Neil MacGregor is pre-eminently a teacher. He possesses the teacher’s two vital gifts, which are the ability to distinguish things that are interesting from things that are not, and the capacity to change the second category into the first ... Living with the Gods is based on a BBC Radio 4 series, and seeming to hear MacGregor’s calm, educated tones as you read is one of its pleasures ... He maintains scrupulous scholarly objectivity, writing respectfully about all the main religions, and sensitively about ways of feeling beyond our understanding ... he is unwilling to criticize any religious observance, however horrible ... Some readers might feel that this is taking religious toleration a bit far. But it is because MacGregor draws on his knowledge to open new perspectives that Living With the Gods is such a mind-expanding book.
What is it that religion provides us that nothing else can? And what can’t religion give us that might be supplied elsewhere? Neil MacGregor’s Living With the Gods helps us think about these matters from the widest possible perspective ...The artifacts in Living With the Gods link the natural elements, each with its own degree of controllability and predictability, to the origins of human religious order, in which priests, laity, experts and craftsmen all found a place. Indeed, this is Mr. MacGregor’s main thesis: that religion, above all, produces community. It unifies a people through ceremony and ritual ... Yet as Mr. MacGregor moves forward in time to the major living religions, principally Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, his objects begin to suggest something different. What strikes the reader is not so much the cohesion of unified belief communities as the development of divisions within each ... In response [to questions about what religion can supply to worshippers], the objects in Mr. MacGregor’s book quietly offer the most potent of replies.
In times like these, where it can seem that our differences outweigh our commonalities, Neil MacGregor’s Living with the Gods is a comforting big-picture consideration of the significance of belief and religious practice ... uncovering along the way some surprising—at least to anyone allergic to the topic of religion—arguments about the way religion has been used to shape the relationship of the individual with the collective ... An ideal rainy Sunday read, MacGregor’s writing is accessible and unpretentious. A profusion of avuncular anecdotes about various practices, rituals, turning points and objects becomes an overall exploration of what he terms the essential 'human predicament' ... the book transcends the merely interesting ... he deftly navigates complex assertions for and against religion, avoiding straw men, and allowing those he quotes to speak without interruption. At the same time, the structure of his argument tends to encourage the view that institutional religion is a necessity for community ... Living with the Gods is a valuable reminder, in these troubled times, of why and how we live together.
Despite its familiar title, MacGregor’s new offering is not just the book version of last year’s Living With the Gods exhibition of religious objects at the British Museum (and the accompanying Radio 4 series). Instead, he broadens out the core idea he explored there—that a religious past defines who we are now, regardless of our own attachment or not to faith institutions—to apply it to the present and future of a world scarred by conflicts that have religion at their heart ... Through often very specific objects, he manages as effortlessly and magisterially as we have come to expect from him to deliver a siren warning of the dangers of sidelining the gods to a comprehensive audience.
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 reminds us that the momentous political questions of our age are, in fact, little different from those of earlier ones.
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 ... 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.
Best-known for the acclaimed History of the World in 100 Objects, MacGregor is a highly original and effective communicator who brings to Living with the Gods the same intellectual ambition and cultural insight as was on display with earlier comparable projects ... many of the objects are extraordinary and allow one to connect with the multiple and diverse ways in which human beings have given expression to their collective ideas about human beings and their place in the world, particularly through material culture. One cannot but be captivated ... The analysis of...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 artifacts ... it provides a different kind of insight into these enduring and important themes.
For the most part it does not disappoint ... the pictures are gorgeous, the choices MacGregor makes of what to write about are often surprising and therefore fresh ... the pictures and MacGregor’s contextualization of them are enough to make a very superior coffee-table book. I enjoyed the syncretic progression ... it’s all there, from Akhenaten to Zarathustra. Or mostly. It is very hard to illustrate atheism with objects unless you equate it, as MacGregor in essence does, with the failed experiments in revolutionary France or Russia ... I rather wonder too if MacGregor hasn’t underdone the flipside of religion. It’s not that it isn’t there, but it seems to me offset by a noble desire not to condemn ... Nor is there anything here about religion and sex, which is an omission that is hard to understand, since MacGregor is no prude ... Sometimes good just has to be enough.
... a whirlwind, though deeply satisfying, tour of the world’s religions ... This is a world-ranging book of sharp juxtapositions and surprises ... As good a comparative survey of religion as there is and a pleasure to contemplate.