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New books — From the March 2017 issue

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Conversion tales are perennially popular, but there is less of an audience for stories about what comes after — the daily struggle to live out your faith when the first rush of revelation (what T. S. Eliot called “the infirm glory of the positive hour”) has passed; or worse, the slide back into skepticism. “Saul had undergone a mutation on the road to Damascus,” Emmanuel Carrère writes of history’s most famous convert in The Kingdom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), his idiosyncratic history of the early Christian Church, translated by John Lambert. “He had been transformed into Paul, his opposite. . . . What if he became Saul once again?”

Detail from a painting depicting the Eucharist, from Godong/UIG/Bridgeman Images

Detail from a painting depicting the Eucharist, from Godong/UIG/Bridgeman Images

Carrère is the author of several well-regarded novels and many scripts for television and film, some of which he has directed himself, but his best work has come in his biographies of obsessive, eccentric men of the twentieth century — Philip K. Dick, the schizo-mystic American science-fiction writer; Jean-Claude Romand, a Frenchman who posed as a doctor for nearly two decades and murdered his entire family to prevent being exposed; Eduard Limonov, the Russian punk, journalist, and occasional political dissident who founded the National Bolshevik Party. “I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” Carrère says in The Kingdom. But his are an unusual sort of portrait, for Carrère is himself an obsessive, eccentric man, and his twisted fascination with his subjects — and with himself — is always visible within the frame.

A book about Christianity’s first decades might seem a departure for Carrère, until one learns that he had his own Damascene moment. In the fall of 1990, the writer, then thirty-two years old and the very model of the sophisticated European skeptic, attended a Catholic mass in a Swiss mountain town and found himself “touched by grace.” He began to receive communion every day. He insisted that the woman with whom he’d been living marry him and that they baptize the sons they’d been happily raising out of wedlock. He filled eighteen notebooks with commentaries on the Gospel of John. Then one day, as abruptly as it had started, this period of religious fervor ended. “I forsake you, Lord,” he wrote in the last of those notebooks, on Easter Sunday, three years after his initial conversion. “Please do not forsake me.” Paul had turned back into Saul. In time, the experience of those years became so distant to him that, he writes, he was several years into working on The Kingdom before he thought to connect the subject with his own religious experience. (This fact, if it is to be believed, is indicative of the bizarre ways in which Carrère’s mind works.)

In The Kingdom, Carrère has made an impassioned attempt to imagine himself at once into the world of the early Christians and into his own devout past self. To this end, he has been canny in his choice of subjects — not Jesus or anyone who knew him while he was alive but Paul, the zealous Pharisee who enthusiastically persecuted Christians before becoming one, and Luke, the lettered gentile doctor who fell under Paul’s sway and eventually recounted his life in the Acts of the Apostles. These men were contemporaries of the apostles, but because they never met Jesus in the flesh their faith feels closer to that of a modern believer. Above all, Christ’s story must have seemed strange to them, and their own need to devote their lives to it, even unto death, a deeply perplexing compulsion.

Carrère takes inspiration from Ernest Renan — the author of The Life of Jesus (1863) and perhaps the first scholar to treat the early church as a subject of objective historical study — who believed that “to write the history of a religion, the best thing was to have believed it and no longer believe.” Carrère’s passage in and out of faith certainly makes him a sympathetic guide to the spread of this odd Jewish heresy in the years after Jesus’ death. “I’m writing this book,” he says in The Kingdom, “to avoid thinking that, now that I no longer believe, I know better than those who do, and better than my former self when I believed.” But he is far too peculiar a writer to produce a history of the kind that Renan would recognize. He says that he conceived his depiction of the early church as like a novel by Marguerite Yourcenar, “one of those sweeping, finely balanced architectural compositions, a masterpiece of artisanship at the end of which I’ll finally be able to take a deep breath and relax.” One of Carrère’s most endearing qualities as a writer is his utter lack of irony, and I take him here at his word. An enormous amount of thought and research has obviously gone into The Kingdom, and it often does an impressive job of vividly recapturing the early Christian world.

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus, by Gustave Doré, from Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus, by Gustave Doré, from Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo

At the same time, Carrère admits that he actually prefers Yourcenar’s notebooks to her magisterial novels. He comes back to a sentence from one of those notebooks: “Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath.” He is temperamentally incapable of doing so. He is the kind of historian who admits that he prefers the least likely version of events because it better fits his story, or compares the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb to the dumping of Osama bin Laden’s corpse at sea, or dedicates several pages to a tangent about amateur internet porn on the way to making a point about Luke’s composition of his gospel. To some readers this will feel insufficiently reverent, or simply too self-involved. Yet it takes a strange sensibility to infuse a story that has become so familiar over time with the strangeness it deserves. Early in The Kingdom, Carrère tells a friend with whom he’s collaborating on a Philip K. Dick–inspired television show about the story he’s writing:

It starts with an itinerant preacher who opens a modest weaver’s workshop. . . . Bald, bearded, weakened by a mysterious illness, he tells with a deep, evocative voice the story of a prophet crucified twenty years earlier in Judea. He says that this prophet came back from the dead and that his coming back from the dead is the portent of something enormous, a mutation of humanity, both radical and invisible. The contagion comes about. The strange belief radiates out from Paul in the seedy parts of Corinth, and its followers soon come to see themselves as mutants disguised as friends and neighbors: undetectable.

His friend responds with excitement: “Told like that, it sounds like Vintage Dick!”

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