Carroll, John - A Jesus for Our Time?

  (21 May 17)

A Jesus for Our Time?


Religion writer Alison Cotes reviews The Existential Jesus by John Carroll (Scribe 2007).


(Reviewed July 2007)


Which Jesus do you worship? The gentle, submissive self-sacrificing Lamb of God? The Great Avenger, bringing destruction upon his enemies? The forgiver of sin, the one who cares and comforts, the humble Jewish peasant, the confident Son of God, the devoted family member, the pious Jew, the reformer, the founder of a new religion, the Redeemer, the long-sought Messiah?

What about the lonely stranger, the outsider, the psychologically troubled one, the man misunderstood even by his closest followers, the restless wandering solitary, the despiser of religious and social institutions and, finally, the abandoned one dying in the abomination of desolation, screaming out on the cross his cry of ultimate despair, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"?

If you’re a gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild Christian, then you won’t be able to relate to this book, because John Carroll, professor of sociology at Melbourne’s Latrobe University, gives us not the cosy Jesus of the Matthew and Luke gospels, but the troubled uncertain protagonist of the Mark gospel, who can speak only to the troubled soul, to the tortured agnostic who cannot relate with simple comfortable faith.

Like the Jesus in Portuguese Nobel Prize winning Jose Saramago’s 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Mark’s Jesus has no belief in his divinity or even a real knowledge of his role on earth - all he knows is that none of his followers understands what Carroll calls his pneuma, particularly Peter, whom he condemns time and time again, as he condemns all the twelve.

It is only the outsiders, like the woman he heals of a haemorrhage, the twelve-year-old girl who he draws back from death, the blind man whose sight he restores with his own spittle, who somehow respond to him on an subconscious level, because they never try to understand him.

This is the Gospel of Mark as you’ve never read it before, but Carroll’s interpretation of Mark’s Jesus suddenly makes sense. It’s a scholarly but not forbiddingly academic study, for Carroll writes like a novelist, his passionate almost frantic style lending conviction to the story. We are rushed along by Carroll’s narrative just as the shortest gospel is hurried, just as its Jesus rushes through his short life as if he will never accomplish whatever it is he has to do. This Jesus is not the all-knowing protagonist of the other gospels, but a doubter himself, and his role is to learn who he is, which is why he teaches through parable, not doctrine.

This Jesus rejects his family, despises the temple and those inside it, takes the people he heals out of the institutions and sets them free to become a wanderer as he is.

There is no resurrection in Mark’s gospel, and no comfort for the women who come to the tomb and find it empty, fleeing in "trembling and astonishment". (It is now accepted by most scholars that the original text of the Mark gospel ended at chapter 16, verse 9, and that the final twelve verses are a much later addition.)

This Jesus will trouble you, and you may want to reject him. But I think he will speak to the disaffected, the outsiders, the troubled agnostics, the ones on the fringes who seek a spiritual truth but cannot find it within the confines of an institution.  

He is a Jesus for our troubled times, because he offers no consolation beyond the need for getting on with it, and I’m sure that if you read this book your eyes will be opened and you’ll look at the Gospel of Mark with a fresh vision. And it may even help you cope with the church.    


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