Leaps of Faithby David Varno
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017)
When Saint Paul was struck blind on the road to Jerusalem by what he came to believe was a resurrected Jesus Christ, his first response was to hold onto the self he had been before that moment. He was Saul the Hebrew, he came from a good family, held sway in his community, was expected to become a rabbi. So what was he doing under the spell of a force he’d been trying to eradicate? Had he been completely wrong up until then, and now his true self was finally ready to emerge, or was he about to become possessed by a self-imposter?
Emmanuel Carrére’s new book The Kingdom blends memoir, criticism, history, and fiction to explore the problem of grappling with a new identity, and it is driven by the question of why “normal, intelligent people can believe something as unreasonable as the Christian religion, something exactly like Greek mythology or fairy tales.” Religious conviction requires people to continuously trick themselves into believing the opposite of what is plausible, of what seems right, and to embrace an impression that would appear totally wrong to anyone else. I know this from my youth, when I watched dozens of kids fall to the floor of a Jesus camp chapel after being touched on the forehead by the pastor. They knew it was impossible to be “slain in the spirit,” but they went down anyway. Don Quixote found strength and meaning in his life by believing in what was not there, by animating the world around him with images from books, and Carrére wonders why the same has been true for Christians for two thousand years and counting. The ending of Don Quixote is devastating because we see Quixote give up on his self-guided faith in the moment before his death, while Christians, on the other hand, are generally not given a reason to renounce their faith on their death bed, but rather cling to it more than ever.
Carrére makes interesting connections between Paul and Philip K. Dick, another figure whose schizophrenia and spirituality he explored in the book I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick. When Paul taught the Greeks how to pray, they began speaking in tongues. The Greeks then developed the habit of transcribing the meaningless sounds and attempting to translate them. Philip K. Dick once transcribed the words of an unknown language that came to him in his dreams after a mystical experience, and discovered that it was Koine Greek, the language that Paul spoke in. In the ’70s, Dick wrote a novel that dramatized the “solipsistic standoff” that launched in his mind after the discovery, featuring a skeptic named Philip K. Dick and a believer named Horselover Fat. Carrére’s rendering of their interior dialogue is riveting, and it brings into relief the desire to believe that one is hearing the voice of God in conflict with the human will to live, which is emboldened by the lack of empirical evidence for God’s actual existence.
If we think of Paul in terms of the way we’ve shaped our own lives, the mutations that we undergo as we move from phase to phase and make efforts to redefine ourselves as we shed the past, he becomes relatable through Carrére’s narrative. Christians fear their past selves because they know they can be betrayed, just as the rest of us fear that our past identities will be revealed. For me, this first occurred in eighth grade, and again in tenth grade, when I twice purged my music collection of everything that was suddenly uncool to me based on the new styles and tastes I’d adopted. The first section of the book, “A Crisis,” is a mini-memoir of Carrére’s own period of transformation, when as an adult he suddenly converted to Christianity and spent three years going to mass every day. This “Christian period” is a point of embarrassment for Carrére, and he is compelled to place disparaging quotes around terms and phrases such as “conversion” and “touched by grace.” This tendency is understandable, given that I hesitated above to mention that in the first summer of Jesus camp, I fell to the floor with everyone else, and it wasn’t until the second summer, well into high school, that I stood rigid when the pastor touched my forehead. Carrére acknowledges the inherent problem of writing a book that is meant to explore the nature and power of Christian faith when he no longer shares the beliefs himself, but because he is embarrassed rather than conflicted, the drama between author and subject is less rich than what was achieved in I Am Alive and You Are Dead as well as his last book, Limonov. Still, The Kingdom completes a trilogy of literary biographies, each of which revolve around an author’s origin story.
Carrére credits Luke as an effective fiction writer, who with the Gospel and the Acts wrote fiction in the guise of history. The portrait of Luke is compelling when Carrére does the work to imagine what it might have been like to live and think in the first century, when Jesus was known as a real person and his followers joined myth and history in their minds, and there was only a “hazy distinction between Hercules and Alexander.” Carrére is fixated on a passage from the Acts in which the first-person point of view emerges with Luke writing about his travels through Greece on the way to Jerusalem. Luke’s own voice is an entry point for Carrére to imagine what his experience might have been like. He uses modern analogies to deepen the imagined portrait, such as a comparison of Luke’s early interest in Judaism as a non-Jew to someone who practices yoga or meditation and becomes interested in Buddhist texts “without feeling obliged to believe in Tibetan divinities or turn a prayer wheel.” Carrére wants to identify with Luke, to understand the curiosity that compelled him to hang out in the temples where he eventually heard Paul give outlandish sermons on the resurrection of Christ. Carrére imagines that Luke does not immediately believe what Paul is saying, but is “intrigued, engrossed by the speaker’s conviction, and […] wants to know more.”
The passage on the journey to Jerusalem is a brilliant contrast between ancient wisdom and Christian self-denial. Certain that Luke and his companions were familiar with Homer’s epics, Carrére imagines that they all took themselves for Odysseus, then addresses their polarized views on eternal life as he tells the story of Odysseus and Calypso. After seven years on the island, Odysseus turned down the goddess’s invitation to stay there forever, where he would never get old, and the two of them would spend eternity “making love, taking naps in the sun, swimming in the blue water, drinking wine without getting a hangover, making love again, never getting tired of it.” The promise is cloaked in the pleasures of human life, but Odysseus would have lost his connection to what made him human in the first place. Luke, on the other hand, chose eternity, and Carrére wonders if Luke questions “turning his back on what really does exist: the warmth of human bodies, the bittersweet taste of life, the marvelous imperfection of the real.”
Almost spoiling this, however, are a series of passages on Carrére’s own experiences in Greece that reek with the arrogance of privilege and imperialism. When his family’s attempt to buy a second house in Patmos lead to a series of real estate roadblocks, Carrére’s frustrations become so acute that he comes to feel that the Greeks deserved their financial crisis. This might sound like a small problem, but it informs the later passages in which Carrére favors the ethos of the Roman Empire over the theocracy of Judea. The Romans were akin to secular post-revolutionary French, Carrére seems to suggest, while Jewish Law in Judea was similar to Islamic Sharia law in that it ran “counter to the freedom of thought and human rights that we consider acceptable.” Despite this, and because the Jews did not have the means to impose their views on others, the Romans “tolerated their intolerance.” The Romans ruled the world, and Carrére prefers to identify with the dominant, cosmopolitan side.
The subject of Carrére’s wealth and success regularly interrupts the fictional narrative of Luke’s investigation into the life of Jesus, and while the tone can occasionally be noxious, the interruptions work toward the book’s essential criticism of Christianity. Luke’s story of Jesus telling a rich young man who seeks eternal life to “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in the kingdom of heaven” causes Carrére to wonder where Luke stood, whether he felt the need to sacrifice or was content to hear the good news. Since we can’t know, Carrére uses himself to fill in the gap. Despite the self-affirming influence of psychoanalysis and meditation, Carrére continues to hear “a stubborn little voice” tell him that “all the riches [he] enjoy[s]…are what prevent real accomplishment,” and admits, more than twenty years after coming out from under the spell of the Christian faith, that he believes this message from the Gospel is the right one. He doesn’t give a reason for this, but the lingering conundrum points to the central tension of Christian identity, the contradiction between selflessness and the desire for rewards, the self-denial in service of what one truly wants.
Carrére’s exploration of his “Christian period” begins with a stash of notebooks saved over the years in which he meditated on the Gospel of John. The notebooks were hidden away with another stash of papers from his past, the case file for the convicted murderer Jean-Claude Romand, which Carrére drew on for his short masterpiece The Adversary. While he describes the years in which he wrote The Adversary as a “long, drawn-out nightmare,” he recalls the project with a triumphant sense of clarity. He may have been ashamed of his obsession with the murder case at the time, but it served him well. Carrére’s assessment of The Adversary connects the contradiction embodied by those who are Christian to the rest of us:
I believe that what I was so frightened of sharing with [the murderer Romand] I share—we both share—with most people… Even the most self-assured of us, I think, are fraught with worry at the discrepancy between the image they try their best to portray to others and the one they have of themselves.
This secret image we have of ourselves is embodied in Christians as the devil, and in fact “The Adversary” is one of the names the Bible gives to that evil, undermining force. Fundamental Christians tell their children to fear the devil’s influence and hold true to their beliefs, to prevent their identity as Christians from being compromised. But what if we are taught to mistake our true self for the devil? During the time that Carrére was “saved,” he feared the mutinous self that would take hold of things and overwhelm him with doubt, just as he’d overwhelmed that unbelieving self with faith. “A Crisis” concludes with a fascinating illustration of the shifting selves that spar within us and mutate over time: “A formidable adversary is on the horizon: not the me I’ve but behind me but the me to come, a me...who will no longer believe and will be more than happy not to.” Carrére was writing his book on Philip K. Dick during this time, and though he had taken comfort in the gospel’s beatific moralism that tells us to embrace ill fortune and doubt the things that make us happy, he was incredibly excited and fulfilled by the project.
The paradox of Christianity is that it is aspirational in function yet built on the example of self-sacrifice. Consider the words of Jesus from Luke: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The words are spoken at a dinner party with the Pharisees, and are meant as instruction to be inclusive when it comes to the guest list, to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Carrére points out that “neither Luke nor even Jesus questions the opinion shared by all that it’s better to be on top than on the bottom. They simply say that putting yourself on the bottom is the best way to end up on top, that is to say that humility is a good life strategy.” How many Christians living among us have greedily swallowed this message?
Carrére’s descriptions of his good fortune are easier to stomach than a Christian’s because he takes credit for his success, while the Christian will only say they are blessed and must remain humble before God, but it’s not that simple. When the prodigal son returns broke, filthy, and humiliated, he is celebrated, while the son who stayed on the farm gets no special treatment. Life is unfair, and one way to get ahead is to strike the pose of humility. When you see that cunning is a secret virtue in the Bible, you begin to recognize the seeds of Christian conquest and the current culture of Christian values expressed from the seat of affluence and power. Mike Pence is so pure that he won’t even have lunch with a woman who isn’t his wife, and yet he was happy to accept the appointment of Vice President from a person who is almost entirely anti-Christian. Is the Mike Pence of the White House a new Mike Pence, a mutant like the early Christians who went on to take over the world, “like one of the extraterrestrials in that paranoid old science fiction film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” as Carrére compares them? “These mutants wanted to devour the Empire from the inside, to replace its subjects through an invisible process. And that’s what they’ve done.”
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.