Mystery Man

Luke Was a Saint but Was He a Christian?

Known for his mashups of fiction and fact, French author Emmanuel Carrère talks about his new book on St. Luke, an admiring but cool-eyed chronicler of Christ and St. Paul.


“I think you can keep great interest in what Jesus said even if he wasn’t resurrected,” came the cool voice in careful English by phone from Paris.

Emmanuel Carrère was discussing his new book, The Kingdom, which follows the journey of Luke, the eponymous Greek gospel writer, as witness to the odyssey of the apostle Paul, a Jewish rebel laying the foundation blocks of Christianity a generation after Jesus’s death.

Carrère’s notion of Jesus’s importance, despite his doubt about the resurrection, gives ironic echo to Christopher Hitchens’s comment to New York Times columnist Russ Douthat: “Suppose Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead—what would that prove, anyway?”

To Carrère, who spent seven years on his book, the answer is, not much. “My interest in Jesus is not linked to the Resurrection,” said the author, the soul of Gallic detachment. “What I believe about Jesus is not important at all. I’m not so attached to my beliefs.”

The Kingdom, his ninth book to be translated into English, rises from a decades-long encounter with New Testament sources. Carrère’s narrative tracks Luke in his role as Paul’s Boswell, traveling from Judea across Asia Minor and on to Rome. Carrère evinces mounting curiosity for the writer who will wait thirty years after Jesus’s death to produce his gospel account, and then go on to write Acts of the Apostles.

Carrère is equally fascinated with Paul the proselytizer, “a borderline lunatic,” he writes, a man stalked by illness, spinning wool, and throwing off letters (even from prison) to far-flung communities he has visited.

“Paul was a genius, soaring high above the common run of mortals, Luke a simple chronicler of events who never sought to escape his lot,” writes Carrère. “The question isn’t whom I prefer.”

But in a way that is the question. For with his viewfinder on Luke, Carrère telegraphs his central theme. Luke was obsessed with Paul, yet in Carrère’s estimation, the man who wrote the gospel had a stoical restraint, wondering how much of what he knew he should put into his writing. Carrère notes pivotal moments when Luke has the chance to yield penetrating insights but holds back. Was Luke hiding things about his subject? Was his work edited or censored?

That hint of evidence missing between the lines is a prod to Carrère’s ranging curiosity about a global religion that grew out of the spreading faith in a man people believed had risen from the dead. Those spaces also furnish Carrère, who began his career as a novelist, with a rationale for imagining events that make his story more plausible.

What makes The Kingdom so readable is its obsession with obsession. It is a personal obsession, too, for a writer famous for exploring himself, particularly as a sexual being. Carrère entwines his spiritual odyssey with an investigation of the dawn of Christianity, shifting between himself as a man of hungry faith and an agnostic trailed by doubt.

Odysseus is a model for Carrère’s portrayal of Luke, a Greek doctor who sets out to follow Paul. “You suggest that in growing up, Luke lost faith in the Homeric heroes,” I said to Carrère. “You say his ‘soul was in exile’ when he met Paul. That’s rather like your position in discovering Luke, no?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Among the older writers of the New Testament, Luke is the only one who is not a Jew and not really a believer. He considered himself more an historian or a journalist than an apologist. It made me feel closer to Luke than other authors of the Gospels. His vision of the world is Greek, even when he depicts the Jews. I did my best with some problems of Luke. He is the one who described the ancient Jewish world more tenderly than other gospel writers. In the gospel on [Jesus’s] childhood—the old Jews, the parents of John the Baptist—he painted them with accuracy and tenderness. They don’t exist in the other gospels as he imagined them. I think there is good reason to believe he invented them. I can’t be sure about it. It’s quite likely.”

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In his early 20s, Carrère wrote several novels and a biography of the film director Werner Herzog. As he branched out as a screenwriter and director, he turned to nonfiction with a string of well-praised books in which he operates as a kaleidoscopic protagonist. In My Life As A Russian Novel (2010), the touchstone is the disappearance of his Russian emigré grandfather in 1944, in Bordeaux, where he had done translation work for the Germans and then ran afoul of the French resistance; but the narrative is largely absorbed with Carrère’s struggle to make a film in a bleak Russian town where a Hungarian man spent 53 years in a mental hospital after disappearing from the German army.

Wrapped into that story-line is the author’s fraught relationship with his girlfriend, Sophie, and how an erotic story about her that he publishes evokes a taunting email to the author from Philippe, his lover’s side-lover, who brags about his sexual skills and the dimensions of his member.

Carrère’s persona as a self-absorbed protagonist follows a tradition that includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer, among others. Overkill is the risk in casting one’s self as a navigational figure, staking out self-indulgent cul-de-sacs that veer into bombast, as Mailer often did. In The Kingdom, Carrère’s asides from the faith-journey sections include a two-page analysis of a soft porn video, as if to prove he’s a thoughtful sinner. I thought of Jelly Roll Morton’s line: “Open up the window, let the bad air out.” Such small diversions aside, The Kingdom’s narrative structure well suits the interwoven tale of a writer pulled between joy and doubt during his toil of reconstructing the lives of two saints.

When Carrère’s erudition in theology and historical literature cannot get past missing points of evidence, the marquee lights go up, announcing a switch to imaginative writing, a fictional episode to push the narrative along. For all the genre-bending, The Kingdom has a magnetic force that keeps one reading. The two stories both have drive.

Carrère’s search for spiritual certitude began thirty years ago. “Everything I said and thought at the time, even the most sincere expression of distress, was steeped in irony and sarcasm,” he writes. “I think this trait was quite common in the little world I lived in, that of journalism and publishing in late ‘80s Paris. No one said anything without a little smile at the corner of their mouths. It was tiring and stupid, but we didn’t see that.”

Like many Parisians of his generation, Carrère, 59, grew up a nominal Catholic. After years off the religious grid, he experienced a quaking hunger of the spirit in the early ’90s, and began reading heavily in theology and church history; he persuaded his significant other to marry and have their two children baptized.

Early in The Kingdom, a young American who interviews for a job as the family au pair stuns the author by casually mentioning that she knew Philip K. Dick, the fabled sci-fi writer, “way back when, in San Francisco. I babysat his little daughter. He’s dead now. I pray for his poor soul.”

Carrère scrolls back to the year he wrote an impressionistic biography of Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead (English edition, 1993). He began reading Dick’s books as a teenager. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner) the detective uses a testing machine to capture androids passing for human. The problem for Blade Runner is “that even though schizoids can think like machines, they are nevertheless human,” Carrère wrote in the Dick biography. In that book, he continued:

“Phil knew this firsthand, torn as he was between his keen need to empathize with others and the powerful paranoid tendencies that made it impossible to. These two poles of empathy and paranoia stood, in his mind, for good and evil: they were his Jekyll and Hyde, and thus he knew exactly what Saint Paul meant when he said, ‘The good that I would do I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.’”

In The Kingdom Carrère calls Dick “the Dostoevsky of our time.”

Of the sci-fi writer who felt an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, he writes, “It’s tempting to consider Philip K. Dick as a kind of misguided mystic. But even talking about misguided mystics suggests that there is such a thing as a true mystic, and thus a true object of mystical knowledge.” He goes on to say that in the year he wrote the book on Dick, his pace on writing notebooks of gospel commentary went slack. Writing about Dick gave him “a smug illusion that only gets me further from the truth. A boon, and so a curse: it’s what Jesus seems to say in the Beatitudes, which are the very heart of his teaching. I’m no longer sure the Beatitudes are true.”

In seeing Dick as a latter-day Dostoevsky (who assailed the church for persecuting Christians), Carrère writes of his encroaching doubt about the Beatitudes. Was that, I asked, because both writers see humanity as barely salvageable?

“Dick and Dostoevsky I think, each had a very tragic, dramatic life and a mystical approach. Deciding if the Beatitudes are true is not a matter of knowledge. It is a question of feeling, it cannot be controlled. I feel some things are true in the Beatitudes. The idea of the Resurrection is completely different. You can believe in some truth to the Beatitudes without believing in the Resurrection of Christ, or that he was Son of God. You can believe in Beatitudes without believing in God.”

“It was not an intellectual conclusion,” he continued. “I didn’t suddenly change my mind. It was important for me, but not a case of life and death belief; step by step it became less urgent. There was a moment where I had to confess to myself that was I not a believer any more. A conversion is quite something, a before and after. The doubt was more progressive, it did not happen so suddenly.”

“It was interesting to compare St. Paul to Dick—they had something in common,” he said. “Dick was a mystic, obviously. Was he misguided? He felt not. That’s what most readers reasonably think. That’s what we would think about Paul if he hadn’t been successful and created a church—he would have been a misguided mystic. Another science fiction writer, Ron Hubbard, created a church—Scientology. He wasn’t not very successful as a writer, though.”

In the book, Carrère draws a line from Odysseus, who construed paradise as fiction, to Paul, who vaunts paradise as the ultimate reality. “And then you ask if Luke, once on board, worries that he’s made a huge mistake,” I said. “What led you to that conclusion?”

“It’s a hypothesis,” replied the cordial voice from across the Atlantic. “Maybe he had been thinking something of that kind. Even when I was a believer, I had my doubts about that and I lent him my doubts. Luke is a very flexible character to imagine in the sense that he agrees with everyone; he likes to agree—he’s the contrary of a fanatic. Paul was a fanatic, Luke was not. It was, from a novelist’s point of view, like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Paul was like Holmes, very accentuated, and Luke was closer to Watson, a good writer, a storyteller more than a believer. And also a doctor… The more I used him as a hero, the more I liked him. I liked Luke very much, he was a good companion.”

In the book Luke evolves as a counterpoint to Paul, who was humiliated in Athens—few people there were interested in his preaching. Then, writes Carrère,

“He left for Corinth, which is in every way the opposite of Athens: an enormous, densely populated, dissolute port city, with neither a glorious past nor prestigious monuments, but with narrow streets teeming with people… Half a million inhabitants, of whom two-thirds are slaves. Temples to Jupiter for the form, but at every street corner shrines to Isis, Cybele, Serapis, and above all the Aphrodite, whose cult of worship is overseen by priestesses-cum prostitutes with the pretty name hierodules, known for transmitting a pox that the entire Mediterranean Basin calls with a snicker “the Corinthian disease.” It’s a city of debauchery, profit-making and impiety, but Paul breathes easier here than in Athens, because at least the people work hard and don’t think themselves better than the common run of mortals.”

Carrère’s long haul with Luke and Paul—the seven years of writing followed twice that time spent in heavy reading—is an anomaly in the highly secularized culture of French letters. In France with its historic cathedrals and churches, although 56 percent of the people identify as Catholic, only 15 percent consider religion “very important” in their lives, according to the Pew Research Center. The comparable figure in Germany and Italy is 30 percent, and Spain 24 percent.

Terrorist assaults in the name of militant Islam have jolted all of these countries as they struggle to assimilate Muslim emigrés, who account for 9 percent of the French population. France contains Europe’s most organized proto-fascist populist party, the National Front, whose presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is a front runner at 27 percent in recent polls for the April 23 national primary.

“It’s a well-known phenomenon, one often observed by historians of religion: rather than destroying a faith, denying reality tends to reinforce it,” writes Carrère.

With Donald Trump’s victory feeding the “fake news” frenzy and Britain’s Brexit vote, Le Pen is selling a nationalist credo with strong appeal to an alienated working class. Trump won the Catholic vote in 2016. I asked Carrère if Le Pen had widespread Catholic support.

“I have no idea honestly. Certainly there are Catholics among her supporters. One of the strangest things about Christianity is this link between Catholic beliefs and the right-wing parties; there is no reason for that. It’s historically and sociologically true, but it should be the contrary. She doesn’t sound very optimistic and even very confident.”

The emerging liberal challenger, Emmanuel Macrón, 39, is a former investment banker and Socialist economics official who formed his own party to run for president. I asked if Carrère thought Macrón had the political strength to defeat Le Pen. “I have no idea,” he replied. “I am following it with interest.”

In the final pages of The Kingdom, the author of wavering faith visits a retreat center attached to a community of mentally disabled people. Some writers would be tempted to use such an encounter for a sentimental ending. Not so, Carrère who pivots from the innocence of a retarded child to his struggle of belief.

In a coda to the interview, Carrère came back to the spiritual imagination.

“I don’t consider my beliefs so important—what I believe now, it’s different from 20 years ago.”

“So, you are a resolved atheist?”

“No. I am an agnostic.”

He paused.

“I am leaving the door open a little.”

Jason Berry’s most recent book is Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.