pantheon, 407 pages, $28.95
As Matthew Arnold feared, the “Sea of Faith” has retreated—but not evenly. While fashionable atheism, or nebulous spirituality, prevails among intellectuals, religiosity continues to abide among the vast majority of Americans. Dialogue between these two audiences is all too rare, as can be seen in a literary marketplace divided between maudlin dross like Heaven is for Real and vitriolic screeds like Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
All the more reason to applaud Tom Bissell for writing Apostle, a new book directed to thinking readers, both religious and otherwise, on the subject of the earliest followers of Jesus.
Apostle is an ambitious hybrid of a book—part history of the early years of Christianity, part group biography, and part travelogue, as Bissell visits various purported resting places of the Twelve Apostles, venturing as far afield as Madras, India and a desolate stretch of Kyrgyzstan.
Although these ambitions are not entirely fulfilled, Bissell is an erudite and amiable guide throughout. That’s despite the daunting historical challenge he has set for himself. After all, the first centuries of Christianity—notorious for its scarcity of objective source materials—can best be described as a series of well-known unknowns.
As for the lives of the apostles themselves, Bissell himself acknowledges that conventional biographies are impossible because, from the earliest days of Christianity, “the Twelve Apostles have wandered a strange gloaming between history and belief.”
Bissell proves highly comfortable in the dim light of this gloaming, with belief itself interesting him far more than history. He depicts the lives of the apostles, and indeed, Christianity itself, not as a series of factual claims, but as a collection of stories. Not “merely stories,” Bissell concedes, because he finds deep merit and “corrective power” in storytelling itself. For example, he revels in the “seductive miracle,” presented in the New Testament, of Jesus feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and two fish.
Bissell finds a rational explanation for this story. It was probably only fifty people, he suggests, unexpectedly fed by someone who brought along extra supplies of food. But “an event experienced by its participants in miraculous terms,” in his view, was later “transformed into a miraculous story.” Bissell thinks such tales may well serve as the basis for a code of ethics, but he objects to imposing a “cosmology” on them.
Christianity “stands behind these stories,” Bissell writes, making it, along with Judaism and Islam, a “less than ideal” means “to understand the world and our place within it.” At the same time he acknowledges “there is no purely rational way of understanding the world. Therefore “we turn to stories left behind by evangelistic writers,” Bissell writes. “The footprints they left behind lead us to places we long to be led.”
Himself a lapsed Catholic, Bissell explains that for him Christianity remains “deeply and resonantly interesting.” Is this interest purely cerebral? The tension between Bissell’s skepticism and his fascination with Christianity weaves an intriguing thread through the book.
In one remarkable scene Bissell finds himself standing before the remains of the apostles Simon and Jude “trying and failing to experience something that could be described as an emotion.” At a memorial to Saint Thomas—the doubting apostle—he finds, “to my utter surprise, part of me wanted to pray right now,” though he quickly dismisses the idea because “prayer without a direct object was merely thought.”
Visiting a tomb in Rome’s Church of the Holy Apostles, he is intrigued by a young American who “had obviously come here to pray and reflect. I had not,” Bissell writes. “I found here only sawhorses on which to prop this man’s faith and skeptically saw away.”
Bissell decides “I want to talk to him,” and over beers at a café, the two amicably argue about the reliability of the Bible. “No one had ever had this argument before and felt as if he won,” Bissell explains, “just as no one had ever had this argument before and felt as if he lost.” With candid debate between believers and skeptics increasingly rare, Bissell deserves credit for having the argument at all.
Beyond that, Bissell, who sees Christianity as a congeries of stories, has added his own absorbing tale of pilgrimage to the roster. If anything is clear from Apostle, it is that he is not finished with his subject.
One is reminded of the course traced by A. N. Wilson, who had a change of heart after 20 years of atheism. “My departure from the Faith was like a conversion on the road to Damascus,” Wilson wrote. “My return was slow, hesitant, doubting.”
John V. Bennett is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.