Joined: Mar. 2006
This should tweek the noses of the literalist bibliolators.
It has been argued Jesus is the man who made the West. What kind of man was he?
A new book peels back the symbolism and shows how to read Myth.
The Existential Jesus by John Carroll
John Carroll is professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne. His recent books include Ego and Soul: the modern west in search of meaning (1998), The Western Dreaming (2001), Terror: a meditation on the meaning of September 11 (2002), and The Wreck of Western Culture: humanism revisited (2004).
Here is an interview with the author.
Transcript of ABC (Australia) interview with author MP3 on same page.
From the transcript:
|Stephen Crittenden: Today, as promised, we're reading Mark's Gospel, the earliest of the four Gospels and arguably the darkest and most cryptic. Mark's is the angry Jesus who casts out demons, curses fig trees, gives up trying to teach his disciples anything and dies completely alone.|
Oscar Wilde wrote about Jesus that his entire life is also the most wonderful of poems "For pity and terror there is nothing in the entire cycle of Greek tragedy to touch it".
Sociologist John Carroll certainly captures that in his new book about Jesus, the Existential Jesus, and he argues that Mark is one of the pinnacles of Western literature, that Mark's Jesus is the great Western teacher on the nature of Being, and that his real tragedy is that he ends up as his only student.
John, welcome back to the program; it takes a certain kind of daring to write a book about Jesus, let alone a book in which you basically ignore two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, because they're not very interesting!
John Carroll: Jesus is a creation of four stories. We know virtually nothing about him apart from the four Gospels. There are snippets in later supposed Gospels, and the letters of Paul tell us next to nothing; there's virtually no independent historical or archaeological evidence. So he's a creation of four stories. The overwhelming consensus today is Mark is the first Gospel that was written. To me and great literary critics like Harold Bloom in the United States, and Frank Kermode in England, Marks' is the punishing, powerful great narrative of the four in any literary or narrative sense. And next to it, Matthew repeats about 80% of Mark, and adds a lot more. Compared to Mark he's long-winded, the narrative is jumbled and often incoherent, and it lacks subtlety and any of the depths and charge of the grand metaphysics, that you become embroiled in once you get into Mark's Gospel.
I think Luke is a lot more interesting; there are pieces of great literary flair in Luke, and when he adds the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, which no-one else does. But overall, it's got similar weaknesses to Matthew, and in my reading John is the one of the three who they're all writing with Mark in front of them. He's the one of the three who really understood Mark, and what he does at his best, is he provides a series of brilliant narratives to elaborate and extend things that are too cryptic or undeveloped in Mark.
Stephen Crittenden: Oscar Wilde described the four Gospels as four prose poems about Jesus. You're arguing there's really only one prose poem, Mark, and the rest are footnotes, and the best footnotes are by John.
John Carroll: That's exactly what I'm saying.
Stephen Crittenden: John, you mentioned the English literary critic, Frank Kermode. His book on Mark, 'The Genesis of Secrecy' is one of my favourite books, in fact I think it propelled me into the Religion Department at the ABC. Mark used to be seen as a pretty clumsy and unsophisticated Gospel written in poor Greek. Kermode shows that it's very sophisticated indeed, especially in the way the narrative is structured. It's not meant to be understood naturalistically, but as a kind of puzzle.
John Carroll: Kermode's book has been more useful to me than all the Biblical commentary and New Testament interpretation that I've read, and I've read a lot of that. And it is so for the simple reason that as you say, the surface text is in common or very simple Greek. But this is a story that works on its sub text. And it works through a very strange series of tactics where the sub-text keeps undermining any understanding the reader thinks they gain, as they proceed through the text. Now the fall guys for the reader are the 12 followers, or disciples, who learn nothing. I mean this Jesus finds out very early on that it's a waste of time trying to teach them anything. Now a narrative that sort of works through enigma and dramatic paradox -
Stephen Crittenden: And allegory too, John.
John Carroll: And allegory, and keeps ripping your feet out from under you, so to speak, as you progress, has to be read in terms of its own logic, and what Kermode is great at is the technique of this unique type of - I mean I don't think there's anything else like it in Western culture.
Reader: He made the twelve take a boat and precede him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to Bethsida. He sent the crowd away, and when they had all gone, he left the wilderness and went up the mountain. It was evening, and he was alone. From on high he saw the boat in the middle of the sea with the twelve struggling to row into a rising headwind. At about the fourth watch of the night, he approached, walking on the water. He wanted to pass them by but seeing him, and taking him for a phantasm, they all screamed out in terror. He spoke to them, 'Courage, I am; don't fear.' He approached and got into the boat. The wind abated.
John Carroll: Jesus goes up on the mountain by himself. He's fed up with teaching the multitudes because he's sort of starting to realise that at that level he's sort of a vaudeville magician, carrying out miracles, and no-one's learning anything. He's fed up with his disciples, he sends them across the Sea of Galilee. It's night; he goes up the mountain to be alone by himself, as the twelve are rowing across the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the night, the wind starts to rise. Jesus alone is looking down and sees them becoming more and more fearful. That's a bit odd in itself, in that they're fishermen who've spent their lives on this very Sea of Galilee, and there's no indication in the text that their boat is threatened with sinking.
After a while, he charges down the mountain and comes across the sea, walks, the famous walking on water scene. He is in some sort of supernatural state, it's probably not very interesting to press what that actually means. These disciples don't recognise him, they think he's a ghost and they're terrified. Plus the fact that right from the beginning in Mark, pneuma, or what's usually translated as Holy Spirit, sacred pneuma, the charged breath, the wind, the sacred essence, is what breathes through this story. Pretty much replacing God, that's another issue.
So in this scene on the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the night, there is also the sacred wind or the spectral wind is flowing down. No wonder the poor old twelve followers are beside themselves with fear. And the better they know him, the less they recognise him. In this scene you get the feeling that he's some sort of supernatural monster in their eyes, coming across the water. He utters at this point what becomes his central teaching. He says, 'Courage, I am. Don't fear.' Now the 'Courage, don't fear' provokes the most extreme fear in it's a sort of negation. And this often happens in Mark. If there's a charged saying on the surface, it will have exactly the opposite effect on those who take it in.
Stephen Crittenden: A very good example of that is in the empty tomb at the end. The young boy says, 'Don't be afraid', and the last line of the Gospel is, 'And they ran away terrified.'
John Carroll: Exactly. And in fact this is set up I think in the dancing across the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the night.
Stephen Crittenden: Now let's come back to this question of 'I am'. The book's called 'The Existential Jesus', the central teaching you say is 'I am'. What does 'I am' mean?
John Carroll: One of my arguments is that Jesus is the great teacher in the West, on the nature of being.
Stephen Crittenden: Why is 'being' the problem?
John Carroll: Well he basically says being is the problem. And I think a lot of the contemporary world today would say Yes, all of the books and therapies and everything else that asks the question 'Who am I?' 'What is the nature of the self?' 'What is the nature of identity?' If there is a meaning in why I'm here and what I have to do with my life, it's got something to do with finding out who I am. And Mark's Jesus would answer Yes, that's correct. Now of course once you've said all you need to know is 'I am', you ask the question Well what in the he11 does he mean by that? The first half of the story spends a fair bit of its time stripping away what the 'I am' is not. If you want to ask who I am, it's not my family, it's not that I'm from Nazareth, it's not that I'm a carpenter or a carpenter's son. It's not even to go further, and this is more harsh, it's not even that I'm a particularly good man or a bad man, it's not to do with one's virtue or ethical character.....
The link above has the rest of the interview.
The conservative has but little to fear from the man whose reason is the servant of his passions, but let him beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest and most terrible of the passions.These are the wreckers of outworn empires and civilisations, doubters, disintegrators, deicides.Haldane