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The Spiral Staircase:
"I have decided to try again," Karen Armstrong writes at the beginning of The Spiral Staircase, in explaining why she is telling her life story for a second time, 20 years after doing so in Beginning the World. "We should probably all pause to confront our past from time to time, because it changes its meaning as our circumstances alter." That's a clue to the sort of open-minded and intensive inquiry that Armstrong is capable of, which has made her, in those 20 years, a bestselling theologian and historian of religion, known for such hugely popular books as The Battle for God, A History of God, and Islam: A Short History.
In the lucid yet reflective manner that is Armstrong's trademark, The Spiral Staircase recalls her painful early life as a nun, her even more painful reentry into secular society, and most compellingly, the long-undiagnosed epilepsy that made her life a horror show of phantom visions and misplaced hours. We follow Armstrong to the Middle East and elsewhere as she searches for answers to questions no less daunting than the significance of faith. Yet what drives Armstrong is her distaste for and distrust of those who see only black or white, never shades of grey. "I disliked the crusading certainty of Ayatollah Khomeini, yet I was also disturbed by the shrill rhetoric of some of Rushdie's champions," she writes in the wake of debate over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the ensuing fatwa issued by the extremists on the Islamic right. Indeed, as religious dogma divides the world in ever new ways, Armstrong's learned views are especially resonant. But The Spiral Staircase, its name inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem cycle Ash-Wednesday, is not a polemic, despite Armstrong's forceful and persuasive arguments for religious tolerance. Rather, it's a beautiful letter sent by a gifted writer attempting to decode the meaning of her life. Who can't relate? --Kim Hughes [via]