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the Complete Review
the complete review - religion


Francesca Stavrakopoulou

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To purchase God

Title: God
Author: Francesca Stavrakopoulou
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 423 pages
Availability: God - US
God - UK
God - Canada
Gott - Deutschland
  • An Anatomy
  • With 57 figures and 33 color plates

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Catholic Herald . 2/9/2021 Jack Miles
Literary Review . 9/2021 Simon Yarrow
New Humanist . Fall/2021 Mathew Lyons
New Statesman . 13/10/2021 Rowan Williams
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/2/2022 Karen Armstrong
Sunday Times . 12/9/2021 Christopher Hart

  From the Reviews:
  • "Anything but distracted by biblical references to God’s body, Stavrakopoulou is aesthetically entranced by them and programmatically attentive to their iconographic and literary contexts from ancient southwest Asia in the fourth millennium BCE to Christian and Jewish Europe as late as the 16th century. (...) Boldly simple in concept, God: An Anatomy is stunning in its execution. It is a tour de force, a triumph, and I write this as one who disagrees with Stavrakopoulou both on broad theoretical grounds and one who finds himself engaged with her in one narrow textual spat after another. (...) She greets any metaphorical or figurative reading of body language in the Bible as a fetter to be cast off, and it is fun to watch her do this (...) Stavrakopoulou is great fun to read." - Jack Miles, Catholic Herald

  • "Stavrakopoulou’s thesis is that even during the six centuries over which the books of the Old Testament were written, the immense physicality of this wilder divinity was being erased, not least under the sway of Platonism. (...) God: An Anatomy is a tour de force. Stavrakopoulou has created not just an extraordinarily rich and nuanced portrait of Yahweh himself, but an intricate and detailed account of the cultural values and practices he embodied, and the wider world of myth and history out of which he emerged." - Mathew Lyons, New Humanist

  • "Language that most religious readers have unreflectively treated as vaguely poetic licence (God’s right arm, the soles of his feet, his internal organs, his face, his breath, even his genitals) is shown to be rooted in mythical conventions that cannot be taken as straightforwardly metaphorical. (...) The book presents this picture with a wealth of scholarly detail and much gusto (and occasional tabloidish hype). Stavrakopoulou is a distinguished scholar of the archaeological record and summarises its data with skill. But the interpretation of her material raises some large questions." - Rowan Williams, New Statesman

  • "Yahweh, she complains, was transformed by Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides into a timeless, changeless, immaterial deity, wholly unlike anything in the earthly realm, while Christians developed the incomprehensible conundrum of the Trinity: “Three in one and one in three !” Instead, she believes, we should return to the ancient Israelite mythology. But this is not how religion works. At its best, it demands that, as circumstances change, we respond creatively and innovatively to the present." - Karen Armstrong, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Francesca Stavrakopoulou's take on (the Abrahamic-)God(-conception) in God is, just as the subtitle promises: An Anatomy. She notes in her Introduction that:

     While I was studying theology and religion at university, there was a broad assumption among lecturers and students alike that the God of the Bible is without a body.
       As she points out, however:
But as I looked closely at the books comprising the Bible, I couldn't find this bodiless God. Instead, the ancient texts conjured up a startling corporeal image of God as a human-shaped deity
       That corporeal image is, of course, still with us -- notably in more recent artistic representations of this particular Almighty, such as, as she puts it, the "white-haired sovereign elder of the cosmos" also found in Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam. Apparently, there have long been efforts to explain this away theologically, as somehow merely symbolic or allegorical -- apparently quite successful efforts, given the broad assumption Stavrakopoulou encountered at university -- but, as she shows here, the sheer amount of literal and physical evidence, and its forms, suggesting that 'God' was conceived and long seen as very much humanoid is quite overwhelming. So also, in tracing the history of the God-story, i.e. the pre-biblical shaping of the Yahweh-figure that became the 'God' of the Bible, it is clear that the character was always seen as very human-like in anatomy (if also, from early on, at least larger-than-life, including physically).
       Stavrakopoulou makes her case from bottom to top, dividing her book into five parts, each focused on a different part of the (Divine's) body: 'Feet and Legs', 'Genitals', Torso', 'Arms and Hands', and the 'Head'. She makes her case with examples from the Bible, as well as later secondary Jewish and Christian sources, -- which all already provide a wealth of material -- but the real strength of the book is in in its grounding in pre-biblical myth and history, especially in the ancient south-west Asian area. (Stavrakopoulou explains that she uses the designation 'ancient south-west Asia' as the to-date still more common 'ancient near East' is: "Western-centric and freighted with colonial baggage (much like its older metonym, 'the Orient')".)
       The 'God'-figure of the Bible -- Yahweh -- is clearly rooted in the pre-biblical mythology of the region and he, like other gods of the times, was clearly human-like -- "albeit on a far more impressive, glamorous scale". This Almighty was also always clearly a he -- a male figure (who, as Stavrakopoulou notes, also "took wives and had sex"). And, as she shows, much of his human-like corporeality lingered on, most notably in the would-be definitive Bible, where a physical 'God' pops up rather often.
       In each part of her book, Stavrakopoulou offers a wealth of examples: she knows her Bible, and she knows her ancient south-west Asian mythology and history, and there are examples galore for each part of the body (and its functions and roles). Bodily functions also figure -- sex, eating, defecation --, with Stavrakopoulou pulling out an amazing variety of examples. (Among the many fascinating titbits is a quote from Catherine of Siena who: "reminded other brides of Christ that 'we do not marry Christ with rings of gold or silver but with the ring of Christ's foreskin, given in the circumcision and accompanied by pain and the shedding of blood'".)
       Stavrakopoulou cleverly begins several sections of the book with anecdotes of sorts from the contemporary world, giving it some more immediacy. Rigorous though her analysis is throughout, she also shows a lighter touch in her writing -- sometimes somewhat jarringly: Babylonian king Marduk-apla-iddina II is described as "flashy" and an image from the Old English Hexateuch is described as one where: "God and Moses tiptoe daintily across the mountain peaks".
       God is consistently fascinating; it also seems nearly exhaustive, Stavrakopoulou ranging so far and wide with her examples -- but, as such, is also somewhat exhausting: it can feel like Stavrakopoulou is bludgeoning the reader with the vast amount of her evidence. As with so much writing about religion and mythology, the examples are often quite incredible, making for a thoroughly engaging reading experience; still, the way Stavrakopoulou piles so much on can be overwhelming. But then, she makes her case in no small part with the sheer range and amount of her examples -- and she certainly seems to make a very solid case.
       Theologically, this is apparently all considered more complicated and less clear-cut. To those of us baffled by the whole idea of religion, in any form, (much less deities, in whatever form) these debates are quite mystifying but it would have been interesting to see what more of the counter-arguments are; some of the reviews are helpful in this regard (but, at least to this reader, the counterarguments seem largely unconvincing, with Stavrakopoulou's seeming the sensible way of seeing all this (but then of course religion isn't (meant to be) sensible ...)).
       While the focus on the physical/corporeal is certainly also of interest to the non-religiously-minded reader, it's the presentation of the history and evolution of the Judeo-Christian 'God'-figure that stands out. However, while Stavrakopoulou does consider some of the continuing evolution of how the character is seen, in more recent times -- in, for example, interpretations of specific episodes from the Bible -- there certainly would have been room to explore at at least some more depth, for example, the apparent move from seeing this God as more human in form to the more abstract incorporeal figure it is now apparently considered to be. (Stavrakopoulou also barely mentions Islam and the Islamic understanding of the figure -- in part, of course, because they took that whole idolatry commandment much more seriously, making for fewer physical traces in any form that might suggest their God was humanoid in physical form.)
       God is a very impressive work, quite amazing in its scholarship. It is also a very entertaining read -- the examples are fascinating. Apparently, or possibly, much of this can be read and interpreted very differently as well, but that's beyond my ken, and while it would have been interesting to learn more about what Stavrakopoulou makes of more of these theological contortions (she does get to a few of them), she already achieves a great deal in God with her near-single-minded focus on the body.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2022

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God: Reviews: Francesca Stavrakopoulou: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Francesca Stavrakopoulou teaches at the University of Exeter.

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© 2022 the complete review

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