Francesca Stavrakopoulou will join us in conversation with Richard Morris on Sunday 28 November to discuss her new book, God: An Anatomy. This revelatory study presents a portrait of God as he was seen by ancient worshippers; a human-shaped deity who walks and talks and weeps and laughs, who eats, sleeps, feels, and breathes, and who is undeniably male. Read a short extract below...
Think back. Where were you when you first encountered a Bible? I was five, maybe six years old, sitting cross-legged on a scratchy beige carpet, a big picture book open in my lap. The book was a children’s illustrated Bible, and its pages smelled delicious – tangy, like poster paints, if faintly musty, like the public library. I can vividly recall what I saw. Abraham had tied up his son Isaac on what looked to me like an unlit bonfire. He had a knife. He was about to stab him and burn him. But he was suddenly stopped by an angel in the sky with yellow hair and a billowing robe, pointing at a fat, fluffy sheep. There were more pictures in the book: an old man on a mountain, carrying two big slabs of stone; another old man in a chariot pulled by horses made of fire. I kept turning the pages. There was a man covered in seaweed, sitting in the belly of a big blue whale. The baby Jesus in a bed of hay, with sheep, cows and a donkey crowding round to look at him. A woman twirling scarves as she danced in front of a head on a plate. I briefly stopped and stared at the picture of the man nailed onto a big wooden cross; he was covered in scratches, blood trickling down the side of his face.
I’ve never believed in God, but religion has always intrigued me. As I grew up, it was everywhere, pushing its way into view and punctuating the passing of time – from daily school assemblies and Sunday-night TV, to the giddy excitement of Christmas nativity plays and chocolate Easter eggs. But it was during family trips to museums that religion became tangible. Giant stone statues of gods, rounded, fleshy and powerful. Gods draped in tunics and wearing sandals. Gods with toenails, elbows, eyebrows. In other rooms, there were brightly painted coffins with bodies wrapped in strips of dirty fabric, surrounded by gods with the faces of animals. A cat. A dog. A bird. A crocodile. Turn a corner and there were more gods, this time carved on tiny polished stones, sitting on thrones in long skirts, with horns on their crowns and monsters at their feet. In museums, I learned that the deities of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome were the gods of the wider world in which the Bible was made. But where were the statues of the God of the Bible himself – the only deity among them to survive into the modern day?
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. This was a formless, imageless, invisible deity, who in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) revealed himself in words mysteriously uttered through his prophets, and then in the New Testament became flesh (‘incarnate’) in Jesus Christ, in order to die for the sins of humanity before resurrecting and ascending back to the heavens. But as I looked closely at the books comprising the Bible, I couldn’t find this bodiless God. Instead, these ancient texts conjured a startlingly corporeal image of God as a human-shaped deity, who walked and talked and wept and laughed. A god who ate and slept and felt and breathed. And a god who was distinctly male.
Francesca Stavrakopoulou joins us at Hay Festival Winter Weekend on 28 November to discuss God: An Anatomy. Buy tickets here or buy a copy of the book here.