Bookshelf: John Carroll, “The Existential Jesus”

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John Carroll – The Existential Jesus (2009, Counterpoint)
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You can’t claim to offer an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark that claims to offer up hitherto unseen angles — or title the result The Existential Jesus — without stirring up a few hornet’s nests, and that’s exactly what John Carroll has been doing in his native Australia since this slim 274-page volume was released in the fall. This is all well and good for Carroll, who made his bones on iconoclastic works such as Humanism: The Rebirth and Wreck of Western Culture, but will it help the casual armchair theologian come to a deeper understanding of the West’s most famous woodworking philosopher?

Yes and no. Carroll’s work isn’t the fumbling embarrassment that his detractors claim it is — but it is a scattered, conflicted book, one that attempts to shatter theoretical framework even as it relies upon it to make crucial arguments, and one that’s just as likely to draw upon established dogma (i.e. Judas as cartoon villain) as it is to try and break new ground (the whole “existential Jesus” thing, which really isn’t all that new, but let’s not quibble). To top it all off, Carroll’s writing style is always very dry and occasionally overly analytical; chunks of The Existential Jesus can be a bit of a slog.

It’s also difficult to put down. This is probably due more to the source material — Mark is the shortest Gospel, and for a book in the Bible, moves along at a pretty good clip — than anything Carroll does with it, but it still has the effect of turning The Existential Jesus into something of a page-turner. Hardcore theologians may take issue with Carroll’s interpretation of the book’s central figure; some reviewers have suggested that his Jesus is defined more by his doubt and self-absorption than his mission. But for open-minded religious readers — and anyone interested in gaining a bit of insight into what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, the “historical” Jesus — the book has a fair amount of wheat to go with its chaff. Carroll’s Jesus isn’t the beatific, divinely removed figure you remember from Sunday school, but he is about as bummed out and conflicted as you’d expect a young man with the literal weight of the world on his shoulders to be. It’s undeniably compelling stuff.

Where Carroll really stumbles is on his many interpretive dances — he engages in a recurring, and distractingly tenuous, examination of the psyche and motives of Simon Peter that finds Carroll reaching back to the apostle’s family history to suggest some sort of generational disconnect between heart and spirit. It comes to an undeniably gripping conclusion when Peter is confronted by a servant girl in the courtyard outside Jesus’ trial, but again, that’s the source material talking; although Carroll isn’t without insight, it’s hard not to feel like he could have done a better job of reaching some of his conclusions.

Ultimately, although The Existential Jesus isn’t the paradigm-busting work of genius it hopes to be (like, say, Jack Miles’ God: A Biography), it isn’t without its merits, and anyone with an interest in revisionist theology can safely part with the $12 Amazon’s asking for Counterpoint’s paperback edition to read it for themselves. As a truly existential Jesus might argue, it’s interesting both in spite of and because of its flaws.