Intriguing, Fascinating, Troubling and Moving

The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrère

I suspect that when this book appears I’ll be asked: “Okay, but really, are you Christian or aren’t you?” I could beat around the bush and say that if I put so much work into this book it was precisely so as not to have to answer the question. To leave it open and let everyone decide for themselves. That would be just like me. But I prefer to answer.

No. 

No, I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected. I don’t believe that a man came back from the dead. But the fact that people do believe it – and that I believed it myself – intrigues, fascinates, troubles, and moves me – I don’t know which verb is most appropriate. I’m writing this book to avoid thinking that now I no longer believe, I know better than those who do, and better than my former self when I believed. I’m writing this book to avoid coming down too firmly in my favour. 

Carrère, a decorated writer, has written The Kingdom as an account of the lives of the first Christians. And like him, I do not know which verb is most appropriate in describing this book. First off, I should come clean about my own faith and worldview: I am one of those who does believe that Jesus came back from the dead. In other words, I am a Christian, and I very much appreciate that Carrère sets the bar for Christian faith at this ancient marker.

INTRIGUING AND FASCINATING
What makes this book fascinating is how the author uses his first-rate writing gifts to explore his inner world. As you can see in the above selection, Carrère takes great pains to be honest with himself. He is a charming agnostic in the best sense of that word. Like Socrates, he knows that he doesn’t know. He writes in the spirit and tradition of Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century fellow Frenchman who is credited with inventing the modern essay. In an age where writing is becoming increasingly ideological and polarized, it is arresting and refreshing to read the thoughts of someone who assiduously tries to avoid the temptation of taking cheap shots at those with whom he disagrees. 

I do not know why the book has been categorized as fiction. Over half the book is autobiographical and the sections that one could label as fictional – imagining the early church through the eyes of Luke (the author of the Gospel and Acts) – are constantly interrupted with asides and caveats. It would be like Hilary Mantel explaining all her narrative choices in Wolf Hall, showing the reader how much of this fine novel has a plausible connection to historical fact in the world of Tudor England and how much is a product of the author’s imagination. Ordinarily, such a running commentary would weaken the spell of a story. Yet strangely in the case of The Kingdom, it does not. Carrère’s reasons for making narrative choices that cannot be substantiated yet have substantial plausibility – such as imagining that Luke was a Macedonian from Philippi who was interested in Judaism well before he first heard Paul’s gospel in an Ephesian synagogue – do not feel like interruptions at all. Nevertheless, I can easily imagine that someone who is not familiar with the New Testament might find this heavy going. On the other hand, such readers might be so intrigued by the earlier autobiographical sections that their interest would carry them through this foreign terrain. 

TROUBLING AND MOVING
What I find most troubling is how Carrère depicts the essence of Christ’s teaching: 

Beware of everything that is normal and natural to desire: family, wealth, respect, self-esteem. Prefer bereavement, distress, solitude, humiliation. Hold everything that is considered good for bad, and vice-versa . . . .  You could even say [Jesus] loved no one, in the sense that loving someone means showing them a preference, and thus being unjust to others. It’s not a small flaw: it’s a huge shortcoming, justifying the indifference – or hostility – of people…for whom life is love, and not charity.

This is a powerful accusation and it troubles me deeply: it is not easy to refute. The Beatitudes bear witness to such a reversal of values. And yet Christ was not an ascetic who intentionally sought out the experience of suffering. For example, he blessed the wedding of Cana by providing more wine and was often accused by the religious authorities of being a “wine-bibber.” Weren’t his miracles testimony to the fact that he saw healing the sick and feeding the hungry as good things? His disciples did not sign up with him to live a monastic life, far from it. They were convinced that Jesus’ kingdom would overthrow the Roman oppressors and usher in another, very earthly golden age of Israel. Many of them still believed this after his resurrection. How could they believe such things if Jesus had not embraced this earthly life with a very natural love? As for preferring some over others, Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus, even though he knew that he would raise him back to life. And he did not look forward to his own death, far from it. As we see in the garden of Gethsemane, he loved his life with a natural love, struggling in prayer and asking God if there could be another way to fulfill his calling. Contrast this with the account of Socrates who embraced his execution with equanimity. Nevertheless, there is some truth in Carrère’s indictment. Jesus did teach us to be careful not to place more confidence and value in the relatively good gifts than in the absolutely good Giver.  Perhaps Carrère is forgetting how natural desire can so easily become unnatural attachment or idolatry. 

What led Carrère to move from fervent belief to open-minded agnosticism? This question was at the back of my mind as I re-read this fascinating volume. Carrère looks back at his conversion as a case of auto-suggestion or, to translate this into the North American idiom, the power of positive thinking. A fellow French woman of an earlier generation, Simone Weil, was so fearful of auto-suggestion that she scrupulously avoided the practice of prayer, even after experiencing what she described as “being possessed by Christ.” 

In the final section of the book, Carrère describes a visit he made to Jean Vanier’s L’Arche. It was here, when a person of intellectual disabilities spontaneously reached out to him in joy, that he received a glimpse of the kingdom. Carrère concludes by wondering if his book “betrays the young man I was and the Lord he believed in, or if in its way it remains faithful to them.” He doesn’t know, but I am inclined to believe the latter, since I believe along with Weil that we can never wrestle enough with our faith in God if we do so out of a fervent love for truth.  
 

Author

  • Dirk has taught in Christian schools at the elementary level. He retired from full-time work with Redeemer’s Department of Education in 2016.

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