The trouble with most scholars, as Thomas Cahill knows, is they're too cautious to go beyond tending their tiny flower beds (or compost heaps) in the Groves of Academe and risk grand generalizations. They're also, typically, dull writers who couldn't reach a mass audience if they tried. So in steps Cahill, a widely-read amateur with a showman's flair and breathtaking chutzpah, and presto, we have his projected seven-part series The Hinges of History Having surveyed medieval Ireland in How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995) and ancient Israel in The Gifts of the Jews (1998)--not without eagerly (and sincerely) flattering Irish and Jewish sensibilities--Cahill now turns to an even vaster theme: after roaming from the "Axial Age" to the coming of Jesus, he takes on the New Testament and all of Christian culture. It's a daunting assignment, but Cahill knows no fear.
In a crisp, breezy, provocative style, peppered with both learned references and pithy vulgarisms, Cahill argues that Jesus still deserves his status as "the Icon of the West." While perfectly aware of modern biblical criticism, Cahill sees no obstacles to making a semi-traditional Christian profession of faith today. The Gospels, it seems, are largely reliable accounts (discounting some of John's dizzying theological loop-the-loops). It's reasonable to believe that Jesus rose from the dead because of "the living testimony of eye-witnesses, whose credibility [could] be established by meeting and questioning them, people such as Mary Magdalene." Cahill accepts most, though not all, of the New Testament miracles because to dismiss them we would have to imagine that "the most sublime moral sentiments ever expressed had somehow been drafted in the service of a cheap fraud."
Having got that problem out of the way, Cahill devotes much of his time to expounding a sort of tender-minded (Arian) fideism. As he lyrically paraphrases Paul and the evangelists (he also celebrates "that strange Fifth Gospel," the Shroud of Turin), Cahill often sounds like the bold and appealing preacher he would have become had he remained in the Jesuits. Though he derides narrow-minded, dogmatizing "ecclesiasts" and laments the "catastrophic millennial failure" of Christian persecution of the Jews, he can still flatly affirm that "man is saved by faith" and that "Jesus is the bridegroom. We are the bride."
Of course, this skates over numerous textual and philosophical difficulties. Cahill is not interested in debating David Hume about the impossibility of miracles or Albert Schweitzer about the impossibility of reconstructing the historical Jesus. He likes to make broad, and sometimes over-generous, claims, such as proclaiming Paul the "first person in history" to champion sexual equality (Plato in Book V of The Republic?) or tracing all modern anti-slavery sentiments back to Paul's Letter to Philemon (Seneca's Letter XLVII?) Cahill hails the Jews as "the inventors of the West" and casually notes that the Galatians were "like all Celtics, extremists."
Perhaps the most startling feature of Cahill's fervorino is its slangy exuberance, which often savors more of the pub than the pulpit. The ancient Greeks supposedly thought that, "The harder the pecs and the tighter the buns the more spiritual you were." (The apostles) Peter and Andrew would never have followed "any self-enclosed whacko." When Jesus equates lustful glances with adultery, Cahill protests: "Earth to Jesus: Hello." Jesus himself is quoted as speaking (in Matt. 15:17) of "the shithole" (for aphedron, usually rendered as "privy"). Galilee, Cahill suggests, was "the Bumblefuck of its day." At the Annunciation Cahill's Mary pertly counters Gabriel, "'This doesn't make sense. I haven't had sex yet.'" Oh well, if it keeps the congregation from nodding....
In general, Cahill does a respectable job of skimming through vast stretches of history and scholarship, with only occasional lapses, e.g., garbling the chronology of the affair of Antony and Cleopatra ("the teen queen of Egypt"). He recreates episodes from the New Testament as fast-paced colloquial drama (not for nothing has Cahill studied film and directed plays). He delights in graphic language (as in this gloss on Pilate's sign identifying Jesus as King of the Jews: "Yes, smirked the prickly governor, here was as much of a king as the annoying Jews would ever get: a pitiable, shuddering worm of a man, covered in bruises and rivulets of his own blood, his silly circumcised penis swelling for all to see, as he moaned incomprehensibly and died.") Cahill takes little for granted and explains all even slightly technical terms in unobtrusive marginal notes.
The result is a spirited "You Are There" tour through Heilsgeschichte led by a writer who prefers poetry to theology. Cahill begins his book with G. M. Hopkins "The Lantern Out of Doors," ends with W. H. Auden's For the Time Being, and repeatedly takes off in poetic flights along the way. He wonders whether Luke got the story of the Good Thief from a woman bystander. He imagines Pompey the Great climbing the steps to the Holy of Holies and barking, "What the hell d'ye suppose they have in there?" Paul, Cahill tells us, was "a balding man in his late thirties, as intense, lean, and quick as the curly-haired Peter was tender, bear like, and lumbering." Other critics may have a hard time making out the "real woman" in the gospels' "partial, pointillist portraits" of Mary, but Cahill is eager to "connect the dots," and in so doing he comes up with a "smart Jewish girl" and a "tough little survivor who keeps on coming." Incidentally, Cahill clearly doubts the Virgin birth and flatly denies Mary's postpartum virginity, but he's not ready to surrender all the beloved midrash of the Christmas story to the skeptics.
Indeed Cahill the hip homilist is at bottom rather old-fashioned. Speaking of the disciples at Emmaus, he writes: "The light of day - the limpid, physical presence of the Son of God in their midst, talking with them, breaking bread will be transmuted into the fire in their hearts, the invisible presence of the Spirit to which they must respond from now on, even if their journey lies in darkness." Even Cahill's sternest Jesuit mentors couldn't fault him at such moments. And so, politically liberal but theologically cautious readers looking for a jazzy contemporary reintroduction to Christianity that doesn't really rock the boat may find in Cahill an agreeable guide.
Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2001|
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