City of the Good

by Michael Bell, Princeton, 360pp, £25

I like it when a book opens with an epiphany. Michael Bell, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, is in the Sistine Chapel, looking upwards. Like all those around him, he is wonderstruck by The Last Judgment. But then he starts to make an inventory of what isn’t there: “No animals. No forests. No gardens, aside from Adam and Eve being evicted from Eden . . . No farming. No eating. No laughing. No sex. No politicians. No people of colour. Almost no women.” Heaven seems “a starkly limited place”. What troubles Bell most is the implicit declaration that “this was all for the good”.

Next Bell and his wife begin to explore long Vatican corridors that they had previously missed, containing museums of ethnology, cartography and Egyptology, and a gallery of Greek and Roman busts. These rooms teem with representations of things missing from the Sistine ceiling and walls. Here was life “more nearly as it is really lived”, where “the good and the bad are not easily separated and where politics cannot be escaped”. Why, Bell wonders, have the world’s dominant religions “long relegated these experiences to the side passages”?

City of the Good is the densely argued outworking of this epiphany, and the questions it provokes in Bell’s mind about the partitioning of nature, the divine and the good. He thinks that this failure of religion, environmentalism and politics to remain in fruitful contact with one another has deep historical roots. It is an “old cultural habit” that first took hold when cities grew into states and empires. People were troubled by new and growing inequality, unsure whether to defend or confront it, and they sought solace in absolutes that have bedevilled mankind ever since.

Moreover, the major universal religions “have little to say about pagan interests of ecology and sustenance because they arose to speak to other worries, worries brought about by the rise of class and the decline of kin”. By this reading, Jewish monotheism emerged to bolster the development of a more urbanised, centralised Jewish state. Jesus championed a form of quasi-kinship through faith to address the growing disruption of the traditional ties between people.

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