Armstrong’s discussion of what exactly may be meant by the term “religion” remains an important conversation that needs to be held on a wider scale. A terminological problem long recognized by scholars, this book should be commended for bringing this conversation to the attention of a more casual reader. Additionally, the ongoing dialogue in this text between what constitutes “history” and what constitutes “myth” highlights the importance of determining which is which; making this conversation more explicit and clearly defined from the beginning would have been beneficial. Of course, highlighting these issues raises an important question, namely, who constitutes Armstrong’s audience for this book. While the writing style certainly suggests a popular audience, the bulk of this work may be daunting for the average reader. Nevertheless, this work offers much to readers willing to traverse its depths.

FoB ArmstrongIn the early portions of Fields of Blood, Armstrong does a remarkable discussing religion in ancient India, China, and Israel; however, discussions of the development of human civilization often incorporate a fourth influence: Ancient Greece. While this book is already quite lengthy and the discussion of the ancient world already truncated, the Grecian (and eventually Greco-Roman) tradition of religious thought remains central to a fully contextualized engagement with religious violence, especially in the Christian tradition. In the few pages Greco-Roman religion is discussed, Armstrong missed the consensus and nuances of more recent scholarship, instead resorting to outdated conceptions of Roman religion. In short, one cannot talk about the history of Christian religion and politics without first discussing Greece and Rome, yet Armstrong devotes precious little time to these sources. If there is a lacuna in this otherwise exhaustive book, the neglect of the Greco-Roman tradition is it.

Finally, Armstrong’s major argument—that religion is not inherently violent—is historically accurate and intellectually important. Equally vital are her claims that every organization relies on mythic and/or religious elements and that until the modern period there was no such thing as the “separation of church and state.” Religion is not always an aggressive phenomenon, nor has any major religion been entirely peace-loving. And the same is true of secularism, which since its full-fledged arrival in the 19th century has directly contributed to more bloodshed than the rest of human history combined. Insofar as Fields of Blood is a call to wrestle with uncomfortable realities—whether we presuppose secularism or religion—it is extremely useful. As just noted, Armstrong’s major theses are important contributions to the ways in which religion and religious violence are portrayed and understood in the 21st century. This book is not without its flaws—serious ones in certain instances—but should not detract informed readers from learning lots from Fields of Blood and its engagement of the relationship between religion and then history of violence.

I received this book from Knopf Doubleday in return for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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