This is definitely one of the more interesting books I’ve read of late. Smith’s basic thesis is that paganism never really went away and today’s cultural wars are really just a rehash of the old pagan vs. Christian debates. The contest is between those who say that sum of all value and meaning is immanent (pagans) and those who say it is transcendent (Christians). In his own words:
Pagan religion locates the sacred within this world. In that way, paganism can consecrate the world from within this world: it is religiosity relative to an immanent sacred. Judaism and Christianity, by contrast, reflect a transcendent religiosity; they placed the sacred, ultimately outside the world – beyond time and space” (112).
The strength of this book is its knowledge of classical antiquity and correlating ancient discussions with modern debates about religion and the public square.
Following Douglas Laycock, Smith points out that the problem with the culture war today is that “Each side wants a total win” (p. 7). No peace, no tolerance, no place for the other. Either a return to Christendom or its obliteration.
Smith notes how pagan cities were highly sexualized, able to cater for any and every sexual need: “And the city maintains numerous, much-frequented brothels. In these establishments, sex is eminently affordable – about the price of a loaf of bread” (54). Also: “Thus, in Roman cities, brothels dotted the cityscape like Starbucks or Taco Bells in a modern American city” (77). Quoting Kyle Harper’s observation: “the Roman Empire was the most complete and most refined expression of a sexual economy that had its origins in the birth of the classical Mediterranean city-state. If the disciplines of sexual self-knowledge were more rigorous in the high empire, the delivery of sexual pleasures was more efficient than ever” (78).
There is good stuff on how paganism was not actually tolerant and a thesis argued that the west was never really and completely de-paganized.
Probably the best argument for the book is Anthony T. Kronman’s book Confessions of a Born Again Pagan that describes his drift from cultural marxism to a kind of neo-pagan philosophy that divinizes nature.
Anyway, a very stimulating read, of relevance to anyone interested in religion in antiquity and modern conflicts over sex, politics, and religion in culture.