Friday, 14 October 2011

More Lives of Jesus 3: John Carroll's "Existential Jesus"

To keep the Australian theme going here is another Australian Life of Jesus, The Existential Jesus by John Carroll.  However, this is where the resemblance to John Dickson ends.  Carroll is a professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne and is not an active church member or a biblical scholar.  Instead, he approaches the story of Jesus through a secular reading group he convenes at the University, which has twice read the Gospel of Mark in its entirety.  He has found the story profoundly affecting and life changing, and this book is the result.

Nor is Carroll greatly interested in the Quest for the Historical Jesus, and is scornful of both the idea of Jesus as eschatologocal prophet, and of the Jesus Seminar with their colour-coded sayings.  Not that he doesn't make use of historical research - he leans particularly heavily on Catholic scholar Raymond E Brown - but his intention is quite different from theirs.  This is what he says.

The Christian churches have comprehensively failed in their one central task - to retell their foundation story in a way that might speak to the times.  They have failed in what the ancient Jews called midrash - the art of reworking stories so as to bring them up to date.  The church Jesus is a wooden residue of tired doctrine...little of which has cogent mainstream resonance today.

This is his aim - to produce a midrash which can make Jesus relevant to the 21st century.  What does he find?

...a mysteriously enigmatic, existential Jesus whose story has not been retold elsewhere...This Jesus learns through his own bitter experience to reject temples and churches.  What he finds himself left with is nothing, apart from his own story.  So he invites those who have ears to hear to join him, to stand in his shoes, and to learn from his tragic journey.  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.

With a beginning like this it would be tempting to dismiss Carroll as recreating Jesus in his own image.  This would be a mistake.  While there is certainly some truth in the charge, there is also a lot to like about his reconstruction.  He is erudite, perceptive, and daring.

The core of the book is his own retranslation of key parts of Mark's and John's text as well as one or two passages from Luke but none from Matthew.  His translation is perhaps not entirely to be trusted - he says he has based it on his knowledge of classical Greek (a different dialect to New Testament Greek) supplemented by insights from other scholars.  Nonetheless, he has a gift for highlighting complexities and ambiguities in the text, and these abound in Mark.  A key one is the word pneuma which depending on the context is variously translated wind, breath and spirit or Spirit.  By retaining the original Greek term he draws out multiple meanings which disappear from most English translations.  Hence the wind which batters Jesus' boat on the Sea of Galilee can be read as both wind and Spirit, and this complexity is repeated across accounts.

However, the best thing about this book is Carroll's keen literary eye.  Unclouded by historical or doctrinal questions, he hones in on the correspondences between different events, the repetition of key words and ideas, the motifs which Mark and John use to identify Jesus' main teachings, and point readers to their own interpretation of these.

Carroll sees Mark as the foundational gospel story and John as a midrash on Mark.  He organises his book in the same way.  In the first part he provides a sequential commentary on Mark.  His version of the story is enigmatic, and Godless.  Jesus is a tragic, isolated figure, misunderstood by his disciples, especially Peter, but occasionally understood by random strangers who he encounters and heals - like the man posessed by 2000 demons in the country of the Gadarenes, or Mary of Bethany who anoints him with oil before his crucifixion.  His message is I am and he wants his followers to see themselves in the same way - to learn to be.  What Carroll means by this is not entirely clear.  He does not see Jesus as claiming to be God so much as replacing him, but he sees him as driven and inspired by pneuma and wielding a power which any of his followers could also wield, if only they could learn.

Mark's story is ultimately a tragedy, although an ambiguous one.  Jesus dies alone, understood by none of his disciples except perhaps the shadowy figure of Mark lurking in the background and Mary finding the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.  Frustrated and angered by the obtuseness of his disciples (he regrets calling them almost the moment he has done so) many of his sayings take on a caustic, even cruel edge.  His final death is accompanied by a scream of agony and the empty tomb is at best ambiguous, a hint or possibility rather than a certainty.

In the second part of his book, Carroll turns his attention to John, presenting a more hopeful version of Jesus' story.  Where Mark's Jesus is driven by his fate, doubting and learning as he goes along, John's is serene and fully in control of his destiny.  In Carroll's own midrash on John we see Jesus through the eyes of five archetypal followers - Peter, who is incapable of rising to Jesus' heights and instead is given the lowly task of creating the Church; Mary (Carroll follows the later Christian practice of conflating Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdelene and the anonymous woman who washes Jesus' feet in Luke), a woman who finds her true being through a jouney from sensuality; Judas, consumed by hate, who opposes Jesus' I am with an angry I am not; Pilate, who reaches the borders of I am in the course of Jesus' trial; and finally John himself, the young man who Jesus loves and who needs nothing more than to be himself.

These chapters for me are the high point of the book.  His skill, for instance, in picking out the progression in the five key sayings of Pilate during the trial is a revelation, as is his reading of Judas' motivations and his bitter hatred.  Even his portrait of Peter's continual failure has an air of truth about it, sealed by his plausible reading of the final scene in John's gospel where Jesus asks three times "Simon, son of John, do you love me" and Peter replies in the affirmative and is asked to feed Jesus' sheep.  Carroll highlights two things about this tale that have escaped every preacher and commentator I have heard or read on the subject.  Firstly, he uses the name "Simon", not "Peter" - his pre-conversion name, not his name as a disciple.  It is as if he is rescinding his earlier call.  Secondly, Jesus asks "do you agape me?" - the Greek word for selfless, giving love used by Paul in 1 Cor 13.  Peter replies, "you know that I phileo you" - the word for fraternal love.  The final time Jesus gives in and also uses phileo.  Peter is not affirming his love for Jesus as we are usually taught.  Rather, he is unable to rise to the heights of selfless love Jesus is asking of him, and will always be stuck at the level of mere mateship.

I don't agree with everything Carroll says.  His portrayal to Jesus' isolation is overdrawn, missing the many clues in Mark that Jesus is surrounded not only by his disciples but a wide group of friends and followers.  His heavy existentialism leaves me cold - what does this Jesus ultimately have to offer us?  To be ourselves?  Is that it?  Yet because he is an outsider, and because he loves and reveres these texts and has immersed himself in them, his interpretation is rich in possibilities.  He shines light in dark places, he raises new questions and proposes new answers.  His voice will be in my head as a reread the stories, and it will lead me to see them in a new way.

No comments: