(Comments at the Launch of Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ - The Gospels [Verso, 2007] at the University of Melbourne, December 7 2007)
In the book trade, it has been a better year or two for Jesus than for God. God has suffered the indignities of forays into pulp non-fiction by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others. Jesus has had wildly different treatments at the hands of everyone from Pope Benedict XVI to Jack Spong, or more locally from Peter Jensen to John Carroll, but Jesus’ reviews are uniformly glowing.
It might seem God needed Terry Eagleton’s attention more; in fact his review of Dawkins The God Delusion in the London Review of Books has become the stuff of legend – I can’t resist quoting the opening line:
“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology”.
There is something intriguing about the fact that transcendent or ultimate being itself – God - theoretically far more capable of being moulded to suit and please the imagination of the beholder, proves more controversial than a quite specific and controversial personality.
Professor Eagleton’s presentation of Jesus in Verso’s new edition of the Gospels is part of a series on Revolutions, and is therefore almost certainly an attempt on the part of the publisher – who quotes Hugo Chavez warmly commending Jesus as “the greatest socialist in history” – to stir a little controversy.
This might be the only sense in which the book is likely to disappoint. Although it sets out to ask the question of whether Jesus was a revolutionary, the form as well as the content of Eagleton's introductory essay rather subverts the question. His Jesus is not “more or less a revolutionary” but “both more and less”. This judgement, which the essay, comes in part because he knows more about history and New Testament studies, not just than Richard Dawkins knows about theology, but than most of us know about anything much.
Although there is an almost impossible diversity of portraits of Jesus, as recent publishing reminds us, the excesses of conservative and liberal wishful thinking that turn Jesus into every thing from a garish holy picture into a new age guru are to be resisted, and here is a pamphlet for the resistance. Although fundamentalists could be relied on to disagree with its presuppositions utterly, and no scholar will agree with every detail of another’s judgement, this essay is counter-cultural largely by being a piece of work about Jesus that is intellectually sound and scholarly, lively and accessible, and likely to sell some copies.
Terry Eagleton’s Jesus is, however, not merely a result of judicious enquiry, but the product of some passion. The Jesus depicted here is at times a strange and difficult figure, amenable neither to doctrinal strait-jackets nor glib pop-psychological strictures. He reminds me a bit of Albert Schweitzer’s classic treatment, just over a hundred years ago, where Jesus stripped of romantic accoutrements remains an elusive but powerful figure.
Jesus is both more and less revolutionary, we are told by Eagleton, because he did not seek an overthrow of political structures – nor, by the way did he reject the Jewish Law or seek to create a new religion - and yet he envisaged a reign of peace and joy more radical than that of Marxism and more discontented with any pretended substitute. It is a compelling, but not exactly an attractive view; it amounts, to quote from theologian Herbert McCabe in a line used in that review, to the view that if “you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you”.
But most of this book is the Gospels, not Terry Eagleton. I will avoid any claim to be launching them, which would certainly get me into trouble, if not quite killed. But it might be an even more remarkable thing than finding such a good essay about Jesus, to have these published and read by a different critical and appreciative audience. I hope it may be one of the consequences of this volume. Jesus is too much the preserve of all the wrong people.
To quote a last time from that storied review, Eagleton refers to Dawkins’ work as predicated on “a vulgar caricature of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince”. It is one of the difficulties of our time that there are too few first-year real Theology students – none at this University for specific reasons – or others who will read these documents with the measures of passion and rigor necessary either to appreciate them fully or, for that matter, to critique them adequately. Terry Eagleton’s revolutionary alliance with Jesus might well consist in allowing this to happen.