Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age

Christ_Actually__The_Son_of_God_for_the_Secular_Age__James_Carroll__9780670786039__Amazon_com__BooksBy James Carroll. Viking, 2014. 352 pages. $30/hardcover; $14.99/eBook.

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In every age, Christ has presented a challenge: to interpret, to relate to, to cope with. The Christ of Peter was not Paul’s, was not Julian of Norwich’s, was not Fox’s, was not Hicks’s. Friends continue to wrestle with the multiplex meanings of this person—in fact, two recent Pendle Hill pamphlets have appeared with nearly identical titles: Who Do You Say I Am? by Lloyd Lee Wilson (#409) and But Who Do You Say That I Am? by Douglas Gwyn (#426).

The million Christs reflect the million challenges that make Christ problematic for different people in their times. For those who feel it is time (again) to probe their own settled opinions about Christ, James Carroll’s book provides a stimulating companion. The issues that make the Christ of his childhood or youth no longer satisfactory for his maturity are clearly stated, deeply probed, and honestly felt. Most simply, he confronts the Christ he thought he knew with the Holocaust and the nuclear bomb, and with all their devilish kin who haunt us even now: industrialized war, the many kinds of social violence and injustice, willed ignorance, and soul-corroding waste. What can Christ be, in such a world?

Carroll writes as a faithful Catholic suffering under the knowledge of the Church’s active and passive evils, which he has decried and opposed. Though he has written on many subjects over the years, his biggest “Church book” before this was Constantine’s Sword, which dug deeply into the anti-Semitism and complicity with state power which have been persistent ingredients in most strands of Christianity since early times (including Quakerism in varying degrees). Christ Actually builds on this work by reconstructing the Jewish Jesus and the early Jesus movement, not as part of the “quest for the historical Jesus,” but as a way to make as concrete as possible the Jewishness of Jesus, and therefore the ways in which his mission was in continuity with key elements of Judaism. He explores the complicated relationship between the Jesus movement and John the Baptist (and perhaps between Jesus and John personally), the complex role and vision of Paul, and the role of women in the early days of the Jesus movement (starting with Jesus’s view, as discernible in the Gospels, despite their instrumentalist retellings of Jesus’s life and message) and later.

Carroll then describes in very effective detail the nature and impact of the Roman war against the Jews in the later first century, a genocidal war that was epitomized by the destruction of the Temple but accomplished through year after year of mass murder. This trauma was the setting for the development of two different responses from the surviving Jewish community. The Jewish mainstream reconstructed itself around the Torah, the Talmud, and local congregations for worship and study. The Jesus movement moved in a different direction, and as the persecutions continued, differentiation and then antagonism to Judaism were adopted as survival strategies.

There were significant consequences for the development of a hierarchical, male-dominated, anti-Semitic Christianity increasingly identified with secular power. I would add, though Carroll does not, that early on, the Church as it moved away from Jesus also more and more diminished any active engagement with the Holy Spirit, whose presence and activity was seen in apostolic times as the fundamental evidence of belonging to the movement.

Every age since the death of Jesus can show discouraging or shameful evidence of this evolution of institutional Christianity, just as every age (thank God!) also shows evidence of individuals who live in a more direct, primitive, and personal realization of Christ’s life. In responding in grief and doubt to the hateful crescendos of the twentieth century, Carroll draws for insight on several very different figures whose struggles to understand Christ in the “secular age” help him in his search, including the Catholic Dorothy Day and the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer’s late letters from prison provide Carroll with the idea of “religionless Christianity,” a Christianity radically freed from institutional commitments and history, centered on the daily embodiment of Christ in one’s life—the “imitation of Christ” which some seekers in every age have taken as their foundation and refuge. As Carroll explores this, a Quaker reader feels a growing sense of kinship, since the early Friends’ revival of “primitive Christianity” has left significant traces still evident in contemporary Quakerism, however much we have moved away from that vision.

I picked up Carroll’s book because of my own acute need to engage again with Christ, the Christ that I have sought and found throughout my life, but whose teaching and guidance I have so often resisted. Carroll’s eloquent and learned book was helpful, perhaps especially because it is not Quaker but recognizably the voice of a friend grappling with similar questions of faith and truth, in the same era of terror, dismay, and opportunity that I inhabit, confident that where any have ears to hear, Christ’s spirit can teach us, and bear fruits of joy, surprise, compassion, and creative living.

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