At Religion Dispatches, religion scholar and now-activist Karen Armstrong talks with Laurie L. Patton about her more than 20 books and her new Charter for Compassion initiative:

Karen ArmstrongOne of the things that strikes me about your work is its love of the big story—whether it’s a history of fundamentalism, or god, or the axial age, or women’s ordination. As scholars we tend to make our living on “the small story,” and yet I think the integrative vision that suffuses your work is also increasingly necessary in today’s world—both in the academy and outside of it. What drew you to the big stories, and how did you become comfortable writing them? And relatedly, might the Charter for Compassion be a kind of plea for us to tell ourselves a different kind of “big story?”

Well, I am an academic outcast. I wanted to become a professor of English Literature but failed to achieve this. And I think it was a good thing because, as you so rightly say, I am drawn to the Big Story, which is not in vogue in academia today. From the time I was a small child, I loved the big, sprawling novels of the Victorians. And as soon as I started writing A History of God, I felt that I had found my métier. I felt immediately comfortable—and that is probably why I was not able to succeed in the academic world. But I rely on the immensely intricate work of scholars working on the “small story.” Sometimes it is important to put all these small stories together.

Also I believe that all this religious material is immensely important to the world today. And the work of many academics is not always accessible to non-specialists and yet it is too important to be confined to the university. So I see myself as a “popularizer”—again that would be anathema to many academics! And yes, the Charter is a plea to look at the Big Story of humanity, see that we are one, that we need one another, and learn, as the Qur’an says, “To get to know one another.”

Read more at Religion Dispatches, and look out for a forthcoming exclusive interview with Karen Armstrong at The Immanent Frame.