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An author's search for a Jesus he can believe in

In a letter sent to his friend Eberhard Bethge from a German prison cell in 1944, Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer grappled with an unrelenting question: "Who is Christ actually for us today?"

Christ Actually

The Son of God for the Secular Age

By James Carroll

Viking. 352 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans

In a letter sent to his friend Eberhard Bethge from a German prison cell in 1944, Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer grappled with an unrelenting question: "Who is Christ actually for us today?"

We don't know whether Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis three weeks before the war ended for his involvement in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler, ever answered that question to his own satisfaction. But for Carroll, an award-winning author of 11 novels and eight works of nonfiction and a columnist for the Boston Globe (as well as a former Roman Catholic priest), "the post-Holocaust task, deriving from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's rudimentary insight, is to make the Jewishness of Jesus the first lens through which to view him."

Carroll's general argument, which locates Jesus squarely in the history and literature of first-century Judaism, will be at least in part familiar to readers of his previous work, particularly Constantine's Sword.

Jesus "preached not a New Testament God (of love) in opposition to an Old Testament God (of judgment) but one God of Israel, pure and simple," he writes, arguing that the three-phase Jewish uprisings against Roman rule of the first and second centuries, in which the rebels were crushed, the Temple destroyed, and possibly more than a million Jews slaughtered, led to conflict between two surviving groups - the rabbis and the "Jesus people."

Though the "fully human" Jesus didn't foretell the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70, Carroll says, the Gospels, steeped in a very Jewish view of apocalypse drawn from the Book of Daniel, are the legacy of a "civil war" among Jews.

In the midst of the crisis caused by the fall of the Temple, the Jesus followers constructed a "core meaning" for him that emerges not only from the battles with Rome but also from the biblical texts from Jeremiah to Daniel.

As Jews were driven from Jerusalem, those who honored Jesus also dispersed, and non-Jews began to lead the movement; the church separated itself from its Jewish roots and developed its own distinct theological interpretation and Christology. Until the church fully confronts the bloody history of its violence against the Jews and the artificial distinction between the authentic and the invented Christ, this split remains unresolved, Carroll contends.

From accounts of child slaughter to the messianic son of man in Daniel to belief in the resurrection itself, little is unique to Christianity, Carroll argues, even questioning the traditional perspective on monotheism in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

"Historical consciousness and theological awareness both acknowledge the fact that the Gospels (post-death and Resurrection, post-failure to return, post-Temple destruction, and post-dispersal from Palestine) attributed meanings to Jesus that he simply could not have embraced himself," the author maintains.

In many respects, the way Carroll reads the Scriptures echoes the rigorous skepticism of members of the Jesus Seminar, the group of Scripture scholars who have been trying to determine what Jesus actually said. Yet, interestingly enough, the author treats various elements of the original Gospel story with exegetical generosity, including Jesus' relationship with John the Baptist, the character of his follower Peter, and his apparently humane attitude toward women.

It isn't clear whether these Gospel threads are acceptable because they are judged to be more authentic - or whether they are more suited to the writers' narrative quest to construct a "disarmed faith, a usable Jesus, Christ actually."

One of this book's greatest strengths, Carroll's passionate advocacy for disentangling Jesus from the webs that centuries of theology and tradition have woven around the much-debated historical Jesus, may also be one of its greatest weaknesses.

"This book is my attempt to say why Jesus has this hold on me," the author confesses near the beginning of Christ Actually, "but the attempt requires a certain historical sweep, a theological scope." It's hard to avoid the implication that the author's main audience, judge, and jury is not the reading public, but himself.

But as the writer implies at various points through the book, the construction of faith itself may be an elusive and enigmatic exercise.

Will readers find in this portrayal of a largely "invented" Christ, defined largely by what he is not, a compelling reason to eschew the supernatural and to embrace instead an "ordinary" Jesus?

"Whatever sort of God Jesus is understood to be, it must be the God who is like humans, not different," Carroll says near the book's conclusion. If not, he challenges his readers, they themselves must change. At once loyal to his tradition and disenchanted by it, a man of reason and a lover of faith, Carroll, assuming a certain solidarity, invites us to join him on the knife's edge of his own uncertainties - an often uncomfortable and frequently baffling resting place, indeed.

Successfully accomplishing the audacious task Carroll set himself - limning the contours of a credible Jesus for skeptical postmoderns, while at the same time leaving room for some kind of attenuated faith in memory and metaphor, might be something of a miracle.

It becomes even harder in a world in which there are no miracles.