Jesus: A Life
by A. N. Wilson
Norton, 269 pages, $22.95
Live from Golgotha
by Gore Vidal
Random House, 225 pages
Blasphemy is the derogation of God. To conceive of God apart from His holiness is intrinsically impossible. But to derogate God is precisely to deny His holiness. Therefore blasphemy is intrinsically impossible.
While I'm not sure the syllogism above would withstand severe logical examination, it crystallizes my own more diffuse reflections on the failure of two well-established writers in two unusually inept and ugly books, Live From Golgotha, by Gore Vidal, and Jesus: A Life, by A. N. Wilson. The first presents itself as a novel and the second as biography, but neither author makes more than a halfhearted effort at instruction or diversion. Malice is the chief motive of both works; they are written to shock, grieve, and dismay Christian believers—goals easily enough achieved, one might think, and successfully attained by talents far more meager than those of Wilson or Vidal. The really intriguing question is, why should they flop?
The answer to this question demands, paradoxically, closer scrutiny of these books than either deserves. There is a wholesome instinct that argues against granting certain works even the minimal dignity of a negative review: leave the dead to bury their dead. Yet Jesus and Golgotha have received more than polite notice in the Christian press, and have figured seriously in op-ed pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere. A fuller treatment is called for.
The English writer A. N. Wilson was raised as an Anglican, became a Catholic briefly, reverted to Anglicanism, and has recently announced that he is an atheist. He is a successful novelist and has won respect as a biographer of Milton, Belloc, Tolstoy, and C. S. Lewis. Religion, and the varieties of Christian churchmanship, are principal concerns in all of his work. In 1985 he published a curious essay on his tottering faith called How Can We Know?, a work that irresistibly brings to mind Ronald Knox's Strato in Absolute and Abitofhell:
For he, discerning with nice arguings,
‘Twixt non-essential and essential things,
Himself believing, could no reason see
Why another other should believe, but he.
This was followed in 1990 by a tract titled Against Religion, in which the author declaimed, rather preciously, against religion. And now we have Jesus.
Wilson seems unclear himself just what sort of book he intended to write. He claims that his focus is the Jesus of history, as opposed to “the mythological Christ of religion,” yet he maintains that recovery of Jesus of Nazareth is “strictly speaking impossible.”
I do tell a narrative, based on the New Testament, which would not be satisfying to the most rigorous historian. For the sake of trying to convey what I think Jesus stood for, and what sort of man he was, I adopt the New Testament order of events. I hope that I have not written fiction, but I am aware that strictly speaking we cannot say as much about Jesus as I have in the final chapters of this book without an infinity of perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
Taken by itself, such a disclaimer might suggest a reassuring skepticism on the author's part regarding his own reconstruction. But when it suits his purposes Wilson assumes a scholarly dogmatism few real historians would hazard:
The Fourth Gospel tells us that the [last supper] took place well before the Passover. It was not a Passover meal, and in this account there is very conspicuously no institution of the Eucharist. This is perhaps the most glaring inconsistency in the Christian claim to be an historically based religion. The truth is that even if we were to believe the fantastic claim that Jesus wished to found a new religion, with a sacramental order of bishops and deacons, we could not believe that he instituted the Eucharist at Passover time as Paul and the Gospels aver.
But what happened to “perhaps”? The careful reader may be pardoned in finding Wilson methodologically capricious, when not entirely opaque, in his distribution of historical probability and doubt. The following sentence, unexplained in context, is a not-untypical specimen of his mind at work: “It is true, and indeed very likely, that Jesus caused some kind of disturbance in the Temple, overthrowing the money-changers' tables, though Christian interpreters of this event are likely to have mistaken its meaning.” Except for the obvious moral—chreatiens ont tort; paiens ont raison—I don't get it either.
In broad terms, Wilson's Jesus of history will be familiar to anyone who has read a freshman World Religions textbook. Jesus was a Galilaean hasid or holy man whose mission was to help Jews be better Jews. He made himself a nuisance to the Roman authorities, was executed, and was memorialized by his followers in a mythology colored by mystery religions of the East, a mythology that departed so greatly from Jesus' own Judaism that a new religion was born.
For Wilson, Christianity is the invention of St. Paul, the product of personal neurosis and demagogic genius, and a good part of his work is devoted to a reconstruction of Paul's highly peculiar role in the whole business. Though admittedly provocative, Wilson's demonstrations are crippled beyond repair by his frequent use of the fallacy called “asserting the consequent,” much loved of the Chariots of the Gods school of history, thus: “If there were an invisible cat on that chair, it would look empty; but it does look empty, therefore there is an invisible cat on the chair.” To an inattentive reader the proof may seem convincing. Watch it at work in Wilson's argument that it was Paul, not Peter, who denied Jesus at the time of his arrest.
The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Paul was responsible for the prosecution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, for blasphemy; but this is very unlikely to have been historically correct. If Paul was actually concerned with the condemnation, not of Stephen, but of Jesus himself, this would have been a fact with which his conscious mind, in the Christian phase of his life, would have been unable to come to terms. The Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles both draw on Christian traditions which are heavily influenced by Paul's interpretation and version of events. Their historical suppression or distortion of the truth would, if my theory is correct, correspond to the psychological suppression of the truth within Paul's own person. [A-ha!] Further, if, as Galatians makes plain, Paul held strongly divergent views from Peter, it would be natural that in the Pauline tradition, we should read accounts of Peter's denial of Jesus rather than Paul's actual condemnation of the Lord to death.
Having once threaded our way through the snarls of conditional syntax, we find that we are invited to reason thus: If Paul were disguising his guilt for having sold out Jesus, we wouldn't find evidence of his betrayal in the writings he influenced. But we don't find evidence of his betrayal in the writings he influenced, Ergo . . . The book is full of similar examples, but my favorite is Mary Magdalene's post-Resurrection boner in the Gospel of John; it was James, the brother of the Lord, whom she mistook for the gardener.
As with Luke's Emmaus story, it is hard to see how someone who had known Jesus quite well should have been so slow to recognize him. If, however, the stranger were not the dear friend, but the dear friend's brother, who bore a strong resemblance, then this is just the sort of “double take” we should expect.
Several reviews of Jesus have remarked on the author's “scholarly approach.” Rubbish. The book is emphatically, often laughably, unscholarly. Footnotes are erratic and incomplete where they do occur. The text is full of pointless pedantries (such as “The Fourth Gospel” throughout for the Gospel of John) that seldom illuminate and often obscure. Moreover, Wilson comes to the Bible innocent of Hebrew, innocent of Aramaic, and with shaky sophomore Greek, yet these handicaps don't deter him from making such claims as the following:
One method of reconstructing the possible authenticity of Jesus' sayings is to see how they are translated from the Greek in which they are written into the Aramaic in which they must have been spoken. In Luke 17:24, for example, we read of Jesus saying, “As the lightning, when it lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven, so shall the Son of Man be in his day.” This is not a sentence which can be rendered into feasible Aramaic, and it can therefore be rejected quite certainly as something which Jesus did not say.
Again, the inference is ludicrous. It is as if we were to reason, “My history book reports that Julius Caesar said, ‘The die is cast' once he crossed the Rubicon. But Latin has no word for ‘the.' Therefore it can be rejected quite certainly as something Caesar did not say.”
That Wilson is not a professional scholar of Scripture does not in itself disqualify him from the task of taking a fresh approach to the person of Jesus. It is sometimes the case that a perceptive amateur can spot connections that elude the micro-scholars, precisely because the latter are, in a sense, too close to the data. Housman maintained famously that, if you want a really penetrating insight into Greek or Latin literature, the last person you come to is a classicist. Yet all this assumes that the one outside the guild be gifted with a logical acuity, literary perspicacity, and above all grasp of human nature great enough to outweigh any deficiency in technical knowledge. It is only fair to ask whether we have in Wilson this kind of inspired amateur. Can we trust him to recover the lost Jesus for us? The answer is given once-for-all in Wilson's argument that Jesus could not have been a carpenter, because he lacked the kind of knowledge true carpenters have.
In one of his better-known carpentry analogies, Jesus again shows a fantastical imagination, and a sharp wit, but no practical knowledge of what it was like to work in a carpenter's shop. “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” It has become a proverb to express the archetypal human tendency to be observant of other people's faults and blind to one's own. Like much that Jesus said, it is hyperbolic to the point of farce. It is actually extremely funny. But no carpenter in real life came close to having a plank sticking out of his eye. . . . Jesus, then, does not appear to have been a practical man, or one well-versed in a trade.
Wilson is not much subtler when it comes to explaining how the Gospels came to be written:
[Matthew] has been through the [Old Testament] Scriptures cheerfully lifting details, and then inventing “facts” to fulfill the “prophecies.”
Or how the fix was in on the redaction process:
We have to accept the fact that all the documentary evidence comes to us filtered via Christian witnesses, and that Christians, after their religion became the official creed of the Roman Empire . . . busily set about destroying or altering any evidence which might conflict with the orthodox view of Jesus.
Or how the job was botched:
Though the New Testament writers seem to have done their best to obscure Jesus altogether in an encrustation of fantasy, he won't quite be pinned down. He struggles free of the evangelists sometimes.
Those who, like Wilson, employ the stock hermeneutics of suspicion baffle us as much by their credulity as by their skepticism. On the one hand the gospel-makers are portrayed as men of almost superhuman cunning and malice, having succeeded by the end of the first century in convincing their contemporaries that their fraud, contrived to foist an authoritarian hierarchy on the community of believers, was an entirely authentic witness to Jesus. As editors, on the other hand, they were preternaturally obtuse, failing to censor all kinds of embarrassing counterevidence. Are we really meant to picture those proto-patriarchs gathered in conclave, slapping their palms to their foreheads like housewives who remember they left the iron plugged in? “Good God, man! We forgot to take out the Beatitudes!” Read Wilson on Mark 7:28:
This saying, when taken with the other sayings of Jesus which the evangelists have forgotten to cut out . . . makes us realize that the Gospels do, in spite of themselves, contain words which are almost certainly authentic memories of his teaching.
“In spite of themselves” is good.
Flannery O'Connor once pointed out that loss of Christian faith often coincides with an “awakening” to the notion that Jesus is a “beautiful! beautiful!” human being: in reference to one of her friends she called it the “eeeek eeeek eureka stage.” So too the newly enlightened Wilson presents himself as a defender of the true Jesus (a good-hearted Jewish liberal, respectful of women and the differently abled, with a “playful yet passionately serious sense of the infinite worth of every individual”) against the arrant impostures of orthodox Catholics. Wilson's preoccupation with the Church of Rome can fairly be called obsessive; I began a list of the instances where he departs from his brief to make gratuitous polemical jabs at specifically Catholic targets, and stopped counting at twenty. Three examples from three different chapters will serve to indicate the degree of his equanimity:
The world of Jesus has been more sharply focused for our generation than for any previous generation since 70 c.e., when his world was obliterated by the Romans, and the Catholic Faith, which had small interest in and less knowledge of Jesus' Semitic origins, pursued its own curious and in the end victorious course.
Had [Jesus] attended the great Councils of Christendom—Nicaea, Chalcedon, Trent, or the First and Second Vatican Councils—his gratitude might have turned to dismay. . . . Even if it were even half possible that an historical personage existed who said the words attributed to him in the Gospels, there could be no greater insult to his memory than to recite the creeds. . . .
Would [Jesus] have been tempted to found a church, or several churches, each accusing the other of heresy, and denouncing their fellow believers by the means of councils, papal bulls, inquisitions, and wars, until the capital of the empire stood thick with temples devoted to the worship of Jesus and altars where Gentile priests could, by pronouncing certain words, call down the very presence of Jesus into their midst?
Wilson's book, be it noted, was called by the Kirkus reviewer “a surprisingly dispassionate, respectfully skeptical study that makes the best biblical scholarship available to general readers.”
In Jesus, A. N. Wilson hoped he hadn't written a novel; in Live from Golgotha, Gore Vidal hoped he had. The hopes of both men are disappointed by their productions—in the former case, because an imaginative resentment could find no purchase on reality; in the latter, because a resentful imagination failed to attain the coherence of fiction.
The conceit of Vidal's book (the word “plot” cannot be applied here without irony) is, as far as I can make out, this: Jesus is a repellent twentieth-century Jewish computer analyst named Marvin Wasserstein, a fanatical Zionist and gentile-hater. The technology of time-travel is known, and Wasserstein has been able to discover Christianity's great dark secret: the man crucified on Golgotha was actually Judas, a grotesquely obese and epicene slob. St. Paul, working with his bisexual catamite St. Timothy, had concocted the story of a more presentable crucifixion victim because it would make for a more marketable new religion. The ruse worked, and Christianity was a smash hit. Wasserstein plots to take a film crew back through time to Golgotha to expose the fraud, destroy Christianity, and make the world retrospectively safe for Zionism. By a double-double-cross, Wasserstein is himself arrested at Gethsemane, is crucified secundum scripturas, and history proceeds unhappily ever after. Amused?
A reviewer of Live from Golgotha labors under the obvious handicap that virtually none of his supporting evidence is printable. Imagine the movie version of Ben Hur or Quo Vadis produced by Robert Mapplethorpe: such is the tone of sexual squalor and Greco-Roman camp pitilessly trained on the reader by Vidal's narrator Timothy. In addition, there is a continuous descant of puerile Jew-baiting poking through the frequent gaps in the narrative.
Why should such a novel, which we would hardly expect to find outside the restroom of the Camden Bus Station, warrant the attention of First Things? Because it is being discussed in deadpan earnest, by well-known intellectuals, in respected periodicals, as a legitimate contribution to the philosophy of religion. Irving Malin wrote the following lines in a review published in the Catholic weekly Commonweal:
Although Vidal offers a fiendish gospel—a counter-gospel—he must be taken seriously. He is, after all, asking basic epistemological questions. He turns the tables on us. Why do we believe in miracles? Do we find truth by reason or faith? . . . I suggest that Vidal's provocative, distasteful novel is perhaps one of his most sustained meditations on the nature of things. It will be read for many years.
One of Vidal's blander passages (still greatly edited) may help us understand the literary context of these basic epistemological questions, this sustained meditation on the nature of things. “Saint” is St. Paul.
So Saint went sashaying around Asia Minor, setting up churches and generally putting on a great show, aided by the cousins Barnaby and John Mark. But although the Jerusalem Jews liked the money that Saint kept sending back to headquarters, they still couldn't, in their heart of hearts, stomach the Gentiles, and so they refused to eat at the same table with us, since our [obscenity deleted] were always on their minds. Finally, things came to a head when Saint took a shine to a young convert and stud named Titus and took him down to Jerusalem for a long weekend of fun. . . . The central office then leaned on James, an employee of the Temple, and James told Saint that in the future those goyim who became converted to Jesus must be circumcised. That tore it.
And that's the clever part. It is a disturbing fact about Live from Golgotha that all the elements of the Weimar aesthetic are here: the sexual violence, the thrill of sacrilege, the haute couture androgyny, the mock-jocular anti-Semitism with its underlying rage just peeking out from the high grass of counter-cultural chic: testing, testing. Most chilling of all to this reviewer is the straight-faced seriousness (for which Vidal is not responsible) with which literary aesthetes and academics calmly convert inarticulate rage into articulate social criticism, under the fashionable pretense that any and all anger is justified, provided it is subversive. And as long as subversion remains culturally chic, of course, any objections based on traditional morality, classical aesthetics, or scholarly propriety can be laughed out of court as mere naive prudery. The road from Weimar to Nuremberg used to be unclear to me; it is no longer.
Vidal's novel (his twenty-third, according to the publisher) does not exhibit the marks of a mature writer, nor even the disciplined intelligence of a literary journeyman. It is utterly devoid of wit. Vulgarisms abound, but none has been sharpened by the writer into a tool; we simply have squalor for the sake of squalor. In the place of wit are a number of gags, mainly obvious anachronisms—Shirley MacLaine “channeling in” to first-century Ephesus, St. Timothy watching televised ice hockey—that suggest Mel Brooks rather than Oscar Wilde. Live from Golgotha reads like an adolescent's work not only in the pointlessness of its obscenity but in its general self-indulgence: the author is too angry at his characters to crack a decent joke about them, too anxious that they be ridiculed to make them halfway credible first. He starts by making Saints Paul and Peter and Jesus himself into cardboard cartoons; then he riddles his own creations with bulletholes. As a consequence, the original targets of his malice remain curiously unscathed. Listen to St. Timothy's narration concerning St. James:
As kid brother of Jesus, [James] insisted that the leadership of the church was his, and there had been times when he acted as if he and not his brother were the messiah. Fortunately, the Resurrection settled that bit of sibling rivalry.
“The presence,” said James, “of non-Jews is very distressing to many members of our congregation, particularly at table where we are entirely kosher, and often dairy.” . . . James was staring with disgust at my hyacinthine golden curls and cornflower-blue eyes, the perfect Gentile youth so hated by every proper, self-loving Jew. . . . We were served quite a good kosher lunch by two wealthy Jewish widows, who are known in the community as yentas, a Jewish word meaning ladies-in-waiting for the return of the messiah.
“I have already deposited the Jesus-tithing from Asia Minor at the bank in the temple, to your account.” Saint smiled at James, who pretended indifference. Actually James was something of a financial wizard. Where Saint could raise money through salesmanship or creative bookkeeping, not to mention the all-important Follow-up strategies, James was a master of the Temple stock exchange, which so annoyed his brother, Jesus, or so we say.
There are 224 pages more of the same monotonously mindless tittering. A blurb citing a puff from Vanity Fair commends this book as “Hilarious! A full frontal assault on the New Testament!” Assailing the New Testament does not, perhaps, prompt hilarity outside the readership of Vanity Fair as reflexively as it does within; yet even allowing for this, the standard of humor seems curiously low. Is it possible that the amusement the book gives such a reviewer stems less from his own reading than from his delighted anticipation of the outrage it will provoke in the bourgeois believer?
While the genres in which A. N. Wilson and Gore Vidal have dealt with the early years of Christianity are quite distinct, there are many striking similarities in their treatment. For both men, the Christian religion is an enterprise entirely unconnected with the person of Jesus; for both, it is St. Paul who concocted Christianity to serve his own ends. For both men, Paul is endowed with great rhetorical and histrionic talent that is perverted by still greater psychological defects (in this respect they could hardly succeed in shocking, for at least one Episcopalian bishop has gone public with the same view). Both men see the establishment of the Church as a simple power ploy utterly contrary to the will of Jesus; and each brings James, the brother of the Lord, into prominence in the struggles for control.
For Wilson as well as Vidal, God is a notion that is ridiculous for those who don't believe and malignant for those who do. Of course, this makes their efforts at debunking all the more strange. A man might find the claims of Sun Myung Moon preposterous; yet it would be odd if he spent most of his waking hours rebutting them. In fact, if his animus were sufficiently strong, we might begin to doubt that his disaffection was so total after all. In the same way the slurs and sneers and adolescent forays into refutation directed by Vidal and Wilson at religion are wholly out of proportion to their professed contempt for it; religion is a kind of lantern that both scorches and fascinates the fluttering moth, a moth that curses the flame yet can't free itself from its orbit. Nobler intellects than those that produced Jesus and Live from Golgotha have been trapped by the need to extinguish the source of others' credulity. One thinks in this connection of the master logician Georg Cantor, who, according to Bertrand Russell, spent his declining years obsessed with proving that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph of Arimathaea. That is how a critic becomes a crank: first he provokes, then perplexes, and finally bores us.
It has become fashionable for intellectuals to paint, write, or compose music as a kind of psychotherapy. Since the reception given to Jesus and Live from Golgotha has so little relation to their scholarly or literary merit, it is worth asking whether we have in these works a kind of therapeutic auto-shamanism. Perhaps the authors believe that if demons can be exorcised by recitation of Holy Scripture, God, conversely, might be exorcised by blasphemy, by ritual incantation of what is calculated to infuriate pious men. Perhaps they are trying to rid themselves and similarly afflicted readers of a bad-faith disbelief.
They fail, of course; they couldn't do otherwise. Real holiness cannot be ridiculed, only sham holiness can. Caricatures of divinity make excellent, slow-moving targets for mockery, but they are, after all, the work of men's hands. Those who mistake an image for the reality might do irreparable damage to their own handiwork, might give lasting pain to the faithful, but sooner or later they will discover to their chagrin that the source of all holiness lives on, that they were assassins of a lesser god.
Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., is a frequent contributor to First Things.