This is an intriguing, fascinating, beautifully written, but ultimately unpersuasive book. Carroll is LaTrobe University’s Professor of Sociology, and one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals.
He is an agnostic fascinated by Jesus. Acknowledging Jesus’ pivotal place in the formation of Western culture, he proposes (surprisingly for an agnostic) that the present ills of modern Western culture require a return to Jesus’ pattern of human existence.
Carroll offers a reading of the gospel of Mark. In his own re-telling, he highlights Mark’s literary genius, and brings to the surface the uneven, subversive and haunting elements of Mark’s narrative too often ignored by the church.
His literary exposition of Mark’s passion narrative is brilliant: he highlights how Mark takes many themes treated separately in earlier sections of the gospel and subtly weaves them together in the passion.
Carroll sees Mark telling a very different story of Jesus from the story classically told by the church, of which he is especially dismissive.
Carroll interprets the agony of Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction, as Jesus forsaking any belief in God in order to be truly human.
The idea that the Jesus story raises fundamental questions about the meaning of ‘God’ should not overly trouble Christian faith.
After all, some early Christians were charged with atheism: by identifying Jesus and God, they unsettled prevailing ideas of ‘God’.
This is quite different, however, from using the story of Jesus to reject the very idea of God.
Carroll achieves the latter only by projecting his own agnosticism upon the text and ignoring much of its first century context. First-century Judaism displayed much ferment about God’s nature – but not God’s existence.
The Existential Jesus should not be too readily dismissed by Christians. It is a reminder that the Christian faith does unsettle conventional ideas of ‘God’. As such it could serve as a starting point for genuinely public discussions of Jesus’ significance and the content of the church’s faith.
Reviewed by Geoff Thompson,Academic Dean at Trinity Theological College