Christ Actually: The Son of God for a Secular Age

By James Carroll

284 pp.  Viking Penguin.  $30.00

James Carroll tells a story of two wars against the Jews, two thousand years apart, that require an ethical response from twenty-first-century readers.  Any such response that does not wish to ignore the truth of history, Carroll insists, must have something to do with Jesus of Nazareth, the figure Christians worship as divine.  But Carroll argues that, if Jesus is the answer, Christians and others have been asking the wrong questions (124).

Carroll’s proposals for better questions have their strong points and their weak ones.  To his credit, he points at every turn to the Jewish reality that defines first-century Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth included.  However, his desire to play out an entirely Jewish Jesus, with no remainder, means that he often relies on arguments from silence, citations of scholars without any nod to the controversies in which they ply their trade, and other strange modes of demonstration.  If, for a given reader, good intentions forgive a multitude of sloppy rhetorical moves, this might be a good book.  However, since I’m interested in how one gets there as well as where one wants to get, I found the book less than satisfying.

History and Biography

Carroll begins with a meditation on the year 1945, two years after his own birth, as a sort of turning point in world history (3).  That year saw both the culmination of the German death camps’ work and some of the most brutal aerial bombing the human species had ever seen, most notably the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Carroll’s project, as he describes it, is to articulate a post-religious view of Jesus because, in the wake of those human disasters, the ethical difficulties of the Jesus of religion are too great for the modern thinker (19).  In other words, Carroll muses, if Jesus is in fact the answer, this book sets out to articulate a better question (24).

Before getting to the better questions Carroll tells his own story about the bad questions that people have asked, starting with his own Catholic-school education, neither fundamentalist nor secularist but the sort of via-media treatment of literature, philosophy, biology, and other such things that neither insisted on radical separation between “faith” and “science” nor regarded “faith” as something that people ought not to maintain any more (33).  Carroll’s own Jesus-question, the one that drove him back to the content of the Catholic faith over and again, was “How can I avoid the torments of Hell?” (35-36).  As part of that theological matrix, Carroll tells, he learned to despise Jews as the people who killed Jesus, a sentiment not actively promoted so much as atmospheric in the ways that he learned to read the canonical gospels (38-39).  He eventually studied for the priesthood and sought ordination, though later, because of the ethical crises mentioned above, he left that life, though he remains a Catholic parishioner.

Carroll’s autobiography at the beginning of the book was quite helpful for me, largely because I could see, as he put forth a vision of not only a Jewish Jesus but a Jewish Christ, that within his frame of experience, that sort of thing was an utterly revolutionary change.  In my own story, and in those of folks my age and from my background, Jesus has never been anything but Jewish, and since I encountered the work of (among others) N.T. Wright and Richard Hays quite early in my Christian experience, I have, since I can remember, thought of the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus as Jewish through and through, always aware that the Jewish message got Hellenized but also that the Hellenism into which the gospel travelled always got Judaized as well.  So I’m not as inclined to Carroll is to think of the relationship between the Jewish Y’Shua Son of Mary and the Christian Second Person of the Trinity as a pair of mutually-excluding possibilities that cannot both be real but as a mystery of providence to be rejoiced in and studied.

But enough about me.

Two Holocausts

For those who have read a fair bit of the literature of the Emergent movement, Carroll’s narrative provides a strange surprise: as he tells the story, St. Paul is the good guy, and the canonical gospels are the bad guys.  To explain why, Carroll asserts over and over that the canonical gospels are war-texts that deny being war-literature (67, 68, 77, 116, et. al.).  Because the gospel of Mark was likely composed around AD 70 (I do agree with this) and the other synoptics and John afterwards, Carroll tells a familiar story (with which I do not agree) about the genesis of Christianity as a movement separate from Rabbinic Judaism: in order to convince the Romans that they were no threat to the Empire, and that Jesus was in fact framed for sedition rather than guilty of revolution, the early Christians scapegoated THE JEWS in the characters of the Pharisees.

Such a narrative situates Paul in a strange place indeed.  The way that Carroll tells the story, Paul was in fact far more Jewish in his thought than folks want to make him.  Emphasizing Paul’s image of the Gentiles as grafted onto the tree that is Israel in Romans (201) and the fact that Paul’s Christ is divine in the crucifixion, not at the nativity or in some pre-existence narrative (199), Carroll states a case that Paul in fact imagined faith in Christ to be a continuation of, without much departure from, the Pharasaical tradition that also preached a final divine judgment and such things.  Because he did his writing and met his end before the Jewish Wars took off in AD 66, Carroll maintains, he remained basically at one with Judaism, writing much more harshly about those within the Jesus movement who insisted on circumcising Gentiles than ever he did Rabbinic Jews.

But when the Jewish War, what Carroll dubs the first Holocaust, begins, the Jesus-faction, now dominated by folks other than ethnic Jews, leave their brethren to burn in Palestine and in fact distance themselves from the Jewish identity of Jesus (67).  In Carroll’s telling of things, “The Jewish experience during the savage violence of what I presume to call the first Holocaust, in other words, could be expected, in the scales of narrative composition, to weigh as much as, if not more than, the remembered actualities of Jesus’ life four decades earlier” (68).  The gospel of Mark is a story of the Temple, not mainly a story about Jesus, one written to guide Christians, those who had forsaken their ties to Judaism and become a new religion, into a new existence relating to Rome as the “good guys” and the Jews as the “bad guys.”  In tracing out this story Carroll also makes some strange moves, claiming that Roman officials always treat Christians well in the Acts narratives of Paul (208) and that, behind the scenes of the gospels, the actual trial of Jesus never included, among other things, Pilate’s scheme to get the city’s religious leaders publicly to ostracize the revolutionary Jesus (207).  When Carroll does his historical work, he claims frequently that the gospels fabricate events that could not have taken place in actual Roman history but does not shy away from fabricating such scenarios himself, once again leading me, as a reader, to wonder whether silence in the absence of documentary evidence should be the rule of interpretation, according to Carroll, or whether inventing what is not patent in impartial texts is simply the stuff of historical writing.

For my money, I’m inclined to think that the Jewish War was indeed an influence on Mark (and I agree with most scholars I’ve read with a date of composition right around AD 70) but that the preponderance of Temple-sayings in the synoptics has as its root not the invention of conniving Jew-haters but the active memory of the community, which likely remembered a great body of Jesus-sayings but recorded, in those particular stories, remembered sayings that spoke to the historical moment.  The way I imagine it, such is not unlike the contest of remembered moments in American history when a sitting president decides to start a war: one side will inevitably warn against the hubris that took the American military into Vietnam, and others will no doubt cite the “appeasement” of Chamberlain in the face of Hitler’s aggression.  Such is not to say that these two moments are the only two in the history of the twentieth century, but they do exert a disproportionate weight on the ways we talk about ourselves when starting wars or not starting wars are the live options.

A Certain Kind of Modern Mind

So far, Carroll’s historical deconstructions and reconstructions are nothing new; I’ve communicated in my own reviews of Reza Aslan and Bart Ehrman my dissatisfaction with a version of Biblical history in which the executors of the apostolic tradition are at once brazen enough schemers to fabricate Jesus’s predictions of his own crucifixions yet not savvy enough to excise the bits in which Jesus says that the age will end while some standing in his presence are still alive.  (I’m inclined, with N.T. Wright, to think that he was referring to his own resurrection, not to the final consummation of things.)  One repeated move that does make this book particular (though not particularly satisfying) is Carroll’s saying, at several points, that the gospels point (against their own interests, if the conspiracy stories are right) to an inability rather than an unwillingness on Jesus’s part to be the Messiah that the Pharisees and the Zealots awaited.

Carroll insists not merely that Jesus’s sayings about the Temple were pointed at his present moment but that later writers must have invented them, decades after Jesus was dead, not because Jesus was not concerned with the Temple but because Jesus did not have the ability to “predict” the fall of the Temple (57).  I’ve read some accounts of Mark 13’s apocalyptic discourse that Jesus is speaking in political terms, warning his disciples that Jerusalem’s collusion with the Zealots will eventually lead to Jerusalem’s doom, but Carroll will not be satisfied with that.  For Carroll, Jesus could not have predicted,  because human beings cannot predict.  Likewise, when narrating the execution of John the Baptizer (yes, I know he’s John the Baptist in Matthew, but I prefer Mark’s formulation), Carroll narrates Jesus’s encounter with the disciples of John as a moment when Jesus himself realized that he was incapable of real displays of power: “If Jesus could have rescued John, he would have done it.  But he could not do it” (172).  Now once again, my own mind, not prone to conspiracy theories, wonders why the architects of the “high Christology” would have left that in there, but that’s not the point here.  More important is that, for Carroll, the project of making Jesus relevant to “the modern mind” (277–he does nod to the fact that what he calls “fundamentalist” religion is on the rise in the early twenty-first century but still proceeds, in some parts, as if there were only one way to be a “modern mind”) is to reassure the reader, more than once, that what we think we know as the immutable laws of nature in fact never have bent and never will bend.

The result, theologically, is that to follow Jesus is to realize, as an individual, that we have access to a divine consciousness, and that Jesus is a supreme exemplar of living in connection to divine reality, something that each of us, as individuals, should strive for (282).  We must take that which is best about Jesus–and Jesus’s followers, like Dorothy Day (252-256)–and learn to transcend human finitude not by arranging systems of propositions about Jesus but about approaching the divine, as ineffable as that might be, as Jesus did (267).  If to you, O reader, that sounds like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s address to Harvard Divinity students to you, then I’m not alone in thinking that Carroll has not so much carried the reader forward from 1945 as he has left the reader back in 1838.

That, ultimately, is what left me cold at the end of this book.  If indeed there are genuinely new ways to think about and to follow Jesus (I’m not optimistic), Carroll has not offered us readers any of those new ways, only rehashed American individualism, the sort of ideology that purports to overcome superstition but leaves us not with a better alternative but an inward-turned “belief in self.”  For my money, I’d just as soon follow Jesus along with the Body of Christ, with those grafted onto the tree of Israel.

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