For years she was tagged the "runaway nun," the rebellious ex-Catholic with outspoken opinions about religion--comparing, for example, Pope John Paul II to a Muslim fundamentalist.Now, with her 12th book, "Islam, a Short History", Karen Armstrong has changed her image. She can still be sharp-tongued, inclined to draw conclusions that get a rise out of critics. But something closer to reconciliation, rather than anger, is propelling her.
Her life in a British convent is 30 years behind her. She spent seven years in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus during the 1960s and later wrote a tell-all book, "Through the Narrow Gate" (St. Martin's Press, 1982) that bemoaned the restrictive life. (The frightened nuns did not know the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had ended for several weeks; they were not allowed to inquire about the outside world.) Armstrong is still hearing about the book: "Catholics in England hate me. They've sent me excrement in the mail."
Readers who have followed her lately are learning her more optimistic ideas about what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common. Three of these books--"A History of God" (Ballantine, 1993), "Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths" (Knopf, 1996) and "The Battle for God" (Knopf, 2000)--show what unites the faiths. Each, Armstrong writes, has developed the image of one Supreme Being who was first revealed to the prophet Abraham. All have historic links to Jerusalem. And more recently, each has built up a rigid conservative strain as a reaction against the modern world.
Last year, the Islamic Center of Southern California honored Armstrong as a bridge builder who promotes understanding among the three faiths. On a book tour last week that included Los Angeles, the Londoner met again with members of the center in a Santa Monica home.