Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God is a non-fiction history book about the wider social, political and cultural background of the era in which Jesus was born. Although I’m (of course) not a Christian*, this period of globalisation (and the historicity of the bible more generally) is something I have a great interest in, and I’ve been researching and writing on it in a lot of detail for the past nine months.**
As a personal aside, I’m not very cool, so I find the history of the Roman Empire and its methodologies of ideological expansion quite fascinating. And I enjoy, too, learning about the points where heavily biased documents of “fact” bump up against blindly believed documents of “faith”***. This book aims to debunk/discuss these sorts of facts, these sorts of ideas, and this broad historico-mythological period.
O’Grady’s book is global, or at least “global” as far as the Romans would have seen it. Though my interest is focused on the first half of the “first century” at the East End of the Mediterranean, this book offers as much (if not more) detail on the Chinese Han and Xin dynasties****, on the Meroe and Axum kingdoms of Africa, on the German tribes the Romans never defeated, on the Parthian Empire, the Kushan Empire, the spiritualist Apollonius… It discusses in detail the rise of Buddhism, the rise of Hinduism, the structures of polydeistic worship within the Roman empire, the problem of Judaism’s monotheism for a colonialist, Christianity’s suitability to an empire that wanted its people to not revolt, cults that involved castration as an initiation rite, cults that involved fasting atop poles for several days… The book looks at trade routes and how the want to control them led to militaristic expansion and (often) over-reaching, how religion was used as a tool of repression, why messianic cults were considered (by the Romans) to be implicitly dangerous, why Paul was such a successful evangelist, why Zoroastrianism stalled as a global religion, why Buddhism and Hinduism can be seen as opposites, why people crave certain types of faith, why certain types of religion succeed… (Islam doesn’t happen until later.)
So, as that list probably conveys, there is a lot of information in here. There are lots of detail – clothing, foods, plants – that are useful to me as an aspirant writer of fiction, and there is also a lot of historical analysis that is interesting to me as a bit of a loser. The key sections, for me, are where And Man Created God discusses the role of religion within Empire.
The Romans, I have learnt, amalgamated the faiths, the rituals and the practices of all the peoples they conquered/annexxed. They added gods to their own – building temples to foreign deities in their big cities (Rome, Alexandria, etc.), whilst building temples to their own deified emperors and Hellenic gods in the places they overran. This, broadly speaking (according to O’Grady) was successful in most places: in Spain, in Gaul, in North Africa, in Egypt, in Asia Minor… People already worshipping several gods were happy to worship more. But this strategy fell apart when the Romans tried to placate the followers of Judaism*****, a religion that offers two severe barriers to this spiritualist union.
Judaism forbids the worship of other gods. This is an important part of the Torah, and at the point in time this book is about, a pretty radical idea. Yaweh****** claims himself as the superior god, deems recognition of others a grave sin. Thus, obviously, the standard “give some gods, take some gods” policy wouldn’t work there. To be Jewish, one must only worship the Jewish god. And, also, one must already be Jewish. The religion’s notion of a “chosen people”, of a homeland, prevents (again) the amalgamation with an invasive force. If anything, Roman occupation further cemented feelings of alienation and separation and the expected protests resulted in violent repressions that incited more dissidence. And so on.
Christianity, O’Grady argues, removed the idea of a people chosen by god, and instead fostered the idea of a people who chose god. Faith, not family, defines who is holy – anyone can find god, not just anyone already chosen by god.
And this is the closing idea of the book, really, the idea that Christianity (and later Islam) spread to its huge number of adherents because it offered/offers a personal relationship with god. And, crucially, it’s good for rulers to push because it encourages the acceptance of unpleasantness during life, thanks to the (alas, false) promise of a glorious afterlife.
And Man Created God offers a wide insight into lots of cultures I knew nothing about, several of which I’d never heard of; it details cults and religions and their rises and their falls; it includes scandalous court gossip as well as details on trade routes… It is informative, made me laugh at least three times (which is more than some supposedly “fun” novels), and was pleasantly relevant in the sections I had got hold of it to read.
Interesting pop history book. I know most people don’t want that, but if you do, this one’s a good’un.
* It’s 2014, is anyone???
** See previous posts if you lack faith in this pronouncement.
*** Some people do still believe in miracles and angels and resurrection and I find that ASTOUNDING. Many people, though, believe that the broad lack of spirituality in contemporary society is one of the key reasons for the high levels of malaise one notices, stalking the streets.
**** There are several chapters on the rise and fall of the Confucian usurper, Wang Mang.
***** Trying to avoid typing “the Jews”, though O’Grady (like John the Evangelist) doesn’t shy away from it…
****** O’Grady’s spelling.