Kate Moos is a journalist and writer who helped create the public media project On Being with Krista Tippett. She is now working on topics of health at American Public Media.
By James Carroll
Viking. 352 pp. $30
James Carroll goes to painstaking lengths in his new book, “Christ Actually,” to confront millennia of undisguised anti-Semitism, scriptural fabrications and tactical misreadings of history, all of which have prevented an informed understanding of Jesus of Nazareth. Using historical and scriptural analysis, Carroll urges the Christian faithful to reexamine their theologies through a lens that begins with Jesus’s identity as a Jew among Jews, whose collective survival was repeatedly and brutally threatened by the Roman Empire during and immediately after Jesus’s lifetime.
Carroll’s premise is that Christian amnesia about Jewish history — the revolt against Rome that the historian Josephus called the Jewish War of the first century and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D., as well as the persecution of Jews that led up to it — has allowed an essentially anti-Semitic set of meanings and morals to be imposed on the Christian story and the meaning of Jesus.
Carroll begins the book with the 20th-century Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and hanged for conspiring to murder Adolf Hitler. He proposes that we look at Christianity through the twin lenses of the 20th-century catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and ask, as Bonhoeffer did, who Christ actually is for us today.
I’m a cradle Catholic and roughly a contemporary of Carroll, and, like him, I was raised on the Baltimore Catechism, the Cold War and the unapologetic, ritual damning of the Jews for killing Jesus in the Easter Gospel readings of my childhood. “Let the blood be on our hands and the hands of our children,” we read, and even if we didn’t dislike the Jews, we were obliged to blame them.
The tradition of casting Jesus as a non-Jew, rather than a dissenting and prophetic Jew, Carroll argues, forms the basis for the widespread, largely unexamined anti-Semitism that modern Catholicism has supported with dubious theology and misrepresentations of history. What he calls the Jesus movement of the years immediately after Jesus’s death was a Jewish movement, he reminds us, and the forces that drove a split between those Carroll calls the Jesus people and the Jews are at the same time accidents of history and intentional acts designed to control the new faith.
To retell this history, Carroll persuasively takes the reader through much that he acknowledges is plausible conjecture, informed theory and reconstructed history. After all, he suggests, these are the tools at our disposal when we trace the lineage of inherited meaning. And he builds this scenario on the work of many other scholars, including Daniel Boyarin, John Dominic Crossan and Elaine Pagels. As a reader who is neither steeped in the scholarly work of scriptural interpretation nor a student of ancient history, I found the story Carroll constructs to be instructive and intriguing, but not a romp for the mildly curious.
Carroll says he wrote the book to understand why Jesus has such a hold on him. Carroll, a former priest, has written at length about his spiritual formation in a deeply Catholic 20th-century milieu. That milieu included religious practices now held up as quaint or ridiculous under secular scrutiny — such as blessing oneself with holy water or earning time off from purgatory — but it also included a flowering of liberal Catholic intellectualism and social thought, which are equally the legacy (though often overlooked) of mid-century Catholic religiosity. And Carroll has extensively explored the roots of Christian anti-Semitism in his best-selling “Constantine’s Sword,” which became a popular television documentary.
Another reason he wrote “Jesus Actually,” it appears, is to take aim at two phenomena: the post-Enlightenment impoverishment of intellect and spirit which insists that the totality of reality can be described by science, and the contemporary religious impulse to consider faith immune to criticism. Such false contentiousness, Carroll insists, has nothing to do with the history of Jesus and his contemporaries. He writes, “Many of the questions asked by modern believers — and many of the notes of faith dismissed by modern skeptics — lose their bite when it is acknowledged that they were neither questions nor notes of faith for Jesus and his first interpreters.”
Further, he argues, such polarizing habits of the intellect make it impossible for modern minds to understand the layered and matrixed influences from which the story of Jesus and his followers emerged. “The largest single obstacle to our authentic reimagining of Jesus Christ is the inability of contemporary thinkers to be at home in the truly foreign landscape of the ancient intellect — Greek and Hebrew, but also Babylonian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Canaanite, and the general intermingling of all these.”
In answer to that central question — why does Jesus exert such a strong influence on him? — Carroll argues that the son of God for the secular age is the transcendent Christ who, as a Jewish spiritual leader, suffered and died under a brutal Roman authority by Roman hands, and whose life and death offer us a vision of divine love not in spite of but in response to human frailty and suffering. Jesus attracted not the exemplars of public virtue and moral strength but strugglers and drifters. Carroll reminds us that Jesus chose his disciple Peter not on the basis of the strength of Peter’s character (when threatened, he turned weasel, as Jesus had warned), but on the basis of his fallibility and the degree to which he required forgiveness.
The divinity and greatness of Jesus for a secular age, Carroll asserts, are not to be found in the miracles ascribed to Him, nor in the grandeur of his elevation by millennia of Christian theology. Carroll argues, finally, that the appeal of Christ to the contemporary faithful has much less to do with creed, and more to do with our ability to imitate Him in his unwavering acceptance of and love for the brokenness of human beings.