[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Phil Munger, Host:
As a young man, James Carroll had an epiphany deep in the diggings of an archeological excavation under Old Jerusalem. He had become a Catholic priest. In his activities there and in Bethlehem, he had failed to grow close to any sense of wonder over his physical closeness to events related to the life and death of Jesus. He had witnessed squabbling between and amongst clerics, often over petty issues. He was becoming less illuminated, more disenchanted every day. He acquired an elderly Dominican priest, who was also a renowned scholar and archeologist, as a guide. At first the man frustrated Carroll even more with his banter:
I expected him to rescue my devotion, but to my surprise he was dismissive of every holy place he took me to – up the Mount of Olives, down to the pool of Bethesda, across to the Garden of Gethsemane, along the Via Dolorosa. Everywhere, the same curt demythologizing: “They say…who knows…the legend is…” To him there were no certitudes in the tradition, and certitudes were what I’d come for.
But when the Dominican priest brought the young man down into the deep excavation, he showed Carroll a craggy gap in a wall, over a rough “stone slab about nine feet long and three feet wide.” The priest said “It is certain that Jesus of Nazareth stepped on this stone, probably with bare feet, when he left the city to die.”
The stone moved me, but so did the priest. I bent, knelt, and touched the stone, touching with my lips what the skin of Jesus had touched.
This was as close to touching God as I had come.
Even though Carroll soon found himself leaving the priesthood, he has never given up his quest of perhaps coming closer to God than kissing a stone walked upon by his Christ. Last week, discussing Carroll’s work with a colleague, my friend told me that An American Requiem, Carroll’s National Book Award-winning “memoir of his relationships with his father, the American military, and the Catholic Church,” had brought my friend closer to his daughter, and to a sense of what God might be.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World is described at the author’s web page like this:
James Carroll’s urgent, masterful Jerusalem, Jerusalem uncovers the ways in which the ancient city became, unlike any other in the world — reaching far into our contemporary lives — an incendiary fantasy of a city.
In Carroll’s provocative reading of the deep past, the Bible’s brutality was a response to the violence that threatened Jerusalem from the start. Tracing the richly intertwined threads of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history, Carroll illuminates the mounting European fixation on a heavenly Jerusalem as spark of both antisemitism and racist colonial contempt. The holy wars of the Knights Templar burned apocalyptic mayhem into the Western mind. Carroll’s brilliant and original leap is to show how, as Christopher Columbus carried his own Jerusalem-centric world view to the West, America too was powerfully shaped by the dream of the City on the Hill — from Governor Winthrop to Abraham Lincoln to Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan. The nuclear brinksmanship of the 1973 Yom Kippur War helps prove his point: religion and violence fuel each other to this day, with Jerusalem the ground zero of the heat.
Some reviews of Carroll’s history have been dismissive of the author’s reach into the very beginnings of time as we know it – the Big Bang – to begin his story:
In the opening pages of his second chapter, we follow along, bewildered, as Carroll describes “the creation of matter and energy” that “began what we think of as time and space.” What follows is an account of “13 billion years of black holes, antimatter, light, velocity, force fields, liquids, gases, particles, gravity, hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, supernovas, nebulae, galaxies, stars and planets.” And then the evolution of human beings from earlier life forms, their taming of fire, the advent of cave painting, the development of agriculture and so on until, finally, we arrive, at long last, at prehistoric Jerusalem (before veering off again into various other topics). That’s when I realized that Carroll hasn’t written a book about a city and its history. He’s written a book about Everything.
I beg to differ with Damon Linker, the author of the above quote. He misunderstands that what Carroll sees as needing fixing is rather huge, and an understanding of large scale events helps in realizing this. In his closing statement to an interview with Grit TV‘s Laura Flanders, Carroll reiterates one of the major themes of Jerusalem, Jerusalem:
This notion [which his book describes in tremendous detail] that destruction is the way to salvation is like a Gulf Stream Current running underneath the ocean of Western Civilization, and the reason we can actually be sure it’s going to come to an end soon, relatively soon, is because of the weapons we’ve given ourselves.
We will, in this current, either destroy ourselves as a species, or we will find a new way to think about violence and what to do about it. There’s no other way. We’re either going to make ourselves extinct, or we’re going to change this ancient habit of mind. And that’s what’s at stake in this war today.
To me, Carroll’s most profound achievement before Jerusalem, Jerusalem was Constantine’s Sword, his book about the history of anti-Semitism in organized Christianity. I happened upon it while doing research for an article on whether or not J.S. Bach’s St. John Passion is anti-Semitic (it is). I ended up finishing Carroll’s influential book before returning it to the library.
In his new book, Carroll hopes to reconcile some vast differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, through a deeper understanding of how the dynamic of violence, whether personal or institutional, has been mitigated through spiritual and religious breakthroughs in the past, and might be further attenuated, if not actually be fixed, through understanding why Jerusalem means what it does to so many.