Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Christ Actually

Any Good Books

April 2015

Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age
James Carroll (Viking Penguin, 2014)

Every year around this time, local musicians perform Bach's Passions, almost always accompanied by some effort to detoxify the murderous role the stories assign to the Jewish people and their leadership. The structure of the story demands enemies for Jesus; The Gospels of Matthew and John fill this role with Jewish high priests, though Rome is clearly the executioner of Jesus. Why is this so?

In Christ Actually, James Carroll probes the first-century origins of Christian anti-Semitism. For the sake of a book that will fit between two covers, he brackets 18 centuries of misunderstanding and ill will. He places the modern point of his compass in the Nazi's war on the Jews; he places the other end in 70 C.E., when the Gospel of Mark was probably written. That was also the year the armies of the Roman Empire destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem, a critical context for all of the Gospels.

Carroll, digesting a great deal of modern Biblical scholarship, shows how the various gospels were written for communities undergoing tremendous losses at the hands of the Roman Empire. It wasn't religion, per se, that made the Romans make war on the Jews. The Romans were accustomed to violently subduing populations who put up resistance, and the Judean territory lay across valuable trade routes. But it was religion that made the Jewish resistance so valiant and tenacious. To this day the Jewish calendar commemorates losses in that war.

The hundredth-generation ancestors of today's Jews and Christians were two tiny groups of Jewish survivors who, out of the wreckage, made new stories of God's plan for them. For the rabbinic survivors, Torah study and the Sabbath replaced the Temple at the center of their religious life; for the Jesus followers, the story of Jesus Christ filled that place. Over time, these groups elaborated the contrasts between them, a story Carroll has told elsewhere, but in the context of the year 70, they're like the primal shrew-sized mammals living in the age of the dinosaurs: you could never tell from looking at them what they will grow up to be.

If we actually grasp that the Gospels are stories written forty to eighty years after the events they depict, a lot of things make more sense. Anything Jesus says that appears to predict the destruction of the Temple, for instance, doesn't necessarily mean that he has extra-sensory perception. Rather, it's a way of placing him in a larger story the first audience already knew. There are also many passages in which the Scripture is said to be fulfilled, at least partly because the narrative is structured to echo prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible.

The book of Daniel, in particular, is full of Messianic language about the Son of Man coming in clouds of glory. Dating from about 165 B.C.E., Daniel's vision “was both realistic –acknowledging present violence–and hopeful, in that it insisted that the violence would not be vindicated in the end.” Carroll posits that this is part of what John the Baptist was preaching in Galilee when Jesus was a young man. In that case, Jesus calling himself the Son of Man was a revolutionary and radical act–but still a very Jewish one.

Generations of retellings would render that reality obscure, and soon enough, invisible. The violent hand of Rome, too obvious (and later, too dangerous) to record would also disappear from memory. If you have that context available, on the other hand, the idea that Roman governor Pontius Pilate needed Jewish assistance or encouragement to execute a single dangerous man is absurd.

Christ Actually is a meaty book, rich and dense. Carroll introduces insights from the work of many scholars and theologians, notably Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from whose letters he takes his title. In the end, Carroll is looking for a way to be a Christian in the twenty-first century, in a way that insults neither the intelligence nor the conscience. Our understanding is inevitably partial; But alongside the manifold sins and crimes of the church, there's a strand of memory and practice that endures and is continually made new. We can still pray and break bread together, we can still serve the poor and visit the sick and imprisoned. We may always understand Jesus imperfectly, but we can follow him.