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ierkegaard relates a chilling parable in 'The Sickness Unto Death.' An emperor summons a poor day laborer. The man never dreamed that the emperor even knew of his existence. The emperor tells him that he wants to have him as his son-in-law, a bizarre announcement that must strike the man as something he would never dare tell the world, for fear of being mocked; it seems as if the emperor wanted only to make a fool of his subject. Now, Kierkegaard says, suppose that this event was never made a public fact; no evidence exists that the emperor ever summoned the laborer, so that his only recourse would be blind faith. How many would have the courage to believe? Christ's kingdom is like that, Kierkegaard says.
The French writer Emmanuel Carrere doesn't mention Kierkegaard in his latest book, 'The Kingdom' (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), but the Danish philosopher - the Danish Christian lunatic, one might say - hovers over the book as God’s face is said to have hovered over the waters during the creation of the world. The Kierkegaard whose work is scarred by the great 'offense' of Christianity, by its shocking challenge to reason and empirical evidence; who claimed that modern philosophy amounts to the premise "I think therefore I am," while Christianity equals the premise "I believe therefore I am"; who writes that the best proof that God exists is the circular proof one was offered as a child ("It is absolutely true, because my father told me so") - that brilliant, mutilated Christian is the unnamed patron of 'The Kingdom.' An amazingly various book, it narrates the author's crises of religious faith in the nineteen-nineties; combines conventional history and speculative reconstruction to describe the rise of early Christianity; deftly animates the first-century lives and journeys of Paul, Luke, and John; and attempts to explain how an unlikely cult, formed around the death and resurrection of an ascetic lyrical revolutionary, grew into the established Church we know today. "Can one believe that such things are still believed?" Nietzsche asked, scornfully. "And yet they are still believed," Carrère replies.
Fortunately, Emmanuel Carrere lacks Kierkegaard’s anguished Northern masochism. In matters of appetite, he is pleasingly French: sensuous, libidinous—the healthy lover of pagan Mediterranean pleasures that Nietzsche admired and Camus incarnated. He is French in another way, too: he likes reason, argument, evidence, and the virtues of the secular state. Carrère was born in 1957 into a privileged and intellectual family. (His mother, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, is a distinguished historian and the permanent secretary of the Académie Française.) Though Carrère’s wife jokingly suspects him of being “Catholic around the edges,” he comes from a milieu that was likely to be interested in theology only, in Borges’s words, “as a branch of fantastic literature.”
Yet by the late nineteen-eighties, after launching a fairly successful literary career - a book about Werner Herzog; a few well-received novels - he had become depressed and unproductive: “I could no longer write, I didn’t know how to love, I knew I wasn’t particularly likable. Just being me became literally unbearable.” Influenced by his eccentric godmother Jacqueline, who was a mystic, a poet, and, above all, a devout Catholic, he read Augustine’s “Confessions” and the Gospel of John. That gospel spoke to him so powerfully that he began to read a daily extract and write commentary on it. Broken, vulnerable, and stripped of his intellectual pride, he “became accessible to my Lord.”
It was a fairly short fever. Nowadays an agnostic, Carrère spends the early sections of this book reviewing his almost three years as a committed Christian. What shocks him is the extremism of his faith. He was drawn to theological stringency, melodramatic all-or-nothings, and obnoxiously proud circularity. He is appalled to find in his old notebooks such remarks as this: “The sole argument that can allow us to admit that Jesus is the truth and life is that He says it, and since He is truth and life, He must be believed.” And this: “An atheist believes that God does not exist. A believer knows that God exists. One has an opinion, the other knowledge.”
Carrère has become celebrated for his propulsive, original, free-ranging narratives, which frequently mix memoir, biography, and fiction in rather blithely measured proportions. “I Am Alive and You Are Dead,” his fantastically engaging book about Philip K. Dick, published in 1993, tells the life of the science-fiction writer from within, as if he were writing a novelization of Dick’s life. (Carrère calls him Phil throughout.) There are no references and very few named sources, yet the material appears to rely on the established record, and is clearly built from the same archival labor that a conventional biographer would perform. The same goes for Carrère’s previous book, “Limonov” (2011), which describes the rebellious life and career of the Russian writer and troublemaker Eduard Limonov, who lived in poverty in New York, prospered in Paris, and returned to Russia, where, once an opposition leader, he has since become a fierce supporter of Vladimir Putin. “Limonov” vibrates with borrowed energy: Carrère uses, essentially, a present-tense version of the novelist’s best friend, free indirect style, to inhabit and animate the violently short-circuiting mind of his perpetually unappeased protagonist. It is a hard book to put down, perhaps because it has a certain uneasy moral short-circuiting of its own: again, there are no references, so fact and fiction are allowed to trade uniform and mufti; and Carrère’s pumped-up admiration of Limonov’s often cruel escapades seems, at times, like the wan intellectual’s envy of bloody warfare. (Masha Gessen, in The New York Review of Books, noted numerous errors of fact.)
Carrère works himself and his own stories into these books, partly because he is a good postmodernist, who is suspicious of concealed or “invisible” third-person narrators. He likes intervening frames. As he puts it in “The Kingdom,” “When I’m being told a story, I like to know who’s telling it. That’s why I like narratives in the first person, that’s why I write in the first person and would even be incapable of writing anything differently.” It’s a laudable intention, except that it is almost contradicted by his habit of inhabiting the minds of his biographical subjects. But Carrère is also easy to forgive, because he is such engrossing and charming company—witty, restless, intellectually bold, confessional, shame-proof, simultaneously shallow and deep.
That appeal is powerful in “The Kingdom,” and the tension between first- and third-person narration is better resolved than in his earlier work. Here Carrère’s autobiographical interventions seem not showy or superfluous (as they can in “Limonov”) but necessary. For one thing, it has become exceedingly rare to encounter crises of faith as experienced by a secular intellectual, and Carrère’s oscillation between orthodox fervor and wistful agnosticism holds undeniable fascination. Instead of surreptitiously fictionalizing his story of the rise of early Christianity, he proceeds like a freelance—and slightly offbeat—scholar. His inquiry into the lives and testimonies of Paul and Luke, and their journeys through the far-flung extremities of the Roman Empire, is scrupulously thorough, and relies on an enormous amount of reading, gently summoned. But because Carrère is not a Biblical scholar, and doesn’t want to be one, he allows his imagination to linger and play. He likes to psychologize, to reconstruct scenes and episodes, to speculate when the historical record is thin. Still, he tells us when he’s doing this, and the lack of historical evidence turns out to be his ally, encouraging him to speculate obviously rather than to novelize silently. (There is good French precedent for this kind of intervention: he often cites the nineteenth-century scholar Ernest Renan, whose biographical narrative, “Vie de Jésus,” dared to fill in Jesus’ “lost years,” between his youth and the start of his ministry. In fact, Carrère is much more cautious than Renan, who thickly painted a lyrical portrait of Jesus as a beautiful utopian dreamer.)
Carrère brings to life, in this way, the dustiest of old school assignments. I remember dreading having to plot “St. Paul’s travels through the ancient world” (complete with pencilled maps of Corinth, Damascus, Jerusalem, Philippi, Athens, and so on). But Carrère is like some brilliantly improper teacher, the one you were lucky enough to enjoy before he got fired, a whirling eccentric who feels free to compare Paul to Philip K. Dick, ecclesiastical authorities to the Bolsheviks, and prayer to yoga, and who throws in references to the martial arts, his enjoyment of pornography, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Gogol and Dostoyevsky, and Mel Gibson’s dodgy Christ movie.
Here’s how Carrère imagines the tradition of the Eucharist (the Church service that commemorates Christ’s Last Supper) might have originated. He describes Paul’s visit to Philippi, a city half populated by Macedonians and half by Roman settlers. He lightly amplifies four fairly reticent verses from the Acts of the Apostles, our only source. These tell us of Paul’s arrival and ministry in Philippi, and the hospitality shown him by a woman named Lydia, “a dealer in purple cloth.” “No doubt there aren’t many Jews,” Carrère writes, “because there’s no synagogue. But there is a little group that gathers outside the walls on the banks of a river, to celebrate the Sabbath in an informal way. Its members aren’t Jews, they only have a vague knowledge of the Torah.” He goes on to liken this group to people who do yoga or Tai Chi in places where there aren’t any teachers. He reckons that ten or twenty people gathered for supper at Lydia’s house. Paul’s charisma was so great, Carrère suggests, that “they all start to believe in the resurrection of this Jesus whose name they didn’t even know a few days ago.” In doing so, he continues, “it doesn’t occur to them that they are betraying Judaism, which they adopted with a zeal that was as vibrant as it was ill-informed. On the contrary, they thank God for having sent them such a learned rabbi.” They still observe the Sabbath, and they build into their ritual a new meal of remembrance, which now occurs the day after the Sabbath:
At one point in the meal, Paul gets up, breaks a piece of bread, and says it’s the body of Christ. He raises a goblet filled with wine and says it’s Christ’s blood. In silence, the bread and the wine are passed around the table, and everyone eats a piece of bread, drinks a mouthful of wine. In memory, Paul says, of the last meal that the savior ate on this earth before being crucified. Afterward, they sing a sort of hymn about his death and Christ’s resurrection.
Such writing is somehow both patiently secular and glowingly devout, aided by John Lambert’s luminous translation. I was put in mind of José Saramago’s novel “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,” which reimagines Jesus’ life and death with similarly persuasive authority. Carrère bears down on the fervid and slightly kooky atmosphere of the early Church. He is interested in the unlikelihood of the sect’s eventual triumph. Local Jews might well be hostile to an upstart group that espoused such beliefs as the notion that the Messiah was God made flesh, or that we will be spiritually and physically restored to eternal life in a heavenly kingdom. Some Greeks treated Paul’s ministry with “amused tolerance”—they were aristocrats of the spirit, wealthy in their own philosophers and gods, looking down on oddly single-minded parvenus. The Romans mainly left the Christians alone until Nero (the emperor between 54 and 68 A.D.) began to persecute them in Rome; Tacitus suggests that Nero used them as scapegoats for the great fire of Rome, in 64. But Tacitus adds that the Christians, devotees of what he calls “a most mischievous superstition,” were likely convicted not because they started the fire but because of their otherworldly beliefs and practices—their “hatred of humanity.”
The figure who is chiefly responsible both for the spectacular growth of Christianity and for the kind of fierce moral atmosphere that might have led to Tacitus’ gibe is Paul, who lies at the center of this book—far more so than Jesus does. For several reasons, perhaps. We know more about Paul than about Jesus. Paul is Christianity’s great and early ideologue, the man who shaped its legacy, who took a cluster of strange parables and sometimes gnomic statements and, emphasizing the apocalyptic, built them into a theology. And Paul’s fanaticism draws Carrère’s religious admiration, even as it repels and alienates his French humanism. Paul and Luke, who consume most of the author’s attention, would seem to correspond to the two wings of Carrère’s complicated temperament: Paul, the Jewish convert to Christianity, the urgent believer in resurrection, salvation, and the end of the world, has something of that proud religious unreasonableness which Carrère exhibited when he was making his daily commentary on the Gospel of John. Luke, a physician of Greek cultural origin who travelled with Paul and is assumed by Church tradition to have chronicled Paul’s ministry in Acts of the Apostles, seems a milder figure. Carrère splits himself between these two evangelists, mapping a hallowed geography that also represents one of the abiding struggles within the European tradition: Athens and Jerusalem.
Jesus was an event within Judaism; it was not especially scandalous that a young Jewish radical went about proclaiming himself the Messiah, ambiguously calling himself “the son of Man,” and quarrelling with the rabbis about aspects of the law. But it was another thing entirely to claim—as Paul did—that Jesus came to earth to wash away an original sin contracted by humans in Eden; that this Jesus was crucified by the Romans, was buried, and rose from the dead; and that he would soon come again, in a rescue mission that would usher in a new eternal kingdom. In place of the intimate, familial struggle of the Jews and their God, Paul invokes a strict theology of sin and salvation. Kierkegaard, at his most Protestant-masochistic, says that Christianity’s singularity lies in its understanding of sin; if that’s true, it was Paul’s singularity rather than Jesus’. The new theology transfers Judaism’s healthy involvement in this life onto a palpitating anticipation of the next; the present becomes eternity’s duller portal.
Paul was born Saul, in Tarsus (now in Turkey), perhaps a few years after the birth of Jesus, whom he never met. He was a devout student of Judaism, and was sent to Jerusalem for schooling with one of the most eminent rabbis of the age. Filled with piety, Saul became an eager persecutor of the early Christians, who were known at this time as “those who follow the Way.” As Luke relates in Acts, Saul was on his way to Damascus, to arrest those blasphemers he could find and bring them back to stand trial in Jerusalem, when a light blinded him, and he fell to the ground. Jesus’ voice asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?,” and then told him to go into the city and await his orders. Paul’s conversion was momentous. During the next twenty years, this incandescent missionary visited Christian churches and communities from Corinth to Antioch; and when he could not reach them he wrote to them, setting down the epistles that form (with the Gospels) the core of the New Testament. These letters are, as Carrère explains, the oldest Christian texts (they predate the Gospels by twenty or thirty years), and perhaps the most modern Biblical texts, “the only ones whose author is clearly identified and speaks in his own name.”
I can feel my eyes glazing over—alas, I am back in school again—but suddenly the reader wakes up, because Monsieur Carrère, at the blackboard with his maps and dates, is shaking things up. Paul’s letters, he says, are like those which Lenin wrote “to various factions of the Second International from Paris, Geneva, and Zurich before 1917.” More interesting still, Monsieur Carrère has got hold of a detail in the Letter to the Galatians, in which Paul warns the congregants not to believe rival teachings by impostors: “Even if I came to preach something other than what I have preached, you shouldn’t believe me.” And suddenly the classroom is awake, because Monsieur Carrère is making early Christianity sound like . . . science fiction. In a sparkling, unexpected digression—there are many such in this book—he mentions Dick’s fascination with the Stalinist show trials, in which the victims were forced to deny what they had believed their whole lives, and to denounce their earlier selves as unrecognizable monsters. And then he wheels back to Paul. This terror—of the split self, the self who has turned from one pole to its opposite—was largely unknown in the ancient world, Carrère maintains, until Paul’s conversion. But because violent, sudden conversion had happened to Paul, “he must have dreaded, more or less consciously, that it could happen to him again.” This, Carrère thinks, is the hidden fear behind Paul’s admonition to the Galatians:
The person he once was had become a monster to him, and he had become a monster to the person he once was. If the two could have met, the person he once was would have cursed him. He would have prayed to God to let him die, the way the heroes of vampire movies make their friends swear they’ll drive a stake through their hearts if they’re ever bitten. But that’s what they say before it happens. Once contaminated, their only thought is to bite others in turn, in particular those who come at them with a stake to make good the promise they made to the person who no longer exists. I think that Paul’s nights must have been haunted by a nightmare of this kind.
Rampant speculation, outrageous psychologizing, insouciantly unscholarly behavior—but diabolically plausible. Carrère is not afraid of Paul’s reconverting from Christianity to Judaism (what might be considered the orthodox anxiety) so much as fearful of conversion generally. We are hardly surprised when he adds what we have all been thinking: that he is really talking about himself. He quotes a friend, who tells him, “When you were a Christian, what you feared the most was becoming the skeptic that you’re only too happy to be now. But who says you won’t change again?” Once a convert, always convertible.
What makes “The Kingdom” so engrossing is this element of personal struggle, our sense that the agnostic author is looking over his shoulder at the armies of faith, as they pursue him to the wall of rationality. That struggle plays out here over the two scandals—the two great “offenses,” to use Kierkegaard’s favorite word—at the heart of the Christian message. The first is epistemological, and has to do with the claim that Jesus is God made flesh, and that he died and rose again from the dead. The notion of a fully human god, who shares human weaknesses and frailties without any diminution of divinity, is so outrageous that Christians anxiously police Christ’s full humanity. Yes, he got angry, and he could be intolerant, enigmatic, even faltering in strength; he died, humanly, on the Cross. But don’t for a moment suggest that he slept with Mary Magdalene, or that he spent his teen-age years—well, doing what other teen-age boys are known to do a great deal of. The legend about the Virgin Mary is designed, in part, to obscure the outrageousness of Jesus’ humanity. (Carrère, in full-on French secular mode, correctively reminds us that Mary had sex. “She might have come, let’s hope so for her, maybe she even masturbated.”)
But, to the extent that Jesus’ humanity is outrageous, then so is his divinity. For if Jesus is the Son of God, then God changed—you could say that God converted. The distant, unnameable, vengeful Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible becomes the approachable “Father” who washes away all our sins. As both Jack Miles and Harold Bloom have suggested, the Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible cannot also be the father of Jesus Christ; either Christ represents an almost incomprehensible break with that world or Yahweh committed suicide on the Cross. And this Man-God, this impossible incarnation of Yahweh, died and was resurrected! Paul puts this amazing fact at the center of his teaching, and insists that if Christ was not raised from the dead “then empty, too, your faith. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” Carrère does not believe in the Resurrection, but he once did, and the fact that others do “intrigues, fascinates, troubles, and moves” him. And so he cannot help admiring Paul’s magnificent unreasonableness. There is a certain type of mind, he writes elsewhere in this book, that is attracted to radical doctrines. “The more opposed it is to common sense, the more that proves its truth. The harder it is to believe, the more deserving you are. Paul personified this type of mind—which could be called fanaticism. Luke, as I imagine him, didn’t.”
A question haunts this book, and it is surely the secret reason that Carrère wrote his biography of Philip K. Dick: Is Christianity just science fiction, a “branch of fantastic literature”? He can’t leave Dick alone, partly because Dick was a writer of fantastic literature who eventually came to believe that God was speaking directly to him, as he had spoken to men like Moses and Muhammad. For Dick, God supplanted the extraterrestrials. In a speech in France, late in his life, he told a bemused audience of sci-fi fans that he’d “had direct contact with the Programmer,” as Carrère puts it. There are certain atheists who have no compunction about dismissing fervent believers as victims of delusion and hallucination. But Carrère’s book about Dick vibrates with a profoundly uneasy respect.
I find Carrère’s ambivalence, both in that book and in “The Kingdom,” moving because I spent much of my childhood, in Durham, around and inside its great Romanesque cathedral. When I realized, in my teens, that I did not believe in God, I had to wrestle with an unhappy idea: that this great building, which for centuries had housed generations of believers, was a monument to an error. Could that be so? Can one say that a cathedral is a mistake, exactly? One shouldn’t, and yet the world views and beliefs of the faithful twelfth-century masons who cut and laid those stones are, when compared with mine, as distantly magical as Harry Potter’s. (The first two “Harry Potter” movies used Durham Cathedral as a location.)
The second great scandal of Christianity is the radical challenge it poses to conventional morality. In the tradition of Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, Carrère emphasizes the punishing sacrifice of self that Jesus’ teaching enjoins. Classical and Jewish thinking had promoted the Golden Rule—Hillel said it was the essence of the Torah—but had never said, “Love your enemies.” And not only love your enemies but also Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. This overriding command cannot be a worldly imperative; it is impossible. It is the shocking inversion of health that Nietzsche railed against, and perhaps the “hatred of humanity” with which, Tacitus says, Christian were charged. Everything natural and human is turned upside down. With only slight exaggeration, Carrère summarizes this outrageous benevolence:
Love your enemies, take joy in being unhappy, prefer being small to being big, poor to rich, sick to healthy. And whereas the Torah posits the elementary, evident, and verifiable truth that it’s not good for men to be alone, Jesus said: Don’t desire women, don’t take a wife, if you have one, keep her so as not to harm her, but it would be better if you didn’t have one. Don’t have children either. Let them come to you, take inspiration from their innocence, but don’t have any. Love children in general, not in particular, not like men have loved their children since time began: more than those of others, because they’re their own. And even—no, above all—don’t love yourselves. It is human to want one’s own good: don’t.
You can feel both the attraction and the recoil in Carrère’s stridency. He fears what he deeply admires; he is repelled by an ideal he cannot quite dislodge.
Athens or Jerusalem: Which will win? Carrère writes about the episode in the Odyssey when Odysseus has to decide between staying on Calypso’s paradisal island (where he has spent seven years) or returning home to Ithaca. Calypso’s charms are intense: she offers eternal pleasures, and she reminds our hero that Penelope, his wife back home, cannot possibly rival the beauty of an immortal goddess. Odysseus concedes as much, but still he chooses to go home; he chooses the mortal and the mutable over the deathless and the eternal. Carrère reminds us that this decision is often seen as a pinnacle of ancient wisdom: “The life of a man is better than that of a god, for the simple reason that it’s real. Authentic suffering is better than deceptive bliss. Eternity is not desirable because it’s not part of our common lot.” Against this, there is the radical eschatological mysticism of Jesus and, especially, of Paul, who “says that the only thing to expect from this life is to be delivered from it, and to go to where Christ reigns.” There is “an unsolvable difference,” Carrère says, between Paul’s ideal and that of Odysseus. “Each one calls the only true good what the other condemns as baneful illusion. Odysseus says that wisdom always consists in turning your attention to the human condition and life on earth, Paul says it consists in tearing yourself away. Odysseus says that, regardless of how beautiful it is, paradise is a fiction, and Paul says that’s the only reality. Paul, carried away, goes as far as congratulating God for having chosen what is not to invalidate what is.”
These are eloquent words, but for most of us this is no choice at all—because we were never in a position to choose, and because, anyway, we don’t accept the alternatives. Of course, eternal life does not exist; we do not choose, because we haplessly inhabit, what is over what is not. If, in Kierkegaard’s parable, we got the call to see the emperor, we would ignore it, in the way we learn to ignore the phone call offering us a free vacation at a Florida resort. But for Carrère the difference is “unsolvable.” He once went to the palace, and he heard the awful news; and he can’t quite put it out of his head, even though—indeed, precisely because—no one else believes him.
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