Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor’s Living With the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples explores objects, rituals, and places in terms of what they reveal about faith and spirituality. Beginning with the 40,000-year- old Lion Man of Ulm, MacGregor takes us on a penetrating and insightful journey that spans centuries, crosses all corners of the globe, and interrogates the religious traditions of the past and present with compassion and respect.

MacGregor was director of the British Museum from 2002-2015. He generously illustrates his text with beautiful color photographs taken primarily from exhibits in the British Museum. He deconstructs each exhibit, situating it in context, and explaining its function in ritual and/or as an object of faith with the goal of elucidating how we worship.  

In addition to explaining the role of objects, natural phenomena, and rituals, MacGregor takes us to locations which harbor religious significance—sacred spaces pregnant with mystery which presumably function(ed) as gateways to the supernatural realm. These sites include pre-historic caves with their cryptic drawings; the underground tomb In Ireland’s Newgrange; the excavation site at Gobekli Tepe in south-east Turkey; Girsu in Iraq; Lake Guatavita in the Columbian Andes; cathedrals, synagogues, temples, and mosques in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe. MacGregor also explores the role of ceremonies, prayers, festivals, and songs as communal activities that bind a people together, providing them with a cohesive identity.

MacGregor’s persona is knowledgeable, curious, non-judgmental, non-dogmatic, immensely humane, compassionate, sensitive, and respectful of the various traditions and cultures. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this text is the way MacGregor takes an object, ritual, or ceremony and unveils its similarities with the religious activities and paraphernalia of cultures that are worlds apart and seemingly very diverse. Through these explorations, he is able to draw connections from the past to the present, from one culture to the next. It is a fascinating and wholistic enterprise which demonstrates over and over again that in spite of the ethnic, regional, racial, and religious differences that cause so much violent conflict all over the world, we all emerged from the same stock, share the same anxieties, hopes, and goals. And even though we may pursue different paths to get us there, the “there” we want to get to is fundamentally the same today as it has always been.

This penetrating text exploring religious objects, sacred spaces, ceremonies, and rituals to remind us we have more in common with each other than we have differences is more essential and relevant today than it has ever been. 

Highly recommended. A pleasure to read with color photos to feast the eyes.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review