Translated from the French by John Lambert
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28, 400 pp.
“It’s like shooting a documentary,” Emmanuel Carrère, an ultra-prominent French cinéaste (he judges at Cannes) writes of his approach to the writing of this book. “Either you try to pretend that you’re seeing people ‘for real’—that is, as they are when you’re not there to film them—or you admit that by filming them you change the givens, and that what you’re filming is a new situation. Personally, I’m not bothered by what’s known in technical jargon as the ‘direct gaze’: when people look straight into the camera. On the contrary, I work it in, and even draw attention to it. I show what this gaze is interacting with, the things that are supposed to remain offscreen in classical documentaries: the team during the shoot, me directing the team, our quarrels, our doubts, our complex relations with the people we’re filming.”
Three quarters of this book is about the rise and early spread of Christianity as recovered from the New Testament and from framing historical knowledge of the first centuries of the Common Era. Think of that as “the people we’re filming.” Now think of Carrère, the director, stepping into the frame again and again with his direct gaze. Thus, when writing of the Greek Island of Patmos—where the last book in the New Testament, Revelation, opens—Carrère cuts to himself taking a swim off a beach on Patmos, where he has a second home, and lingering over the story of the elaborate bed that he and his second wife, Hélène, bought for this home, and how it reminds him of the bed described in Homeric detail in the famous finale to the Odyssey: Odysseus coming home to Ithaca and to Penelope.
In favor of his approach, Carrère claims only that it is “more in tune with modern sensitivities.” If such are your sensitivities, you may like this book very much, for it is a documentary in which Carrère is likely to appear on camera at any moment. Much of the justification for this approach, however, is that Carrère is not writing the story of early Christianity for its own sake but also for existential reasons of his own. He is one “taken by the urge to explore this central and mysterious point in our common and my personal history.”
Carrère’s personal history begins with his birth into a conservative Catholic family headed by a father who was “vaguely” a follower of the rabid anti-Semite and convicted Pétainiste traitor Charles Maurras. Young Emmanuel was baptized; he received his First Communion. But in short order, he assumed the default position of secular France (and also of his father): “I never broached the subject [of religion] with any friends, lovers, or acquaintances.... I would have found someone who believed in the Resurrection of Christ as strange…as someone who’s not only interested in but also believes in Greek mythology.”
Such, essentially, is still the position of the now sixty-year-old Carrère. He still believes that, as among a sectarian pamphleteer who accosts him on the Boul Mich, the disturbed science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick (of whom Carrère has written a psychobiography), and St. Paul, there is no discoverable difference: “The one was grappling with the real thing, the other two with pitiful illusions. But what if there is no real thing? If God doesn’t exist? If Christ was not raised from the dead? At best you can say that Paul’s undertaking was more successful, that it’s worthier from a philosophical and cultural point of view—but deep down it’s exactly the same B.S.”
Inserted, however, between the default secularism of the first half of Carrère’s life and the default secularism of the second half, there came a three-year interlude in which Carrère, like Dante in mezzo del cammin, found himself in a dark wood and turned briefly to Catholicism. He writes of this period in the first major section of The Kingdom, titled “A Crisis (Paris, 1990-1993).” There, writing in the cinematically realistic first-person historical present, he says things like
“I leave the store in a wretched state. Walking down the street, I try to gather myself, to cut my losses. The charade consists of telling myself firstly that most of the books that just caused me so much grief are bad, and secondly that if I can’t write any longer it’s because I’ve been called upon to do something else. Something higher.”
Taking this account at face value (as, of course, with modern sensitivities, one shouldn’t), Carrère’s was a highly fideistic, credo-quia-absurdum fling with Catholic spirituality after the manner of Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s eighteenth-century Abandonment to Divine Providence, which he learned about from his admired but slightly loopy Aunt Jacqueline. Late in “A Crisis,” Carrère compares this Catholic intermezzo to “the way you talk about a great love of your youth. A stormy passion that you’re happy to have experienced, all things considered, but that now belongs to the past.” So, yes, it’s over, but Carrère brings the memory of this fling with him into his historically informed, novelistically imagined rewrite of early church history. He brings it as a secretly superior familiarity with “the things of the soul, the things involving God. Deep down, I liked to believe I was more familiar with them than my colleagues in the little world of literature.”
In the second major section of the book, “Paul (Greece, 50-59),” the camera is mostly directed at the title character, but the point of view (except, of course, for the many moments when the camera swings to Carrère) is that of Luke, for whom Carrère provides an elaborate and all but entirely imagined backstory. Carrère’s Luke, as the one Gentile among the New Testament writers, is eminently well educated in the best manner of his day, deeply versed in Plato as well as Homer, mesmerized by Paul and yet, despite some scanty prior acquaintance with Judaism, a victim of culture shock when he encounters full-force Jewish culture in Jerusalem for the first time, and even as he confronts the highly rabbinic Letter to the Romans. Carrère is well aware that there is minimal scriptural warrant for his portraiture, but “I’m all for reading the Bible as it suits me, as long as I bear in mind that I’m doing just that. And I’m all for projecting myself onto the figure of Luke, as long as I’m aware that I’m projecting.” Thus, “Imagining the Luke whom I imagine faced with [Romans] is a way of justifying my own lack of appetite, because I think that much of this austere, doctrinal position paper must have been over his head—as it is over mine. Luke was fond of anecdotes and human traits; theology bored him. He could get excited about Paul’s quarrels with the Corinthians, because the Corinthians were Greeks like him, and because the problems that they ran up against trying to introduce Christianity in pagan surroundings concerned him directly. The Letter to the Romans, by contrast…” and so forth.
Carrère writes that he spent seven years writing The Kingdom, as well as two translating Mark in partnership with a New Testament exegete for a multi-authored French edition of the Bible, as well as three doing a devotional reading of John (“The Book of John” in John Lambert’s translation) during his “Christian Period.” The book has a great deal of learning behind it, and in asides Carrère gives glimpses of his sources. I share his intuition about the sensibility of Luke as it differs from that of Paul, and his cinematic touch yields some wonderfully vivid moments throughout the book. Here, for example, is his vision of Paul as he begins to dictate the Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest document in the New Testament:
Timothy, the board on his knees, is sitting cross-legged at Paul’s feet—if it’s Caravaggio who painted it, his feet are dirty. The apostle has let go of his shuttle. He raises his eyes skyward, and starts to dictate. This is the start of the New Testament.
Moments like these make this book a lively read, as do moments when Carrère drops in tasty morsels from his reading, such as Ernest Renan’s remark that Paul was “a Protestant for himself, and a Catholic for everyone else.” In the same vein, I did not know until I read The Kingdom that Gallio, the Roman magistrate before whom Paul appears in Acts 18, was brother to Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher—a fascinating discovery. But Carrère goes insouciantly on from there, speculating about Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius: “If [Luke] read it, he must have liked it. Inclined to believing that all men of good faith are Christian without knowing it, he must have delighted in sentences like: ‘God is within you, Lucilius.’”
As such scenes multiplied over the length of the book, I was reminded of a sentence that the late Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books, reviewing a true-crime blockbuster in the manner of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: “Since none of this can be known, none of this is true.” Carrère defends himself against that objection (his book is, in fact, armed to the teeth with preemptive defenses against all kinds of objections) by claiming that all scholars invent: he simply admits about his inventions what they conceal about theirs:
I, too, am free to invent provided I say that I’m inventing, and set out as scrupulously as Renan does the degrees of the certain, the probable, the possible, and—right before the completely excluded—the not entirely impossible: the realm in which a good part of this book is based.
Any honest historian might accept this as a statement of principle, but Carrère eschews the historian’s version of the direct gaze, which is the citation, the footnote, the chapter and the verse—everything that enables the reader to see the historian behind the history, throwing open how and where the researcher got it and why he or she reasons in a particular way. In Carrère’s sleek, seamless account, the citations Mark 6:1–6 and Luke 4:16–30 are omitted even when those are precisely the two passages being compared. Carrère is a cinéma vérité modernist for himself, a showbiz traditionalist for everyone else.
And moving from grand principle to gritty practice…well, as I made my way through The Kingdom, I started keeping a little checklist. A few examples:
(1) “In all of the [Roman] Empire, from Scotland to the Caucasus, cultivated people spoke Greek well and the common people spoke it poorly.” Scotland? Your everyday Pict, on the far side or even the near side of Hadrian’s Wall, before that wall even went up—speaking Greek? As between the not entirely impossible and the completely excluded, I opt for the latter. And yet, he asserts that Galilean peasants knew no Greek, this after hundreds of years of colonization by Greeks and Grecophone Romans.
(2) After “the majestic list of all the Samuels, Sauls, Benjamins, and Davids, this name [Yeshua] is about as incongruous as if, after listing the kings of France, you said the last one was Gerald or Patrick.” But Yeshua is the late-Hebrew and Aramaic form of “Joshua.” Iésous, its Greek translation, is the name that Luke would have encountered reading the Book of Joshua in the Greek of the Septuagint.
(3) “It was the Christians who invented religious centralization, with its hierarchy, its all-binding credo, its sanctions for those who deviate.” Wrong as stated: the Christians may have invented creedal orthodoxy, but the Jewish Diaspora, with its temple tax and its practice of frequent, even annual, pilgrimage to Jerusalem, was centralized well before Jesus was born.
(4) Visiting Athens, “Paul was shocked by the statues: as a good Jew, for him any representation of the human figure was idolatry.” True, but Paul had grown up in pagan Tarsus, surrounded by such statues. Did he spend his whole life in shock?
And then there are recurrent, slightly off-key moments like “it’s no coincidence that the name Jeremiah gave the word ‘jeremiad.’” You people thought it was a coincidence, but now you know. Or, Carrère’s regret that “almost the entire book that I scour page after page, the Acts of the Apostles, strangely escapes [artistic] representation.” True, there is El Greco’s The Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles; there is Raphael’s Saint Paul Preaching in Athens, a tapestry tucked obscurely away in the Sistine Chapel; there is even, on the cover of Carrère’s American translation, Caravaggio’s The Conversion of St. Paul. But Carrère yearns for something really big. He proposes a Circumcision of Timothy by Rembrandt.
Carrère states that in the Gospel according to Luke, Pilate sends Jesus to the Sanhedrin. He doesn’t: he sends him to Herod. Carrère locates “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” in Luke; sorry, they appear in Matthew. He confuses the English scholar R. H. Charles with the American James H. Charlesworth. He perpetrates the hard-to-top triple tautology “Islamic sharia law.” For a reader of good will, trying hard to take The Kingdom on the author’s announced terms, moments like these do get in the way.
The third major section of the work, after “A Crisis” and “Paul,” is “The Investigation (Judea, 58-60).” The investigation in question is Luke’s, and it is the turning point in the plot that Carrère has devised for a work he initially intended to title Luke’s Investigation. Having endowed Luke with a rich store of Greek learning and a culturally Greek formation, Carrère defines him down into complete ignorance of Jesus as he arrives in Jerusalem: “When he met James for the first time, Luke knew nothing about his brother Jesus.” “Nothing” seems rather a stretch, but as a premise, Luke’s tabula-rasa ignorance lends suspense to what follows. As the plot thickens, Luke meets Philip, a Jew but Hellenized and a relatively kindred spirit. Philip leads him to John Mark, another figure from the Acts of the Apostles, whom Carrère (with some others) identifies with Mark the Evangelist. Philip lends Luke a copy of what scholars call the Sayings Source (or, using a German abbreviation, Q). Most liberating to the novelist or screenwriter’s imagination, Luke begins doing eyewitness interviews in Judaea and Galilee, speaking to people who knew Jesus, or knew those who did. And, as the work grows steadily more novelistic, Luke begins silently turning against Paul’s version of the Cosmic Christ.
The fourth major section, “Luke (Rome, 60-90),” brings all this to a cinematic and literary climax. Luke has stood along the parade route in Rome as Titus, the conqueror of Jerusalem, marches through the city in triumph. But now the camera finds him at home in his little apartment, working in bed. As if for a shooting script, Carrère writes:
Spread out on the quilt, we discover first of all the Septuagint Bible, then Mark’s Gospel copied by him, and finally the collection, also copied by him, of the words of Jesus that Philip first lent to him in Caesarea. This small roll that he’s always kept in the bottom of his trunk is his treasure. It’s also, now, his edge over Mark, who, as he had no access to it, says little about Jesus’ teaching. The Septuagint, Mark, and Q: these are his three reference documents, to which I believe must also be added Josephus.
A crowded bed, especially if one imagines the Septuagint and Josephus as each a set of scrolls, each stored in something rather like a medium-sized wine rack, just as they would have been back in AD 60-90. Luke-Acts, begun in bed, is Luke’s major rebuttal of Paul. The Letters of James, Peter, and John, which he eventually ghostwrites, will be his minor rebuttals.
The final briefer section of the book, “Epilogue (Rome, 90-Paris, 2014)” connects loosely with “Prologue (Paris, 2011).” In the prologue, speaking with two colleagues in a television series, Carrère confides that he has been working for two years on a book about Paul and the Christians of Corinth: “I gave them the story the way you pitch a series.” One of the two is intrigued because Christianity is so bizarre, it reminds him of Philip K. Dick. This starts Carrère thinking; and before he ever finishes The Kingdom, he has written his already mentioned psychobiography of Dick. (Against the background of this work, that one seems a conceptual propaedeutic.) In the epilogue, after tucking in capsule accounts of Matthew and John and carrying his narrative forward to Constantine in a sort of farewell-to-all-that dénouement, Carrère leaps to the present and describes himself reluctantly visiting one of Jean Vanier’s Arc communities, where adult volunteers care for profoundly handicapped fellow adults and do so for years on end. Carrère is moved. Recalling the reader who talked him into the visit, a reader who believed that he had missed the essence of Christianity, Carrère ends his book as follows:
I wrote this book that I’m now bringing to a close in good faith, but what it attempts to deal with is so much larger than I am that this good faith, I know, is paltry in comparison. I wrote it encumbered with everything that makes me what I am: intelligent, rich, a man at the top—so many obstacles to entering the kingdom. Nevertheless, I tried. And what I wonder as I leave it, is if it betrays the young man I was and the Lord he believed in, or if in its way it remains faithful to them. I don’t know.
What I wonder as I leave this review is whether Carrère is on the level. The late Charles Champlin, film critic of the Los Angeles Times, loved to tell the story of a Hollywood mogul’s advice to a young actor, just arrived in Hollywood: “Kid, what matters in this town is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Hollywood, in my glancing but repeated contacts with its mores and its people over almost forty years in Greater Los Angeles, is richly endowed with people who are just dazzlingly, professionally good at faking it. Carrère is an habitué of that world.
This elegant, gifted, witty, and endlessly disarming writer clearly believes that he has made the brave but difficult choice of agnostic truth over Christian illusion. He finds occasion in this book to make repeated, gravely eloquent testimonials to the nobility of this choice. I believe those testimonials easily. Do I believe this closing confession?
I don’t know.