The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere – A book review

You won’t have read a book like it; I doubt it, anyway.

‘Thrilling, magnificent and strange,’ said Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times

And as for it’s genre, well – you tell me. Carrere stands at the crossroads of fiction, biography, autobiography and history. It’s an attempt to get into the psyche of
Luke, the writer of the gospel of that name and also of the Book of Acts.

But perhaps more important, it’s an attempt by the author to understand his own psyche. Is he right to have jettisoned his faith? He’s clearly still wondering, still hanging around the edges of belief. (He has a little get-away home on the island of Patmos, the home of the Revelations of St John.)

For Carrere is post-Christian man.He likes compassion… but not miracles.

He had a rather obsessive and self-punishing Catholic faith in his thirties, but like a slow puncture, the air of commitment has leaked, the tyre of belief is now flat, and he is parked up in no man’s land: an intrigued and self-obsessed agnostic…but one who writes like an angel.

He writes screenplays for a living, and the last book I read that read so effortlessly was William Goldman’s ‘Adventures in the Screen trade’…yes, another screen writer.

St Paul, though, is problematic for Carrere because – whisper it quietly – he doesn’t seem to know Jesus the man at all.

Paul knows the risen Christ, because he appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus. But concerning his life on earth, the words Jesus spoke, Paul has no interest at all…and probably not much knowledge.

And this strange lack – given that he is busy founding churches which are meant to follow Jesus – isn’t helped by the fact that the people who did know Jesus – like Peter and James – well, they don’t trust Paul at all, are not overly keen to help him and keep their church building and Jesus stories to themselves.

And so Paul, perhaps not too reluctantly, got on with his own project. 

‘Paul was a genius,’ says Carrere, ‘but also the kind of guy who time and again says things like “I have to admit, I have one big fault: I’m too honest” or “I’m the most modest guy around.” He was a bore, in fact . . . the opposite of Jesus.’

Carrere likes Jesus. He particularly likes the Jesus of the beatitudes – words that don’t interest Mark or John at all in their gospels.

But the beatitudes do interest Carrere.

Suppose, he says, that neither Paul nor Christianity existed and all we had were these words. ‘I think that we would be staggered by its originality, its poetry, its authoritative, self-evident tone, and . . . it would take its place among the great texts of human wisdom. If there is such a thing as a compass that can tell you at every moment in life wrong direction, this is it.’

(Matthew 5 – 7, if you want to remind yourself.)

This, for Carrere, is the real Jesus, away from the massive invention of so much of the gospels – which, by the way, is why he identifies with Luke: they are both fiction writers. Not that there aren’t truthful stories in Luke, there are plenty. But as a writer of fiction himself, Carrere believes he can discern the wheat from the chaff; the reality from the myth; the truth from the invention.

And unlike any other New Testament writer I’ve known, he ties this in with a discussion of his love for online pornography, and in particular, a clip of a young woman masturbating – a scene he keeps returning to. (And which he discusses with his wife.)

It’s important to him that she is a real person in her bedroom, and not an actor in a studio trying to look like a bedroom. He wants authenticity in both his pornography and his scripture. 

But authenticity was harder for Luke when it came to Jesus, because he never knew Jesus – not like he knew Paul, and Luke loved Paul, he travelled everywhere with him.

He writes of Paul with first-hand knowledge; but writes of Jesus using other people’s sources…and some of the other people who’s sources he uses, he doesn’t like very much, and so he changes what they say.

Mark, for instance, is reckoned to write Peter’s version of events. But while Luke uses much of Mark’s material, he effects significant changes to the text and the meaning when he doesn’t like it. 

‘I don’t believe Jesus was resurrected,’ says Carrere, getting that issue out the way. ‘I don’t believe that a man came back from the dead. But the fact that people do believe it — that I believed it myself — intrigues, fascinates, troubles and moves me.’

Though with so much fictionalising going on around Jesus, one does wonder how this global faith ever got off the ground. For a fiction writer and film director, Carrere is a bit weak on motivation at this point.

He faces many things head-on. He prods, he confesses, he amuses, he shocks and he questions with cleverness and insight; he brilliantly de-mystifies the much-less-than-perfect creation of the New Testament canon.

But he doesn’t really tackle the question which any fiction writer must grasp, and it’s this: ‘If nothing happened after the (largely fictional, and, by this time, largely abandoned) Jesus was killed, where was the motivation for the subsequent energy and heroics?’

I’ve never thought ‘Group delusion’ really cuts it, and neither does Carrere… but he doesn’t offer much in its place.

In the end, this erudite writer, this self-deprecating narcissist, this successful man (a jury member at the Cannes film festival, no less) sounds like the wistful boy I suspect he once was.

After all his literary pyrotechnics, he closes the book with these slightly guilty lines:

‘And what I wonder, as I leave this book, is if it betrays the young man I was and the Lord he believed in, or if in its way it remains faithful to them.

I don’t know.’

The Kingdom, by Emmanuel Carrere, is published by Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint.

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