Good afternoon everyone I’m on a special blog tour today to celebrate the short list for the Wolfson History Prize today. As part of the tour I have an extract from God An Anatomy to share with you.
God An Anatomy is available in all formats now. You can get your copy using the links below.
‘Rivetingly fresh and stunning’ – Sunday Times’One of the most remarkable historians and communicators working today’ – Dan Snow
Three thousand years ago, in the Southwest Asian lands we now call Israel and Palestine, a group of people worshipped a complex pantheon of deities, led by a father god called El. El had seventy children, who were gods in their own right. One of them was a minor storm deity, known as Yahweh. Yahweh had a body, a wife, offspring and colleagues. He fought monsters and mortals. He gorged on food and wine, wrote books, and took walks and naps. But he would become something far larger and far more abstract: the God of the great monotheistic religions.
But as Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou reveals, God’s cultural DNA stretches back centuries before the Bible was written, and persists in the tics and twitches of our own society, whether we are believers or not. The Bible has shaped our ideas about God and religion, but also our cultural preferences about human existence and experience; our concept of life and death; our attitude to sex and gender; our habits of eating and drinking; our understanding of history. Examining God’s body, from his head to his hands, feet and genitals, she shows how the Western idea of God developed. She explores the places and artefacts that shaped our view of this singular God and the ancient religions and societies of the biblical world. And in doing so she analyses not only the origins of our oldest monotheistic religions, but also the origins of Western culture.
Beautifully written, passionately argued and frequently controversial, God: An Anatomy is cultural history on a grand scale.
Introduction: Dissecting The Divine
In June 2018, news platforms across much of the world published a photograph of God. ‘Does THIS photograph show the true face of God?’ shouted one click- bait headline. ‘Science reveals the face of God and it looks like Elon Musk’, teased another. Others, including NBC’s website, were rather less sensationalist in their headlines: ‘The face of God is in the eye of the beholder’. The photograph in question showed a fuzzy black- and-white image of a middle- aged, beardless Caucasian male, with a soft, rounded face and just a hint of a smile (fig. 1). The image was produced by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who showed a demographically representative sample of US Christians a series of computer- generated faces embodying certain cultural stereotypes of emotional, ethical, social and spiritual values, and asked them to select those faces perceived to best reflect their mental image of God. Some of the faces were androgynous in appearance, while some were more feminine, and some more masculine. All the faces were grey, like a black- and- white photocopy, but some were lighter skinned and some were darker skinned. Some faces were expressive, some were seemingly blank. But each face was a canvas onto which the experiment’s
Psychologists and social anthropologists have long understood that
Similar ideas were soon championed by other Greek thinkers, most notably Plato (c. 429– 347 bce), his student Aristotle (c. 384– 322 bce) and subsequent generations of their elitist, learned adherents in the Graeco- Roman world, who theorized that the divine power ultimately undergirding the universe and everything in it was necessarily without a body – an incorporeal, invisible, abstract principle, force or intellect, wholly beyond and distinct from the material world. Not that these rarefied views made much of an impact on the religious lives of ordinary folk. Whether they were schooled in philosophy or not, and no matter the deities they worshipped, most people living in the Graeco- Roman world continued to envisage their gods as corporeal beings with bodies shaped like their own – much as they always had.
But towards the close of the first millennium bce, and into the early centuries of the Common Era, these erudite philosophical ideas would gradually come to shape the thinking of certain Jewish and Christian intellectuals, so that they began to re- imagine their deity in increasingly incorporeal, immaterial terms, drawing ever- sharper distinctions between the heavenly and the earthly, the divine and the human, and the spiritual and the bodily. It is the broadly Platonic notion of the otherness and unlikeness of the divine to anything in or beyond the universe that has shaped the more formal theological constructions of God in the Western religious imagination. And yet these constructions are built on a conceptual framework very much at odds with the Bible itself, for in these ancient texts, God is presented in startlingly anthropomorphic ways. This is a deity with a body.
About The Author:
Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou studied theology at Oxford and is currently Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. The author of a number of academic works, she also presented the BBC 2 documentary series The Bible’s Buried Secrets. She regularly appears on BBC1’s The Big Questions and Sunday Morning Live, and has appeared on several Radio 4 shows, including Woman’s Hour, The Infinite Monkey Cage and The Museum of Curiosity. She writes for The Guardian, The Mail on Sunday, and the Times Literary Supplement, and has spoken about the Bible, religion, and atheism at numerous public events, including the Cheltenham Science Festival, the World Humanist Congress, and Conway Hall’s annual London Thinks festival. Her contribution (on the same subject as the book) to Dan Snow’s History Hits podcast is currently its most popular ever episode.