[8 July 2014]
There are certain challenges and limitations inherent to the popular history genre. A chief example is how to balance breadth and depth. It’s no mean task to zero in on that middle ground where the desire for a far-ranging discourse and the goal of illuminating a single, discrete subject can coexist. In the case of Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God, these two ends don’t simply coexist, they actually operate in harmony, and it makes for a very worthwhile and rewarding read.
The subject of And Man Created God isn’t anything novel or provocative. O’Grady, a former producer for the BBC, explores the interplay, collusion, and tension between state and religion across the classical world. As she observes, “Rulers needed religions to keep them on their thrones, just as religion needed rulers to spread their message and protect their followers.” That’s no spectacular insight. State actors will manipulate much of anything at their disposal to guard their interests and steer a compliant populace.
Meanwhile, religious groups – at the very least – would prefer to avoid persecution. Though tenuous and cynical, there are obvious overlapping aims.
And Man Created God is not a work of new and penetrating ideas. But that’s of meager consequence. The joy of the book is found in the way that O’Grady fleshes out and brings to life her subject matter.
She begins in Rome, during the reign of Caesar Augustus, but from there she restlessly pushes east (before returning west to mark the dawn of Christianity’s ascendance), following trade routes, the footsteps of spiritual wanderers, and the march of invading armies. Among others, there are stops in Egypt, the Holy Land, Syria, India, and China.
And Man Created God is an impressively detailed and panoramic survey of how power and piety interacted with one another in the increasingly globalized classical world. The long horizontal reach of O’Grady’s study offers a generous and disparate selection of histories, personalities, and movements to learn about, all while still being guided by the core concept. There’s no central figure to O’Grady’s sprawling narrative – how could there be? – but the two that predominate are Caesar Augustus and Jesus Christ.
Augustus sets the course. The revolution that he engineered following his victory over Mark Antony at the battle of Actium in 31 BC transformed the Roman Republic into an empire, and in the process – a very deliberate, mindful, thoroughgoing process – Augustus instituted the imperial cult. In essence, he self-divinized, becoming the deified emperor, “the focal point of the physical and mental lives of his subject”. Aided by the Pax Romana, which facilitated trade and the growth of bustling urban centers, Augustus spread his cult throughout the broader Mediterranean world, co-opting mystery religions and older traditional gods - Isis from Egypt, Atargatis from Syria - along the way (but usually after fits and starts). Malleable polytheism benefitted the state.
But among the Jews of Palestine and the Diaspora, it was a different story. They were radical monotheists. Their god, Yahweh, was the only god; no competitors existed. Moreover, “Yahweh made great demands of his followers, for, unlike any other god, he made the whole of living a religious matter.” Because serving both god and Rome simply wasn’t a choice, the Jews resisted imperial rule like no other group. They sought deliverance and, in this roiling time of expectation, there were a variety of insurgent movements and would-be political messiahs who tried, but failed, to break the chains of Roman oppression. Catastrophe, to varying degrees, usually was the end result.
That Christianity—relentlessly promoted by the Apostle Paul after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ—would eventually emerge from this milieu in Palestine and elevate to the official state religion of Rome is one of the most remarkable and consequential developments in human history. It’s also an instructive study in divergent belief systems. One was tribal; the other both focused on the individual and universalist. One bitterly opposed Roman governance; the other—quietist and initially unconcerned with earthly power—later supplanted the imperial cult. One posited an unbridgeable chasm between the divine and the human; the other collapsed that distinction in the form of a god-man.
In essence, And God Created Man is a work of comparative religion. As the locus of activity moves ever more eastward, O’Grady maintains a sharp eye on the differing practices, priorities, and truth claims that prevailed among various bodies of believers. After a cursory description of the life of Apollonius, a neo-Pythagorean holy man who was a “contemporary of Christ but more famous at the time”, O’Grady elucidates the spiritual landscape of India where Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Jainism vied.
It’s again the case that the distinctions tell a fascinating story – whether the system exalted the individual or was caste-based, monastic or rooted in community observance, a religion of the masses or of the elite. As O’Grady emphasizes, there was no formula for success. Brahmanism survived by embedding itself in lives of its adherents while Chinese Confucianism (the subject of three chapters toward the end) prospered even as it “made almost no attempt to address itself to ordinary people.” A quintessential elite religion, Confucianism was also, in O’Grady’s words, “the most successful state ideology the world has ever known.”
It’s invigorating material, and though the topic is massive and heady, O’Grady’s presentation remains approachable throughout. She’s fair-minded but not passively uncritical (though she definitely overstates the degree to which Paul “created Christ”). She edifies but still entertains.
Across this big expanse, there’s palace intrigue, diplomatic treachery, peasant uprisings, and saviors of humanity. There’s also the familiar and unsettling question of how to make sense of our world. Oftentimes it seems neither god nor man has the answer.