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WHEN The Kingdom landed on my desk with a thud, I could tell that it would pose a challenge—that it would be a book I had to contend with. In addition to being a substantial tome, it comes with the cultural imprimatur conveyed by its publisher, the venerable Farrar, Straus and Giroux, whose backlist includes the likes of Czesław Miłosz, Seamus Heaney, and Flannery O’Connor.

From the publicity materials I learned that its author, Emmanuel Carrère, is one of France’s leading writers and intellectuals, the author not only of novels and memoirs but also of film and television screenplays, some of which he has also directed. One of these was a series about people who mysteriously come back from the dead, not as zombies, but as people resuming their normal lives: Les Revenants, remade in North America as The Returned. Carrère’s books include My Life as a Russian Novel and The Adversary, the chilling story of a Frenchman who posed as a doctor for twenty years, then killed his own family in a doomed attempt to prevent the truth from coming out.

The Kingdom begins with a memoir of Carrère’s fleeting conversion to Christianity more than twenty years ago, the moment when, as he put it at the time, he felt “touched by grace.” You can tell by the way he writes about it now that Carrère is embarrassed by the sentimentality of this phrase. But at the time his devotion was sincere, manifesting itself in daily Mass attendance and a series of notebooks in which he recorded a running commentary on the Gospel of John.

And yet, only a couple of years later, he would relinquish his faith. “I forsake you, Lord,” he wrote in the final notebook. “Please do not forsake me.”

There’s something touching about the ambiguity of that farewell message. Later, after finishing The Kingdom, I would realize that this sort of ambiguity is central to his method: he will make an assertion and then allow an almost diametrically opposed view to sneak in the back door, bringing to mind Walt Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

More puzzling than his penchant for self-contradiction is the vagueness of Carrère’s writing about the context of his conversion experience. One has to look for clues as to why faith answered a need he felt at that time. He says at one point that he was looking less for “metaphysical flashes than rules of conduct.” He adds that faith enabled him to see his own griefs and problems as “ordeals” set by God to test him.

Perhaps someone wiser in the ways of faith could have told him that these are not the healthiest of reasons to embrace religion, but it is clear that the experience for him was largely solitary and private. If he’d met a wiser guide and opened himself up to a wider community, he might have learned that the attempt to find in religion a set of behavioral constraints rather than an experience of a presence that loves you in spite of your behavioral waywardness is doomed to frustration. He does not seem aware of the irony that in relinquishing his faith he isn’t freed from the hothouse of the isolated self but more deeply immersed in it.

His conversion/de-conversion story becomes the impetus for all that follows in The Kingdom. Looking back twenty years later, Carrère decides to investigate the experience by embarking on a wide-ranging exploration of the personalities and history behind the writing of the New Testament, with a focus on Saint Luke—his Gospel and his chronicle of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles.

Reading The Kingdom, it’s not hard to see why Carrère has become a successful author, at least on his home turf. His sophisticated but conversational tone, his ability to translate a lot of historical information into pleasantly digressive scenes and historical exposition, his savoir faire on and off the page—all this makes a long, complex narrative go down easily.

But the deeper I got into the book the harder it was to retain a sympathetic connection to the author. Some of this no doubt arises from my resistance to certain contemporary literary trends. As for example the claim that The Kingdom is, at least in part, a novel. What this boils down to are a few passages where Carrère imagines scenes with some of the principal players such as Paul and Luke. But in the current cultural moment the fad for blurring the genres of fiction and nonfiction felt like one more thing to cross off a literary checklist than a serious experiment in form.

My goodwill was further eroded by some of his mental tics, including the repetition of the cliché that “religious neuroses” are “an abhorrence of sex, agonizing scruples, overarching sadness” (modern literature contains abundant evidence that such problems afflict the secular as well as the religious). Or take the fresher, but still rather odd assertion: “You have to admit it, Jesus didn’t seem overly thrilled about breasts or wombs.”

At one point Carrère devotes several pages to his pornography habit—his favorite search phrase is “girls masturbating”—followed by an e-mail exchange in which he discusses his favorite porn video with his wife, who signals her appreciation for his good taste. Ah, the French!

But beyond these exasperations there is, in fact, a more substantive core to The Kingdom, which consists of Carrère’s sifting through the human and textual puzzles of the New Testament. This territory has been crisscrossed for centuries, but mostly by specialists, so if Carrère has little to offer by way of revelatory interpretation, at least his readership will find much of the material new and intriguing.

“I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” he says, and his other books bear this out, but in The Kingdom most of the best portraits are of the bit players. Carrère’s rendering of Saint Paul, on the other hand, is straight out of central casting: a vain megalomaniac, a sort of Gnostic heresiarch eager to escape the world and eager for the Apocalypse.

With Saint Luke, Carrère is more generous, in part because he sees himself in Luke. The Greek physician is a cultured man, steeped in pagan tradition, “fond of anecdote and human traits; theology bored him.” Luke comes late to the party: the sayings of Jesus are already available in Mark’s Gospel, but Luke, with his gift for narrative, is impelled to weave his own version of both the Gospel and the early church.

The problem Luke faces, according to Carrère, is that there are too many gaps in the story, and so he has to do what many gifted contemporary writers have done in such circumstances: he invents. Carrère thinks Luke not only invented stories like the infancy narratives of Christ but that he was the ghost writer for the Epistle of James, since the presumably illiterate “brother” of Jesus could not have written anything.

Late in the book, Carrère pauses to justify his form of highly personal interpretation by contrasting his method with that of Marguerite Yourcenar, author of many novels, including the epic Memoirs of Hadrian. He quotes Yourcenar’s literary manifesto for her historical fiction:

Strive to read a text of the second century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the second century; let it steep in that mother solution which the facts of its own time provide; set aside, if possible, all beliefs and sentiments which have accumulated in successive strata between those persons and us…. Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us….

Carrère’s school of writing, he says, is more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. “Good modern that I am, I prefer the sketch to the grand tableau”—another baffling statement in light of his sweeping four-hundred-page tableau of Christianity’s first century.

Carrère says that he prefers his approach to “Yourcenar’s lofty and somewhat naïve claim to step aside and show things as they are in their essence.” But I am not convinced that Carrère is doing justice to Yourcenar’s vision. True, the mist of one’s own breath is always present in any form of writing, but Yourcenar’s call to read an ancient text with ancient eyes, it seems to me, retains an irreducible element of wisdom, a necessary call for the imagination to reach beyond the limitations of the present moment and one’s own fears and frailties.

Carrère writes: “I know nothing other than my own ego, and I believe that this ego exists.” There’s something robust and confident in these lines, but I confess that there are times when I’m less than sure about the existence of my own ego. I hardly think I’m alone in that. In the end I feel closer to a fourth-century writer who said: “When I encountered Christ I discovered myself a man.” Or to Martin Buber, who put it this way: “Through the Thou a person becomes I.”

If The Kingdom is a contemporary version of Augustine’s Confessions, a revelation to the world of an interior journey and a prayer that in examining both past and present selves there will be found both catharsis and renewal, it only partially succeeds. Late in the book, Carrère says that he is more embarrassed by his religious obsessions than he is of consuming pornography, so in one sense The Kingdom is trying to do two things at once: apologize to the secular intelligentsia for his odd weakness for religion and admit the continuing tug of the Gospel on his imagination.

But as maddening and unpersuasive as The Kingdom can be at times, it achieves moments of genuine pathos, and for me, at least, these are the times when the strange, unreasonable New Testament evokes something profound in him.

In a passage on the way that Jesus’s followers failed to recognize him after his resurrection, Carrère writes: “He’s what they had always wanted to see, hear, and touch, but not the way they thought they would see, hear, and touch him. He’s everyone, he’s no one. He’s the first to come along and the last to draw attention to himself.”

The book ends with a scene in which he is on retreat at L’Arche, the community founded by Jean Vanier whose mission is to serve the developmentally disabled by living with them in an intimate, home-like environment. At the conclusion of a worship service they begin to sing what he calls a “Jesus is my friend” hymn which he finds the quintessence of “religious kitsch.” Then a woman with Down syndrome named Élodie stands up.

Suddenly Élodie surges up beside me, dancing a sort of lively farandole. She plants herself in front of me, smiles, throws her arms in the air. She laughs, and above all she looks at me, encouraging me with her eyes, and there’s such joy in her look, such candid joy, so confident, so unburdened, that I start dancing with the others, singing that Jesus is my friend, and tears come to my eyes as I sing and dance and watch Élodie, who’s now found another partner, and I’m forced to admit that that day, for an instant, I got a glimpse of what the kingdom is.

Perhaps that glimpse of the kingdom is so powerful for Carrère precisely because it is not something he could invent; it’s not his sort of script. Perhaps, confronted with the true otherness of Élodie—with something given rather than willed—he is freed for an instant from the prison house of the modern, solitary self.

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