By Hannah Watson
Lenin and the Eucharist, Trotsky and Benediction…Eagleton’s past essays have warmed up to this latest controversial pairing, Terry Eagleton and Jesus Christ. One a formidable literary critic known for stirring up fellow intellectuals, the other a Galilean carpenter whose significance is still debated today. The interesting mix of these two hugely debated figures was sure to make for a very interesting evening. In his talk for Durham Book Festival, Eagleton answered the question, ‘Was Jesus a Revolutionary?’ and I couldn’t help but feel some trepidation as I stepped into the room to hear what he had to say.
The words “Jesus Christ, and that’s not an expletive” are the pithy beginning to Eagleton’s talk, setting a tone of gentle provocation. The fact that Eagleton has to make this precision says a lot about 21st century understandings of Jesus – for most he is reduced to a swear-word, and yet for others, such as Eagleton himself, his fascination remains. “This is the youngest audience we’ve seen yet”, whispers a seasoned couple of festivalgoers behind me, suggesting that the topic of Jesus Christ remains as relevant and compelling today as for the crowds that gathered in the 1st century AD. Eagleton gets to his point within his next few sentences: that Jesus was almost certainly executed as an alleged political rebel – the proof being the crucifixion, a death reserved almost entirely for political agitators. But was Jesus really an anti-Roman insurgent? Almost certainly not.
The key word here is ‘almost’, which peppers Eagleton’s talk. The truth is that Eagleton can’t say for sure what did or didn’t happen during the life of one of the most influential men in history. Some of his arguments corroborate New Testament documents, such as that Jesus certainly kept company with some shady political figures. Other accounts, Eagleton argues, are rewritings by the Early Church, such as the Jewish crowd baying for Jesus’ blood, which allows Roman prefect Pontius Pilate to literally wash his hands of blame, and the first Christians to stay on the good side of the colonial authorities. Many of his readings of the Gospel accounts are incredibly attentive and insightful, whereas others discount or skate over them. As Eagleton doesn’t name his sources, it is hard to say just how much of the Gospel writings he stands by. And although he takes us on a tour expounding his views on figures such as Mary, The Pharisees and Judas Iscariot, the figure of Jesus remains enigmatic. Uncertainty lingers over Eagleton’s title question, the consensus being that Jesus was revolutionary in his mingling with prostitutes and Samaritans, but did not belong to the anti-imperial resistance like the Zealots.
My wariness that Terry Eagleton’s talk might veer from flippancy to outrageousness was quickly allayed. He is more sympathetic to Christianity than one might guess, having been raised as a Catholic and served as an altar boy as a child. He is quick to denounce New Atheism and its most famous advocates, namely a certain Mr Dawkins, who “buy their Atheism on the cheap”. During Eagleton’s time at Cambridge he was involved in a leftist Catholic publication called “The Slant”, and he is grateful for having encountered a version of Christianity that challenged him as opposed to the paper tigers and tissue-thin targets often presented by Christians, easily bowled over by atheists. Warm and jovial, Eagleton cracked jokes throughout, peddled his “remarkably cheap and extraordinarily attractive” books for sale next door and likened the “spineless” Pontius Pilate of the gospels to a “Guardian reader”.
The spotlight turns back to Jesus’ death. Why was he crucified by a Roman authority that Eagleton maintains would have had little interest in Galilean carpenter? Eagleton has several theories. Hugely popular with the crowds at the time of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Romans may have feared that the dispossessed would see him as a vague answer to the oppression of the Roman occupation. Eagleton argues that Jesus certainly did not see himself in this role, nor consider himself the Son of God, often leaving others to apply labels to himself – “Who do you say I am?” (Luke 9:20) Eagleton’s Jesus goes to the cross bewildered – although this reading does negate the multiple times that Jesus predicts his own death in Luke’s Gospel alone (Luke 9:21, 44, 18:31). It may be that Jesus’ scandalous rebuking of the money-changers in the Temple would have been enough to have him arrested. Christians believe that Jesus’ death was the glorious life-bringing fulfilment of God’s salvation plan, but Eagleton reads it as a tragedy of the belief “that there can be no re-making without a prior breaking”, or as Y.B. Yeats has it, “For nothing can be sole or whole./ That has not been rent”. Only in Jesus accepting death as a “cul-de-sac”, could it be made into “a horizon”. Ultimately, it was because he spoke out furiously for love and justice that Jesus was killed, a martyr who “makes something creative of his death to fructify in the lives of others”.
The talk, hugely engaging and thought-provoking, draws to a not entirely resolved close. The answers given in this talk will be deeply satisfying to some and utterly empty for others – one thing is for sure – that the debate isn’t over yet.
Image: Yale University Press