Jonathan Kirsch is a fine storyteller with a flair for rendering ancient tales relevant and appealing to modern audiences. God Against the Gods finds him in good form, retelling lively stories about the struggle of monotheists against polytheists (and vice versa) from biblical times until the fourth century A.D. when Theodosius the Great outlawed pagan worship and made the Catholic version of monotheism the Roman Empire's state religion. Admirers of the author's earlier books, including Moses: A Life, King David and The Harlot by the Side of the Road, will find much to admire here.
Richard E. Rubenstein
The story of the suppression of polytheistic religions in the ancient world by the ever more powerful monotheistic religions is well known. Kirsch (The Harlot by the Side of the Road) offers his own version of this oft-told tale in a lively and engaging chronicle. Although many scholars point to Israel as the fount of monotheism, Kirsch shows that the earliest impulses toward monotheism can be found in Egypt with pharaoh Akhenaton's attempt to move the nation to the worship of one god. This Egyptian likely influenced Moses, according to Kirsch, and much of the history of early Israel is the history of the worship of one god emerging out of the worship of many gods. Monotheism gained momentum with the development of Christianity and was codified under Constantine. His son Julian strove to return polytheism to the scene by issuing edicts of toleration concerning polytheistic religious customs, but Julian's successor Theodosius I restored monotheism as the official practice of the Empire. Kirsch helpfully points out that the conflict between the worship of many gods and the worship of one true god never disappeared from the lives of Israelites, Jews, or Christians, in spite of many historians' claims to the contrary. In addition, Kirsch observes that monotheistic religions have too often used the worship of one god as a way to persecute those who do not share similar beliefs. While Kirsch breaks no new ground, he demonstrates clearly the ways in which this conflict gave rise to the tensions that exist even within monotheistic religions today. (Mar. 8) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The theme is strong: religious intolerance and a fury of evils, including genocide, began when the believers of "one true god" began quarreling with the believers of "many gods." Kirsch, a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of several books on religion (Moses: A Life), sides with polytheism, which he states was based on liberty, tolerance, and diversity, against monotheism, whose intolerance for other beliefs he claims brought about holy wars, jihads, crusades, and inquisitions. The panorama ranges from ancient Egypt through fourth-century Rome; the players are Egyptian pharaohs, Jewish kings, and two Roman emperors (Constantine "the Christian" and Julian "the pagan") who battle one another for supremacy of their God or gods. The writing is elegant, forceful, and highly energized, befitting a tale of this epic struggle. Now let us wait for a rebuttal from the other side. Recommended for public libraries.-Glenn Masuchika, Rockwell Collins Info. Ctr., Cedar Rapids, IA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
An unsatisfying survey of dogmatic doings in the ancient world by a popularizer of matters biblical. L.A. Times book critic and novelist Kirsch (Moses, 1998, etc.) takes a resolutely gods-for-clods tack here, opening with an instantly off-putting advertisement: "On September 11, 2001, we were reminded once again of the real meaning of the 3000-year-old conflict between monotheism and polytheism"-the putative subject here. Were the Twin Towers staffed by druids and animists? Atta and company, after all, were definitively monotheistic. Never mind the answer, for Kirsch has already galloped off to a merry disquisition on the violence that awaits readers of the Bible, where holy war and martyrdom are commonplace and the deserts of the Holy Land flow with rivers of blood. Kirsch settles down for a long treatment of the misunderstandings and unpleasantries that governed interactions among the polytheistic Greeks and Romans and the famously "stiff-necked" Jews, the former wanting "to make sure that they did not forfeit the blessing of the right god by offering worshipping to all gods," the latter certain that their celestial ruler was the one, true, and incontestable deity. The second view was, of course, inherited by the Christians, who had their own unhappy dealings with the Romans for a few centuries until Julian the Apostate met a Persian (or, Kirsch conjectures, perhaps Christian) spear on a dusty Iranian battlefield and in farewell, gasped, "Thou hast conquered, Galilean!" All well and good, but Kirsch is working well-plowed ground. His analysis, at once sensationalized ("When the Taliban dynamited the Buddhist statuary of Afghanistan, they were heeding the call of the Hebrew Bible") andincomplete, shades into insignificance next to recent work such as Elaine Pagels's Beyond Belief and Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities (both 2003). Old stories ineffectively told. Now, monotheism vs. monotheism: therein hangs a tale.