HIS EM­PHA­SIS IS ON JE­SUS THE ALSO-RAN RAD­I­CAL

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven Ross Fitzger­ald

the most rad­i­cal wing of the anti-Ro­man and anti-priestly brig­ands — the si­carii, as the Ro­mans called them — he is in­tent, and not very con­vinc­ing, in his em­pha­sis on Je­sus the also-ran rad­i­cal.

On the other hand, he wants to hype up both the Je­sus of ‘‘ You have made my fa­ther’s house a den of thieves’’ and, more par­tic­u­larly, the Je­sus who said, when showed the penny, ‘‘ Ren­der unto Cae­sar the things that are Cae­sar’s and ren­der unto God the things that are God’s.’’

As­lan will not ac­cept this as an oth­er­worldly dis­tinc­tion be­tween, if not church and state, then, let’s say, the life of the spirit ver­sus the his devil-may-care son, Er­rol Les­lie Thom­son Flynn, who was born in Ho­bart’s Queen Alexan­dra Hos­pi­tal on June 20, 1909.

Al­though both men, un­til their deaths, had a se­ries of af­fairs, Flynn Sr, who was mar­ried nuts and bolts of pol­i­tics. He wants to high­light the Je­sus who said, ‘‘ I come not to bring peace but a sword’’. With­out giv­ing us Je­sus the ter­ror­ist — a night­mare for a per­plexed world — he does want us to feel the fris­son of the po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tor, and his in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Cae­sar and the coin is es­sen­tially: chuck the money back in Cae­sar’s face.

It would be cheer­ing to re­port that this por­trait of a hu­man Je­sus, his feet in the blood­drenched dirt of the hum­blest, was por­trayed with any great power of ve­he­mence or dra­matic ar­tic­u­la­tion, but it is not. This book is sketchily ar­tic­u­lated and ar­gued. It comes from a sen­si­bil­ity of some schol­arly so­phis­ti­ca­tion, but the main nar­ra­tive is all broad out­lines.

Part of As­lan’s point is that with the de­struc­tion of Jerusalem in AD70, the postEaster com­mu­nity of Chris­tians was — more or less in­evitably — turned out­wards, away from escha­tol­ogy and any form of mil­lenar­i­an­ism, and to­wards a Ro­man­ised re­li­gion of dy­ing gods or metaphysical deities.

He likes the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus talk­ing about only once, kept his ex­tra­mar­i­tal re­la­tions hid­den, while those of Er­rol, who was mar­ried three times, were of­ten played out in pub­lic view.

The au­thors ar­gue, some­what con­tro­ver­sially, that ‘‘ while not as hand­some as his ac­tor son Er­rol, and far less of a lib­er­tine, there are suf­fi­cient sim­i­lar­i­ties to con­clude that Er­rol’s life owed a good deal to ge­net­ics’’.

They sug­gest Flynn Sr, by all re­ports a charmer of women, took great pains to keep his af­fairs pri­vate be­cause he had been so hurt by his own par­ents’ di­vorce and his fa­ther’s cen­tral part in it.

Their break-up heav­ily in­flu­enced his at­ti­tude to the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage (which he val­ued) and his largely suc­cess­ful at­tempts to him­self as the Son of Man rather than the Son of God; he likes the sim­plic­ity of his heroic hu­man­ity (even if he is not good at cov­er­ing the hero­ism). The vil­lain, when he en­ters, is Paul with his elab­o­rate, in­sid­i­ous Chris­tol­ogy which is, of course, the in­stan­ti­a­tion of the Chris­tian the­ol­ogy, the Chris­tian faith proper in which As­lan has ceased to be­lieve.

Zealot is a pe­cu­liar book, at once in­vig­o­rated, resid­u­ally learned and very sim­pli­fied as a piece of nar­ra­tive his­tory. It might have been handy if As­lan had al­lowed him­self rather more time to dis­cuss the re­li­gious com­plex­i­ties of, say, the Essene/Qum­ran com­mu­nity that John the Bap­tist may or may not have been at­tached to. It’s ad­mit­tedly true John the Bap­tist was a fa­mous fig­ure but it’s prob­a­bly a bridge too far to sug­gest Je­sus is as­so­ci­ated with him as a kind of fab­ri­cated cre­den­tial.

The real dif­fi­culty with As­lan is that as a pro­fes­sional so­ci­ol­o­gist of re­li­gion he knows his way around the be­wil­der­ments of this ma­te­rial but as a writer he is ca­pa­ble only of a crude form of drama­ti­sa­tion. That, one sus­pects, is why he’s caused a splash. The dif­fi­culty for the be­liever — or for the open­minded sus­pender of dis­be­lief — is that this Christ story that be­gins in fire and thun­der and folk wis­dom and talk about the end of days fin­ishes with the light that shines in dark­ness and the dark­ness that com­pre­hended it not.

It doesn’t say too much for As­lan’s writerly skills that he has a chap­ter called ‘‘ If Christ has not Been risen’’. What, for God’s sake, is wrong with ‘‘ If Christ is not Risen’’? Was the pub­lisher asleep? Then there’s the end­ing: The one thing any com­pre­hen­sive study of the his­tor­i­cal Je­sus should hope­fully re­veal is that Je­sus of Nazareth — Je­sus the man — is ev­ery bit as com­pelling, charis­matic, and praise­wor­thy as Je­sus the Christ. He is, in short, some­one worth believ­ing in.

‘‘ Hope­fully’’, for heaven’s sake? This is a bit of a lame duck ges­ture to­wards what Pier Paolo Pa­solini ac­tu­alised in the one 20th-cen­tury mas­ter­piece about the life of Christ, The Gospel Ac­cord­ing to St Matthew. It’s in­ter­est­ing, though, that Pa­solini suc­ceeded in mak­ing his un­can­nily con­vinc­ing doc­u­men­tarystyle neo-re­al­ist homage to the fiery cred­i­bil­ity of the young, an­gry, rad­i­cal Christ us­ing Matthew’s words and he com­bined it with the fi­nal epiphany of res­ur­rec­tion.

It’s con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica’s doubt about that, and its ig­no­rance of the schol­ar­ship of the past 150 years, that is trou­bling the sleep of the land of the free and mak­ing this very or­di­nary book a best­seller.

You’d be bet­ter off with Pa­solini, you’d be bet­ter off with As­lan the Lion. But the way you re­spond to this vul­garised bib­li­cal scep­ti­cism will de­pend on how you feel when you hear the words, ‘‘ I’m the res­ur­rec­tion and the light — who­ever be­lieves in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.’’ form and main­tain what the Har­risons term ‘‘ a co­gent and ef­fec­tive fam­ily’’.

It is nev­er­the­less fas­ci­nat­ing to learn that, at age 70, Flynn Sr had a pas­sion­ate af­fair with Melbourne-born com­poser Peggy GlanvilleHicks, 30 years his ju­nior.

De­spite their many dif­fer­ences, fa­ther and son liked and es­teemed each other.

Thus one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing, and of­ten har­row­ing, sec­tions of this fine bi­og­ra­phy can­vasses the ef­fect on his fa­ther of Er­rol’s death in Van­cou­ver, Bri­tish Columbia, on Oc­to­ber 14, 1959.

Al­though the cause of death was listed as heart at­tack, it was well known the ac­tor was an al­co­holic and drug addict and suf­fer­ing from cir­rho­sis of the liver.

It is also touch­ing to be in­formed of how, af­ter Er­rol’s pre­ma­ture death at age 50, his fa­ther, who would live an­other nine years, so du­ti­fully su­per­vised his er­rant son’s es­tate and his many properties in Ja­maica.

As it hap­pens, one of my favourite movies is the 1938 swash­buck­ler The Ad­ven­tures of Robin Hood, with Flynn in the ti­tle role and the sen­sual Bri­tish-Amer­i­can ac­tress Olivia de Hav­il­land as Maid Mar­ian.

In later life, de Hav­il­land de­clared that, de­spite per­sis­tent ru­mours, she never had sex­ual re­la­tions with the amorous, rest­less and enig­matic Aus­tralian.

In that film, Flynn demon­strated he was not merely a su­perla­tively en­er­getic and hand­some ac­tor, but a highly pro­fes­sional swords­man as well. My one re­gret is that the Har­risons make no men­tion of this won­der­ful movie in what is in many ways an en­thralling book.

Er­rol Flynn, left, sail­ing with his fa­ther, Theodore, cen­tre

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