by emmanuel carrère
farrar, straus and giroux, 400 pages, $28
The genius and the apostle are alike, according to Kierkegaard, in that both bring new ideas into the world. But there’s a crucial difference. Geniuses are ahead of their time, and, consequently, the knowledge they bring forth always “disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race.” Thus we take it as a given in the twenty-first century that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Mona Lisa is printed on shower curtains and beach towels. But the apostle’s message is eternal, outside of time. Because of this, it can never be assimilated. The topsy-turvy logic of the Gospels—in which the last shall be first and the meek will inherit the earth—remains permanently paradoxical, never to be absorbed by ideas of progress. Every incursion of eternity retains the power to shock.
In many ways, Emmanuel Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, is about just this irreducible strangeness of Christianity: a church in which the low are made high, and the least qualified candidate for any job—the stutterer, the outcast, the murderer—is invariably the person whom God chooses to help build his kingdom on earth. Carrère himself is one such unlikely candidate. Born in Paris in 1957, he has achieved success in France as a novelist, biographer, and writer for film and TV. As this truncated CV suggests, he has a penchant for combining genres. The Kingdom is itself half autobiography and half fictionalized account of the early Christian Church. The autobiographical portion centers on Carrère’s early to mid-thirties, when a bout of writer’s block plunged him first into crisis and then into Catholicism with a convert’s zeal. For three years, he attended Mass daily, prayed and observed the sacraments devotedly, and filled twenty notebooks with his own commentary on the Gospels, until the time he now refers to as his “Christian period” came to an end.
Carrère is fuzzy on when and how, exactly, he began to lose his faith, but forthcoming about why. With a mix of likable self-awareness and frustrating narcissism that characterizes much of The Kingdom, he pins it on being “horribly intelligent”—that is to say, “incapable of simplicity, convoluted, hairsplitting, anticipating objections that no one was thinking of making, not being able to think something without at the same time thinking its opposite, then the opposite of its opposite, and exhausting myself with these mental gymnastics for no purpose whatsoever.” Ultimately, Carrère identifies with the rich ruler of the Gospels. Despite knowing that on the most important level his cleverness and worldly success are snares, and that “to really win I’d have to lose,” he chooses, “like the rich young man,” to “walk away, sad and pensive,” from the demands of faith, “for I have great wealth.” Carrère finds being a genius to his liking, but the self-abnegating demands of apostleship prove too much.
Even so, there is much for readers to learn from him, as someone who has experienced firsthand both religious belief and its lack with a rare depth, fervor, and thoughtfulness. Carrère’s “mental gymnastics” are fascinating, like watching a very literate Jacob wrestle with the angel for a quarter of a century. His account of nascent belief rings true, how much it takes to get started, and how little: the beautiful simplicity and humility of a person beginning to pray. “‘Ask and you’ll see,’” his godmother Jacqueline, a sympathetic influence on Carrère’s thinking, advises in the early stages of his journey. “‘It’s a mystery, but it’s the truth: everything you ask for will be granted. Knock on the door. Dare to knock.’ What did it cost me to try?” He also captures the way in which one is unpredictably closer to central truths at certain times than at others, like a child walking through a labyrinth. Jacqueline again: “Don’t be afraid, but expect to be afraid.”
Sometimes, in defense of belief, Carrère marshals double-minded inversions of thought that will be his eventual undoing. For instance, he raises the specter of faith as mere psychological projection in one breath and then vanquishes it in the next. Despite his boastfulness, he is genuinely moved by those who possess fewer worldly gifts and more spiritual ones than he does: aging nuns in a rundown convent, participants with disabilities at a retreat he has been invited to attend. In these moments, Carrère recognizes, “This is it, this is the kingdom. Everything that is weak, despised, and wanting: that is the dwelling place of Christ.”
There is a reverence, in short, to his unbelief, and to the way Carrère can neither despair nor presume, that ought not to be dismissed. And he never does quite manage to rule out the possibility that he might change from skeptic to believer a second time.
The hope and threat implicit in conversion provide Carrère with his segue to the first century A.D., when Saul is transformed into Paul on the road to Damascus. Such discontinuity of the self “was unknown to the ancient world,” he writes, and “if the two could have met, the person he once was would have cursed him.” Carrère is fascinated by Paul—his work ethic, his fits of pique, his mysterious illness—and by Luke, whom he respects as a “fellow tradesman,” a skilled crafter of narratives and concrete details. Concrete details are Carrère’s specialty, too, and his ability to both spot them in Scripture and supply them in his account brings the world of early Christianity to life. Where the historical record leaves gaps, Carrère feels “free—and forced—to invent.” Some readers may balk at this approach, but it could also be seen as consonant with Ignatian contemplation, in which believers mentally reconstruct scenes from the life of Christ with as much sensory detail as possible.
In one instance of vivid description, Carrère explains how the Roman religion had become rote—“People believed in Zeus hurling bolts of lightning the way children today believe in Santa Claus: not for long, and not really,” leaving “pious souls” with little “to sink their teeth into”—and how this desiccated faith paved the way for Christianity’s appeal. He paints an unnervingly familiar picture of imperial Rome under Nero: the crowded apartments and the traffic, the bread and circuses, the demoralizing system of patronage under which clients received a modest sum in exchange for words of flattery whispered in a tone “known as the obsequium, which needs no explaining.” In his telling, scenes from the New Testament flicker into short films in the mind’s eye: the invention of deacons, the first martyr, Philip and Cleopas encountering the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus:
It rose up softly within them, this sensation that something extraordinary was taking place. However, neither of them had thought that it was him. That didn’t occur to them. And there was no reason why it should have, because physically he didn’t look at all like him. It was only when he gave them the bread that it all became clear. They were no longer sad, not at all. And although it was strange, they admitted to each other that they thought they’d never be sad again. That sadness was over.
And it’s true, Philip said to Luke under the fig tree: I’ve never been sad again.
As a creator of fictional worlds, Carrère finds strange, embarrassing, or seemingly gratuitous details particularly credible: Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, the boy running away naked from Gethsemane in the Gospel of Mark. “When something must have been embarrassing for the author to write,” he explains, “there are good chances that it’s true.”
The Kingdom constantly jumps around in time and space, from text to imagination and back without warning, but what it lacks in linearity, it more than makes up for in beauty and juxtaposition. When Carrère imagines Luke crafting the Magnificat—“a patchwork of Bible quotes from start to finish”—by “scouring the Septuagint, choosing these fragments of old Jewish prayers, and setting them into his narrative with meticulous care, like a jeweler making a necklace of precious stones,” it isn’t hard to see the parallels to his own work. The Kingdom is itself a patchwork of fragments, and although Carrère has set some common pebbles in among the gems, the net effect of the whole is to kindle a renewed sense of curiosity about the Word of God, and preparedness to encounter it. “This door too is little,” he writes, about the way that the smallest details can lead us into reality. “You have to be attentive, or else you can walk by without seeing it.” The Kingdom, imperfect as it is, can set one on the lookout for little doors.
And perhaps that is just what believers need. Through a terrible irony, the mysteries and paradoxes that the world will never assimilate can become invisible to our eyes: “Gospel, apostle, baptism, conversion, Eucharist: these words that rang out with such brilliance have become emptied of significance or filled with another, humdrum and inoffensive, meaning. ‘Salt is good,’ says Jesus, ‘but if salt loses its taste, how can its flavor be restored?’” One way is by using this book to see the New Testament and one’s own faith anew.
Cassandra Nelson is a postdoctoral Bradley Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.