HIS EMPHASIS IS ON JESUS THE ALSO-RAN RADICAL
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