Page 13, 21st December 2007

21st December 2007
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Page 13, 21st December 2007 — The Gospel according to a Marxist professor
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The Gospel according to a Marxist professor

Literary critic Terry Eagleton's Jesus is a non-judgmental, mixed-up social reformer. Peter Mullen suggests he has confused Christ with a vice-president of the TUC

Terry Eagleton Presents Jesus Christ: The Gospels by Terry Eagleton, Verso Books £7.99 This book deserves the Richard Dawkins Prize for Progress in Theology. I bet when God first read it he was rolling in the heavenly aisles with all the holy angels. Where it is not ignorant, it is banal and where it is not laughable, it is offensive.

The first line sets the tone: "Jesus certainly kept some shady political company" — which is a bit rich coming from Eagleton the Marxist fellow-traveller, friend as he is not of publicans and sinners but of Leninist and Trotskyist riff-raff.

Jesus, according to Professor Eagleton, did not see many Roman soldiers when he was a boy except when he was "on holiday". I expected Eagleton to provide us with a colourful vignette at this point featuring the Holy Family heading off by charabanc to Bognor, young Jesus eagerly clutching his bucket and spade.

It is pretty clear from early on in this book that Eagleton wants to construct, or even deconstnict — for he is, of course, a famous professor of literary theory — Jesus in his own image. So he tells us "Jesus was to the left of even the liberal wing of the Pharisees" — as if the terms "Left" and "Right" operated 200 years ago in the land of Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate.

Rubbish abounds. He says that Jesus "makes no claim to be the Son of God in the Gospel, except once, implausibly, in the Markan trial scene". Why is St Mark's Gospel "implausible"? This is just not true. Jesus declares himself Son of God in numerous places in the gospels: for instance in his acceptance of St Peter's confession "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt16:16); when he promises the penitent thief a place beside him in Paradise (Lk 23:43); "He that seeth me, seeth him that sent me" (Jn 12:45); "Before Abraham was, I AM" (Jo 8:58) Eagleton thinks that Jesus meant the Gospel to be only for the Jews: "He certainly admonishes his comrades..." I love that "comrades" bit, as if Our Lord were vice-president of the TUC — "... to preach the good news he has brought to the house of Israel only." If that is so then why does Jesus command them: "Go ye therefore and teach all nations" (Mt 28:19)? If the Gospel of salvation is for the Jews only, why does Jesus hand out its blessings indiscriminately to, for instance, the Woman of Samaria and the centurion whose son was sick? Why does he make the godly helper of the man who fell among thieves a Samaritan?

I question Eagleton's authority for some of the judgments he makes here: "Jesus's popular support was probably by no means as massive as the evangelists make out." How does he know this? Were the evangelists telling porkies? Naturally the Communist Eagleton is used to people in authority telling lies and so he has no difficulty concluding that their estimates of the size of the crowds who followed Jesus were no more reliable than Stalin's weekly statistics of tractor production in the USSR. He seems to think that Jesus was just a crazy mixed-up kid: "The Gospels do not give us much access to Jesus's self-understanding, granted that he had any definitive sense of who he was in the first place." Is he really trying to make out that the man Jesus who went about dispensing sublime wisdom and testing friends and enemies alike with his profound insights had no idea what manner of man he was? Nonsense. Jesus understood himself in relation to the prophets and to his Father — and expounded these relationships repeatedly.

Eagleton tens us that, because of his birth in a stable and his ignominious death, "Jesus is a sick joke of a Saviour". So the learned professor mistakes the Divine condescension of the Incarnation and the redeeming death, humbly accepted, as "a sick joke", does he? I wonder who is really sick here?

Misinformation abounds: "John the Baptist was an apocalypticist, whereas Jesus was not." So what are Jesus's prophecies of the end of the world in Mark chapter 13, Luke chapter 21, and Matthew chapter 24, all about? How about the ecstatic reply to the chief priests when they ask him if he is the Messiah? "I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven" (Mk 14:62). It doesn't get much more apocalyptic than that. Oh, but I forgot, this is the verse which Eagleton dismisses as "implausible".

We are meant to think that Jesus was indifferent to vice and virtue, good and evil: "In the so-called Beatitudes..." — but why "so-called"? — "the poor, hungry and sorrowful are declared blessed, but not the virtuous." What of "Blessed are the pure in heart" then? That sounds fairly virtuous to me. (A few pages later he refers to "the so-called Lord's Prayer") Metonymical irony perhaps? Synecdoche? Transferred epithet?

"The Christian movement begins in bathos. Its origins lie in a hideously embarrassing anticlimax..." Eagleton has to say this because, of course, as a paid-up dialectical materialist, he is not allowed to believe in the Resurrection. He adds: "Jesus has most of the characteristic features of the revolutionary activist, including celibacy." This shows that Eagleton doesn't know much even about revolutionaries: both Stalin and Mao were notorious womanisers.

The infelicities and desecrations are abundant: "The New Testament has scarcely anything to say about sexual morality." How about Our Lord's strictures on divorce, his telling the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more? Astonishingly we come across the claim that Jesus had an "aversion to hard work". Put this beside what Jesus achieved in a mere three years — probably almost as much as a professor of lit crit. "There were no churches." Yes there were: they were called synagogues. "The New Testament has nothing to say of God as Creator." Tell it to St John: "All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:3).

Oh, I can't go on. It's all too silly. I feel sorry for Eagleton's students in the lit crit factory; for if he gets it all wrong when he tries to speak to us of heavenly things, why should they believe him when he speaks to them of things as mundane as literary analysis?




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