May 2007

Arts & Letters

He would have sisappeared years ago

By Peter Jensen
John Carroll’s ‘The Existential Jesus’

I admire John Carroll for the seriousness with which he addresses major cultural issues. He has done so again in The Existential Jesus (Scribe, 288pp; $35.00), immersing himself in the Biblical writings, in particular the Gospels of Mark and John, and rightly identifying Jesus as "the big presence in the culture of the West". Carroll reveals that he has been working through these texts with reading groups for some years. In a startling admission, he confesses that it has been impossible to approach this work with detachment:

‘Once having entered the task, and become immersed in it, I don't seem able to climb back outside. I have little idea of what I have done as an author - whether it has worked, or even what that may mean. I am in here, down inside, with only the dim sense that I have been captured by a long and complete dark saying.'

What kind of book has he written? In form, it is a retelling of the story of Jesus from Mark's point of view, with additional chapters on the responses to the story contained in John. There is a scholarly apparatus, but the work's passion transcends the merely academic. At times I was reminded of Renan's nineteenth-century masterpiece on the life of Jesus, notable for the fact that its lyricism persuaded no one in the twentieth century. At other times Carroll's book seems to be ultra-Protestant, with its savage attack on the church and its insistence (exactly the same as I heard first as a child and have heard frequently since) that we ought not to think of Jesus as meek and mild. Nor should we. Other elements reminded me of the now-lapsed Biblical Theology movement of the mid-twentieth century, with its conviction that words in isolation can carry a freight of thought greater than words in sentences.

But these remarks are trivialisations. If I am to find a genre for The Existential Jesus, I would call it a sermon. Since I am a great believer in preaching and the importance of sermons, this is a compliment. The business of a sermon is to retell the text of the Bible, drawing out its implications for the audience. It is never intended to be a free oration on a religious subject; it is always tethered to the text. To the Protestant mind, the Word trumps both the church and religious tradition in its authority. It is not the duty of the listener merely to accept passively what is said, but rather to compare what is said with the text itself: listening is an active art, and a very serious, accountable business at that.

As a preacher I have spent my life studying the Bible, in particular the Gospels, to equip myself to explain it. But I do not imagine that I am the master of these texts or that I have plumbed their depths, or that my word should be the final one for the listener. Each listener is responsible for what he or she may do with the text so retold. Of course, I draw heavily on the thoughts of men and women through the ages, and their responses to the texts through art and literature, scholarship and preaching. These responses may be those of non-Christians or of Christians from very different schools of thought. Anyone who can help me to better understand Jesus has my gratitude. I envisage John Carroll's work, then, as a high-powered, articulate sermon - assertive, passionate, listenable - on one of the greatest subjects about which it is possible for a person to speak: the meaning of Jesus. His subject is the one that has the most interest for me in all the world. How do I listen accountably and actively? Does he help me to better understand Jesus?

At one level there is both irritation and excitement. It is hard to take seriously a reading of Mark which opens, "When he appeared, as Mark tells it, in his early or mid thirties", when none of the Gospels, let alone Mark, tells us how old Jesus was. Nor is it possible to accept Carroll's exclusion of the Creator God from the clear words of John 1. On the other hand, counterbalancing such assertions and solecisms, there are flashes of brilliance and insight which made me see things with fresh eyes.

Yet I must offer a more fundamental assessment. Carroll refers to "The Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann [who] concludes that Jesus' main message was an extension of the Old Testament. It was intended to focus on the end of the world and the Kingdom of God. This is a bewilderingly implausible reading of Mark, as the work to follow should demonstrate." Carroll is right on the last point: to succeed in his reading he should, indeed he must, demonstrate that Bultmann is wrong. This is not because of Bultmann's authority; it is because, on any ordinary reading of Mark, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God and placed himself within an Old Testament continuum. We have to understand Jesus in that context. To miss it is almost wilful.

Carroll does not, of course, actually miss it - but his readers may well do. He translates what the English versions of the New Testament call the kingdom of God as "the divine realm" or even the "sacred order". For this highly unusual rendering he offers a defence (as far as I can see) only in a late footnote, on page 259, offering no justification for it other than his own word. He may be right, but I would like to know why, since it is pivotal to the way in which we understand the Jesus of Mark's Gospel. The necessary consequence is that he lays far too little weight on the paradigmatic utterance by Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel ("Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'"). Similarly, he makes little sense of predictions by Jesus of his resurrection - he even omits them without warning when he quotes the story of the transfiguration - and of the dark apocalyptic passage just before the story of the crucifixion, and even of his parables.

These are not minor points. They are part of what enables Carroll to portray Jesus as the existential one, leaving him without God and apparently without hope, disappearing somehow from his tomb but without being resurrected, despite the words of the Gospel itself. He has torn him from his context and shorn him of his kingdom. That is my contention. Am I right? Readers can decide by testing the competing assertions against the evidence of the text. It is clear from his own evidence that Matthew, Luke and John, among Mark's earliest readers, do not agree with Carroll. Indeed, as Carroll himself observes, "What emerges [from this reading of Mark] is a mysteriously enigmatic, existential Jesus whose story has not been retold elsewhere, and whose teachings have not been spelled out as they are here." I agree. The sheer novelty of Carroll's Jesus is central to my problem.

Does this matter? I think back to Carroll's admission about his book. I think that, like me and like so many, he has been captivated by Jesus. But I am troubled that the Jesus he has glimpsed is so reduced. As Carroll says, "By the end, the total accumulation of what he has done and what he has said is stripped back to one single teaching: all you need is his story. You don't even need him, only what his story teaches - a dark saying about being." Here indeed is a parting of the ways. I do not think you can delete the kingdom of God, as expressed through Jesus Christ, from history or the New Testament, or even the Gospel of Mark, without being arbitrary. And we cannot leap over the history of the movement which he inspired.

Consider this: from the beginning of recorded Christian history there have been men and women, including the young and the very old, who have been prepared to die in the service of Jesus. They have followed him not as some dark elusive presence, but as the resurrected Lord of the kingdom of God. They have submitted to him, trusted him and confessed him, even when a gun has been put to their heads. Martyrdom remains a frequent occurrence - admittedly one grossly underreported - in today's world. It is easy enough to score cheap points with diatribes against the churches, but we are talking here about the ordinary men and women of those churches who do extraordinary things as part of their trust in Jesus and his kingdom. Whatever the Jesus story means - and in my view this is as clear as can be in Mark - it cannot be told in a way that will concur with Carroll that "You don't even need him ..." Christianity is Christ, or it is nothing at all. Likewise, Christ is Christianity, or he is nothing at all. The existential Jesus would never have inspired such devotion, and would have disappeared long ago.

The Existential Jesus testifies to the need for our culture to grapple once again with the Jesus of the New Testament. John Carroll is right. This task is inescapable if we wish to understand our history and the significance of our civilisation. It is also inescapable if we wish to know the truth about ourselves and our destiny. But it cannot be done without the frank recognition that assessment of Jesus confronts us with a claim of God on our lives. In terms of our present culture, and indeed of human nature, this challenges ideas of freedom and self-determination. To my mind, the final virtue of Carroll's book is that it shows that even an existential Jesus cannot deliver us from the cul-de-sac of autonomy into which we have been led by the nihilistic culture which Carroll, in his other works, has so successfully exposed.

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