Jewish Journal

Q & A With Jonathan Kirsch

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on Apr. 22, 2004 at 8:00 pm

With best-selling books like "The Harlot by the Side of the Road" and "Moses: A Life," Jonathan Kirsch has been pioneering an unusual genre that combines themes religious, historical and literary, written with a Jewish sensibility. Kirsch, 54, who divides his time among the practice of law, writing books and reviewing books for the Los Angeles Times (and serves as pro bono legal counsel to The Jewish Journal) recently spoke with Sandee Brawarsky about his latest best-seller, "God Against the Gods: The History of War Between Monotheism and Polytheism" (Viking Press, $25.95), a book that powerfully evokes Rome and Palestine of antiquity and recently snagged a spot on the Los Angeles Times Best-Seller List.

Sandee Brawarsky: What inspired you to take on this subject?

Jonathan Kirsch: "God Against the Gods" started with a remarkable but mostly overlooked figure in history, the fourth-century Roman Emperor Julian. He came to the throne after Constantine had embraced Christianity, revealed himself to have been a secret pagan and vowed to undo the revolution that Constantine and his sons had worked in the name of monotheism. For that, he is called "the Apostate" in Christian tradition. But Julian was a remarkable man, charismatic and visionary, and he sought only to re-establish the freedom of religion that was the hallmark of classical paganism. Indeed, he even promised to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem at his own expense so that the Jewish people could resume the practice of their faith as described in the Torah. Julian reigned less than two years before dying in battle against the Persians; his reign is what I described as one of the great "what ifs" of history. If Julian's pagan counter-revolution had succeeded -- and if freedom of religion had been re-established at that early date -- could we have avoided the excesses of true belief that stain the history of monotheism, including the Crusades, the Inquisition and countless martyrdoms in the name of the One True God?

SB: How does the book fit in with your other works on biblical-historical themes?

JK: All my books share a common point of inquiry: Where do our sacred texts and religious ideas actually come from? Who were the real men and women who created them? What did they know, what did they believe, what did they aspire to achieve?

SB: What will surprise readers?

JK: "God Against the Gods" is full of surprises about what I call "the dark side of monotheism and the bright side of polytheism." Monotheism offers a set of sublime and elevating moral teachings, and -- thankfully -- that's what we have embraced and preserved. But there are moments of terror and strains of violence and intolerance in the Bible that we ignore at our peril. At the same time, I try to remind readers that some of the ideas and values that we cherish and struggle to protect -- including the fundamental idea of religious liberty, the freedom to choose between one religion and another religion, the freedom to combine many different beliefs and practices, the freedom to believe in no god at all -- is actually a pagan idea!

SB: Do you think that some readers may discover that they're actually polytheists at their core?

JK: I am confident that readers may come to recognize that they're in sympathy with the pagan idea about God: "It is not possible that only one road," as the pagan orator Symmachus puts it, "leads to so sublime a mystery."

SB: How do you define paganism?

JK: Paganism cannot be defined as a religion in the sense that we define Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Rather, it was a marketplace of religious beliefs and practices from which one could select any number and combination of religions. One of the misconceptions I try to correct is the notion that paganism was always essentially crude, primitive and demonic. In fact, the benchmark achievements of human civilization that we praise as "classical" -- art and architecture, literature and philosophy -- originate in the world of classical paganism.

SB: Why is the book particularly relevant today, in light of all the terrorism carried out in the name of religion?

JK: The horrors that we read about in the headlines -- religious violence in the name of the One True God -- are not unique to militant Islam. Rather, they are expressions of an idea that is written deeply into the very idea of monotheism.

SB: Is the war of "God Against the Gods" an ongoing battle?

JK: Tragically, it is still going on. And, ironically, it is being waged by monotheists against each other. For example, the extremists who carried out the atrocities on Sept. 11 were convinced that they were striking against the faithlessness and corruption of Western civilization, which they regard as the "Great Satan." But the same refusal of some monotheists to credit their fellow monotheists with good faith can be found in all of the three great monotheisms.

SB: How did your Jewish background lead to your interest in religious history and literature?

JK: My Jewish background is compounded in equal measure of religious Judaism and labor Zionism, each of which, in its own way, has encouraged me to see how Jewish identity and destiny express themselves in history. Indeed, the Torah itself is the best example of how the Jewish people have, quite literally, written ourselves into history.

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