Culture Clash

Driving through the streets of Jerusalem for the first time, Karen Armstrong felt as if she had stepped into a myth. "Jesus had probably walked up those steps leading to the Temple Mount. He had certainly walked right here beside the Sea of Galilee," she writes in "The Spiral Staircase" (306 pages. Alfred A. Knopf). During her seven years in a British convent, Armstrong had spent countless hours in meditation, attempting to conjure up those very sights. Now as a scholar and lapsed nun, "these holy places entered my mind and heart in a way they had never done. I could understand why so many people felt possessive about the Holy Land. I was beginning to feel that it was mine, too."

Armstrong has spent much of the last 30 years examining religion with academic precision. But "Spiral Staircase" is a different kind of book. It's the story of her own struggle to readjust to the secular world of Oxford in the 1960s after being cloistered. It was not an easy transition. Along the way she faced isolation, depression and unexplained fainting spells eventually diagnosed as epilepsy.

Armstrong, who has written more than 15 books, has long chronicled the fault lines between the East and West, and the clash between modernity and the ancient traditions of Islam. "Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World" (1988) explains the Arab obsession with the bloody events of the Dark Ages. Another work, "Islam: A Short History" (2000), traces the split between Shiite and Sunni Islam, in a far more readable style than many Middle East scholars. She is known for her moderate views, and her interest in exploring the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The cultural clash Armstrong takes on in "The Spiral Staircase" is no less compelling. Her alienation from God and faith left her forlorn, lost and, at times, angry. During a visit to the convent, she was outraged to find one of her friends stricken with anorexia. The nuns were in denial about her precarious condition. "The whole decorous structure of the convent suddenly seemed a sham," she writes.

Armstrong came to terms with her religion, and found her way into a successful career as a secular scholar. The book is named after T. S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday" because "when you're going up a spiral staircase, you often seem to be making no headway, you seem to be going round and round and yet you are in fact pushing forward." Armstrong, ironically, has pushed her new life close to the God she formerly refused to serve. The author understands the faithful because she has lived devoutly herself.