...the book shows how entrenched the spiritual has been in humans and society... MacGregor is as comfortable drawing back to show what the tomb at Newgrange, Ireland, or the religious palimpsest of Jerusalem says about how people have lived with their gods... The book is more than coffee table aesthetics or even “mere anthropology”, and has a sharp, contemporary edge... The triumph of Living with the Gods is that it manages to recognise but avoid both of these extremes, marrying the aesthetic and political dimensions of religion without reducing it to either.
MacGregor’s warm and friendly prose is often reinforced by contributions from a wide range of scholars famous in their fields... to place the unfamiliar and the familiar side by side so that the echoes between them can be heard is to make the familiar fresh and sometimes startling... From any point of view it is easy to regard many of MacGregor’s instances as consoling in the reassurance they give to the faithful... Now and then in this rich and rewarding book the awareness of loss sounds an elegiac note.
This scholarly, elegantly written book is a reminder of how seldom, when visiting a museum, most of us take the time to inquire into what lies behind the objects we look at. Living with the Gods is a celebration of curiosity...However, as MacGregor admits, everywhere from Pakistan to Israel, Myanmar to Nigeria, religion is increasingly shaping national identity and politics, and driving territorial disputes. It is also hard not to feel, at the end of this fascinating book, that with our battery farms, exploitation of resources, pollution and the hunting of animals and birds to extinction, the interrelationship between humans and the living world is seriously out of kilter. We have a very long way to go before we live properly either with the gods or with each other.
The book is obviously culled from the scripts and interviews that went into the making of the radio series. It retains the conversational flavour of the original, but at times the constraints of the format make for a disjointed argument; it is difficult to summarise the book except in the most general terms. ‘Living with the Gods’ does just about sum it up, even though the book also includes those who attempt to live without them...Living with the Gods is a fascinating but also at times frustrating work, as these media tie-in books often are. A visit to the British Museum could be the remedy.
From the haunting Ice Age Lion Man, carved in mammoth ivory and effectively discovered in the late 1960s, to the revolutionary atheist Perpetual Calendar of the French Republic, the pictures and MacGregor’s contextualisation of them are enough to make a very superior coffee-table book. I enjoyed the syncretic progression, for example, from the many-breasted Artemis of the Ephesians, via the Virgin Mary to the blessed Princess Diana, with each incarnation sharing not just a perception of the holy protectress, but also many of the shrines and rites.
One cannot but be captivated by, for example, the Lion Man of Ulm, which opens the book, and which is arguably the earliest evidence of religious belief among humans, representing, as MacGregor argues, a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature and beyond human experience. The analysis of this and all other objects is quite general, and likely to frustrate some readers. However, the strength of the book is not in its detailed analysis of each object, but rather in its thoughtful and sometimes provocative reflections on religion and religiosity through this exceptional range of artefacts.
What belief system, if any, MacGregor himself professes it is impossible to tell. He maintains scrupulous scholarly objectivity, writing respectfully about all the main religions, and sensitively about ways of feeling beyond our understanding, such as the link between humans and the spirits of the land in Pacific Island communities. His ideal is a society in which different religions coexist in peace and mutual toleration, so he is unwilling to criticise any religious observance, however horrible...it is because MacGregor draws on his knowledge to open new perspectives that Living With the Gods is such a mind-expanding book.
The range of MacGregor’s reference is remarkable. His chapters on theatres of faith and the power of images goes seamlessly from the stories bound into the hair of men in Vanuatu to the too-often overlooked church of St Margaret in Westminster. Whenever a subject comes up with which you think you are sufficiently familiar (the Parthenon, say, or Gilgamesh), MacGregor will lead you towards something unfamiliar... Anyone wishing to deepen, if not change their life, will certainly benefit from this remarkable book.