Emmanual Carrère’s The Kingdom and the Limits of Imagination

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Emmanuel Carrère’s lately controversial The Kingdom takes on a project of demystification: it is an imagining of how St. Luke might have joined the early Church after having met St. Paul. It imagines how he assumed the responsibility of meeting witnesses to the public ministry of Jesus and how he compiled those stories into his Gospel. It also prompts reflections on Carrère’s own lost Catholic faith and why people come to believe the apparently bizarre and irrational.

As such, The Kingdom is in large part concerned with how one might use the power of imagination to understand other people and to capture their thoughts. Carrère is at pains to celebrate what he deems to be Luke’s strokes of literary genius and to point out his imaginative shortcomings. And indeed, Carrère’s imagination is quite vivid; he presents compelling and, in their own way, plausible explanations of how Luke interviews people, fill in gaps in the story he is telling, chooses the reading he depicts Jesus as reading in the synagogue, and massages the more difficult aspects of the story, such as why the Holy Family travelled to Bethlehem.

Carrère’s Work of Deconstruction

To pick an especially merciless deconstruction, Carrère imagines Luke writing the beginning of his Gospel, introducing it as “a field investigation… that can be trusted,” but in the next line begins writing “pure fiction.” The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is a pastiche of Old Testament stories, and the family bond between Jesus and John the Baptist is an exciting solution to some vaguely described narrative problems. Luke, in this telling, is simply checking off boxes on a “bill of specifications” requiring him to tell the story of the virgin birth and the relationship between Jesus and John. Carrère admits that he cannot fathom that Matthew and Luke, working separately, both found it vital to emphasize the virgin birth, but I shall leave that aside. Carrère then imagines Luke combing through Scripture to find the passages he would use to compose the Magnificat (which Carrère notes is still powerful). Finally, he describes Luke feeling obliged to explain why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, thus contriving a census, which Carrère says makes a good story because of the force of its images, despite its purported implausibility.

I note this deconstruction not so that I can rebut it, but to emphasize that Carrère has no fear in taking on cherished themes at the centre of the Christian faith; indeed the Christmas is a feast surpassed only by Easter. That makes it all the more strange that Carrère seems to evade the most central theme: the Resurrection. It is surprising that this is where Carrère’s imagination lapses, given that he begins by telling the story of his collaboration on the script of the television series Les Revenants, which is about dead people who have come back to life and returned home. He compares this scenario to the early Church, which lived in the age of Christ’s Resurrection, expecting the general resurrection at any time, and who had people such as Lazarus living among them. Indeed, Carrère understands that the Resurrection is the heart of Paul’s message, going so far as to cite 1 Corinthians 15:14: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” Surely, if The Kingdom’s project is to twin the author’s loss of faith with a depiction of how various Gospel stories were embellished, tweaked, or invented out of whole cloth, Carrère has to confront the Resurrection? He follows Jesus even to the Cross, seeing Luke’s “most beautiful stroke of creativity” being Christ’s exchange with the thieves crucified beside him. But he goes no further.

The Limits of Imagination

Carrère presents The Kingdom as following in the footsteps of Ernest Renan, who sought to “give a natural explanation to events that are deemed supernatural, to bring the divine down to a human scale.” Renan attempted to tell the story of Jesus in terms of what could actually occur, discounting the possibility of miracles. The Kingdom is trying to tell the story of how the early Church, and in particular the New Testament, might have come to be, while similarly discounting the possibility of miracles. The problem that Carrère does not confront is how a community united by a belief in the Resurrection comes to believe in that Resurrection if it did not occur. The most that he offers is a cursory listing of possibilities: Roman authorities removing the body to (ironically) prevent a cult forming around it, disciples scheming to perpetrate fraud, or disciples trying to pay “a last tribute to their teaching” and “forgetting to let the others know.” That’s it. Carrère denies that anyone can know what happened, and he declines to imagine.

It would be going too far to say that Carrère’s refusal to imagine what the women and the disciples might have seen and reported to Luke, or how Luke might have composed his narrative, proves the truth of the Resurrection. But it does expose a significant artistic and philosophical limitation of The Kingdom: that despite all its vivid imaginings, which we might even call plausible for the sake of argument, it does not make a real effort to imagine the Resurrection, which it explicitly admits from beginning to end is the heart of the issue. Therefore, there is a gaping hole at the centre of The Kingdom, which ultimately does not offer any new way of seeing that aspect of the early Church. Indeed, it leaves the early Church incomprehensible; we might accept the psychologies he proposes for Paul, Luke, James, Phillip, John, and other figures, and find his depictions of their interactions and disputes potentially insightful or even revelatory, but to do this we must simply accept that they believe in the Resurrection, and he does not give us a way to imagine how those psychologies might ring true if Christ has not been raised, or how they came to believe in something that is patently false. His Luke writes fiction, admittedly, but is not presented as a fraudster who invents the Resurrection. Instead, he seeks out witnesses, but Carrère does not imagine how Luke met the women who went to Christ’s tomb on that Sunday morning, or, alternatively, imagine Luke filling in the gaps of the story to make it more convincing. The Kingdom, for whatever reason, declines to attempt this part of the story, and so its foundation is not simply one of sand, but missing altogether.

Carrère says that in all creative endeavours, from painting to the Gospel of Luke, there is a discernible difference between depictions that are rooted in real life and those that are completely imagined. His main criterium for determining what Luke might have invented is whether the depiction rings true. The imagination’s power is limited. One wonders if Carrère was ever able to imagine an explanation for the Resurrection that rang true, and if so, whether his project, therefore, falls short of explaining why rational people come to believe in the apparently bizarre and irrational.

Imagination and Love

Carrère muses that the early Church’s “force of persuasion had a lot to do with its ability to inspire astonishing acts – and not just words – that ran counter to normal human behaviour,” in loving, forgiving, and dying for Christ. This is so counter to the surrounding values that it is almost incomprehensible, but people come to understand the “joy, the power, the intensity of life, that Christians draw from this apparently aberrant behaviour.” This returns at the end of the book, when he movingly recounts visiting a l’Arche home for people with disabilities. There, he washes the feet of the person next to him and has his feet washed. At the end of the retreat, despite himself, infected by the exuberance of a woman with Down Syndrome, he dances, sings, and weeps, which he calls “a glimpse of what the kingdom is,” like the kingdom of the early Church.

At the risk of turning this essay into long-distance spiritual direction, one cannot help but notice that, in his recounting of the time when he tried to live as a Catholic, not only is this exuberance largely absent, but also the service of washing another’s feet. Instead, he spends hours upon hours reading and writing commentaries on the Gospel of John. Might this be another limit upon the imagination? Contemplation, prayer, and intellectual formation are essential, but at some point, those must bear the fruits of service and love; faith without works is dead. One cannot earn one’s salvation by good works, but neither can one imagine oneself into Heaven. Even the best contemplatives must love; that is the fruit of their contemplation. On the other hand, a focus on action apart from prayer runs the risk of becoming reliant only on one’s own power, and no longer seeing to which we are called. Ignatian contemplation and lectio divina make much use of the imagination, and even reception of the Sacraments might require some use of the imagination to see beyond, for example, the accidental qualities of bread and wine to their divine substance. A sacramental faith, however much it makes use of the imagination, does not disdain the material world and everyday life. God speaks in creation, in all things counter, original, spare, strange, and so it is good to contemplate in the world, and in one’s service, just as it is good to contemplate in the cell where one can seek refuge from the noise.

It is often asserted, rather lazily, that people should not pray, but instead, take action. This is not one of those lazy comments. Instead, it is to point out that The Kingdom reveals different ways in which the imagination can fall short: by not creating images that are sufficiently life-like; by not credibly grappling with the conundrum of how the early Church came to believe in the Resurrection; and by becoming the whole of one’s faith at the expense of service and love. Carrère leaves the retreat at l’Arche claiming with relief not to have been touched by grace, despite that exuberance, and so I will not go so far as to claim that if he had only done one or two more good things he would not have lost his faith. It is clear, however, that even Carrère sees service as being the necessary fruit of whatever the imagination contemplates.

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1 thought on “Emmanual Carrère’s The Kingdom and the Limits of Imagination”

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