The acclaimed art-history writer and former director of London's National Gallery and of the British Museum examines the ways in which different societies have understood and articulated their places in the cosmic scheme, coupling his narrative explorations with photos of spiritual objects and works of art.
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.