For The Someday Book

Book Review: Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Posted on: January 24, 2012

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World, by James Carroll, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 418 pp.

James Carroll’s book is like the inverse of Karen Armstrong’s book. Armstrong carefully catalogs the facts of history, and lightly draws inferences of some overarching themes in Jerusalem’s history and lore. Carroll sees mythic stories at work and uses the facts of history to document a narrative of the psychic and spiritual idea of Jerusalem. One is a primarily a historian of religion who is also an adept writer and storyteller. The other is primarily a writer and storyteller who also engages in the history of religion.

I will not try to weigh in on the accuracy of the history as Carroll retells it, but I did not read anything that seemed shockingly different than any of the other histories I have read in recent weeks. What was far more surprising about this book is how little it said about the history of Jerusalem at all. Much of what Carroll discussed in this broad, sweeping tale of human history was the history of sacred violence, from the first hunters who killed to eat to the temple cults of sacrifice to monotheistic theologies to American wars for the mythic ideal of freedom. Carroll attempts to document the phenomenon of “Jerusalem fever,” a captivating obsession with fantasies about what Jerusalem is and what it means. While sometimes that Jerusalem fever intersects with the history of Jerusalem itself, Carroll’s narrative talks as much about prehistoric hunting as it does about King David, more about Abraham Lincoln and John Winthrop than it does about Saladin and Sulieman, and most of all about the human psychology of sacrificial violence.

In the end, I thought Carroll told an interesting story. Like a good journalist, he took the facts and made them into a narrative. He used the idea of Jerusalem throughout history to explore and explain the connection between violence and the sacred. He hypothesizes that religion is born to make sense of the sacrificial killing (38), but the Bible enshrines a counter-narrative of peace, that “God does not sponsor violence, but rescues from violence” (54) and monotheism, when God is the God of all people, offers an opportunity for conflict resolution (61). The book often feels like traveling down a series of rabbit holes, like following an interesting train of thought and ending up somewhere unexpected.

There were several of these explorations that were particularly interesting:

  • The Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple originally held the Ark of the Covenant. After the first destruction by the Babylonians, the Holy of Holies was forever left empty. That emptiness expanded with the destruction of the temple, and then the Western Wall, where people come to pray for what is not there. With this nothingness comes the theology that God is beyond all representation, all idols, all human knowing and captivity—an idea that has potential to overcome conflict and violence. (303) This actually reminded me of a thesis in one of Karen Armstrong’s other books, A History of God.
  • He documents the move in Christian theology from the worship of Jesus for his life and ministry to the worship of Jesus for his sacrificial death and resurrection. That shift is intimately connected with Constantine’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and the “discovery” of sacred sites there, which is directly connected to the relationship between Christianity and empire.
  • He connects the 15th century explorers to the legacy of the Crusaders, including a letter from Christopher Columbus in which he expresses his desire that all the bounty of his discoveries be spent in the recovery of Jerusalem. (153)
  • Lincoln resurrects the vision of America as a New Jerusalem, creating the narrative of the quest for freedom, in order to justify the enormous bloodshed of the Civil War. National “union” was not enough to merit such sacrifice, but a vision of freedom and a New Jerusalem was. Apparently, Lincoln spoke to his wife of his desire to see Jerusalem just moments before he was shot by John Wilkes Booth. (231)
  • Jerusalem was the imagination and inspiration for Britain during World War I, as General Allenby desired to inspire the people by conquering the city as a “Christmas gift,” and poet Wilfred Owen compared the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of soldiers in war. (235)

In his conclusion, Carroll projects a struggle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Good religion promotes peace, equality, unity, tolerance, and revelation of God. Bad religion involves coercion, violence, dominance, and salvation from God. This struggle is the story of Jerusalem, in myth and in reality.

While I enjoyed reading this book, it was a challenge to follow Carroll’s many threads. There was no clearly developed or cohesive argument that I could outline, just a general thesis about the connections between the ideas of Jerusalem, religion and violence. Carroll is a good storyteller, and I appreciated the tale he wove in this book. He is also dogmatic in his pacifism and in constant struggle with his Catholic heritage, and both those strident attitudes came through strong in the book, for good and for ill. I’m not sure I gained a depth of understanding about its history, but I learned a lot of interesting bits and pieces about how Jerusalem functions in the dynamics of Western history, politics and national psychologies.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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