Provocative tome gives monotheism a bad rap

Jonathan Kirsch drops a God bomb in his latest work of theological shock and awe, “God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism.”

His bunker buster: When you look at world history, monotheism is invariably linked to authoritarian rule and oppression of every flavor in the name of the One True God.

Let’s not forget the frequent use of torture and the desecration of everything “pagan.”

Forgive the war on terror metaphors, but Kirsch is asking for it. He quickly invokes the perpetrators of 9/11 as monotheism par excellence. He doesn’t spare Christians or Jews though. That’s where “God Against the Gods” starts making surprising connections.

An egomaniacal Pharaoh, the Maccabees, Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden are bedfellows in this engrossing but ultimately anticlimactic history lesson.

Kirsch, author of multiple books on Jewish and legal issues, knows how to spin a vivid historical narrative. He draws you in, and seems to command his data with assurance. Some of his assertions are wild and would smack of heresy to a traditionally devout Jew. The Jews didn’t invent monotheism, a grandiose Pharaoh named Amenhotep did. The ancient Hebrews worshipped more than one God at a time, including some who are listed as demonic false deities in the Bible.

The Maccabees, heroes of our sweet little contemporary holiday of gift-giving and candle-lighting, are portrayed as sadistic zealots who conducted forced circumcisions on assimilated Jews who had neglected to have a bris as infants. The followers of the Maccabees are also depicted as the originators of holy martyrdom and the opponents of the trend in Judaism towards a theology of compassion that so much of modern Jewish thought is born from.

As Kirsch sees it, paganism (a derogatory term for polytheism) is basically the progenitor of the pluralism and humanism we celebrate today. His argument is simple: If a culture believes in many Gods, then the Gods of other societies can be just as valid as yours.

The history he presents seems to prove it, as empires of a polytheistic bent allow their conquered people to worship their indigenous divinities.

Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, things are getting ugly. The Romans don’t mind if the Hebrews practice their faith, as long as the Romans and everyone else can practice their own beliefs as well. But the Maccabees and other absolutists wage war against the Romans because only their version of the Jewish faith should be practiced in the Holy City.

Fast forward a couple centuries and another Hebrew sect, the Christians, are giving the Romans another headache. Here is the center of the book, the conflict between the practices of two Roman emperors, Constantine and Julian. Constantine was the first emperor to convert to Christianity, and Julian, in a remarkable turn of events, brought the empire back to polytheism.

This Roman section of “God Against the Gods” is juicy reading. Murders, betrayals, ambushes, secret meetings in ancient temples. Who needs “The Da Vinci Code?” The entire religious status of the Western world changed back and forth at the whims of a few emperors in a matter of years.

With all of these provocative ideas and visceral pleasures stuffed in a relatively slim volume, “God Against the Gods” sadly loses track of itself near the end. Kirsch is clearly enthralled by the saga of the Roman religious battle, but leaves himself only a tiny amount at the end to try to make sense of his epic tale.

There is so much left unarticulated in the last 20 pages that a paragraph on the second to last page bunching together the Taliban, Palestinian suicide bombers and Baruch Goldstein’s Jewish terrorism is simultaneously breathtaking and nearly asinine in its brevity.

Is Kirsch afraid to draw deeper, more contemporary conclusions from his fascinating genealogy of religion and power? It’s not hard to see why that would be. He approaches an abyss that forces anyone who calls themselves both a monotheist and a humanist to profoundly reexamine their moral standing.

“God Against The Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism” by Jonathan Kirsch (336 pages, Viking Compass, $15).