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Jesus Christ: The Gospels, Presented by Terry Eagleton

When a Marxist meets the Messiah

It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven, Jesus memorably said. But does that make him a revolutionary? Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, thinks so, claiming Christ is the greatest socialist in history. According to Verso's blurb for this volume in a series of revolutionary writings, Terry Eagleton believes he is as well. But such claims depend on your definition of revolutionary: a person engaged in the overthrow of a political system, or something more indefinable.

Eagleton's argument forms the introduction to the "revolutionary" Gospels. As he points out, reading the New Testament should offer no comfort to anyone with a mortgage, a car, and a couple of children. Suburban Christ is not. Nor does he offer much by way of support of the nuclear family, urging his followers to leave their families and follow him.

He has even less to say about sex. Go back to the Gospels and it really does seem astonishing that the churches have become so embroiled in rows about who sleeps with whom. It is true to say that Jesus is not so keen on divorce, but that may well have to do with the way it was used to discard and shame women in the Jewish society of his time.

Indeed, one of the most radical aspects of Jesus's life is his treatment of women, as Eagleton rightly highlights. He always treats them with respect, including those who were viewed as unclean, in a way that would have shocked his contemporaries. That same respect is evident throughout the Gospels for other outcasts: lepers, non-Jews such as Samaritans. This radicalism and other aspects to Jesus's character – unconventional, an outsider, someone with few possessions – make him ideal revolutionary material. But unlike the prototype, this is someone who sets great store by hospitality, who is sociable and goes to parties.

Eagleton has some some peculiar notions here about Jesus. One is the claim that he is capable of ethical extravagance, citing his urging of the love of one's enemies, turning the other cheek, and rejoicing in being persecuted. These surely all flow from his golden rule of loving one's neighbour, and doing as you would be done by. Then there is Eagleton's idea that Jesus advocates non-resistance to evil. Perhaps he did not read the account of Christ's 40 days and nights in the desert, resisting the devil, or the moment he lost his temper with the moneylenders in the temple, or his call to his followers to reject the material rewards of this world.

Arguments that Christ is a political revolutionary usually depend on the historical Jesus, caught up in the maelstrom of Roman occupation. But Eagleton's reading is far more intriguing, hinting at this Marxist scholar's Catholic upbringing. He notes that Christ's followers have a relationship with him, not something that you would have with Che or Lenin.

While Eagleton has produced a provocative introduction, his arguments' weakness is their narrow range. For Christianity is inspired not by these Gospels alone but also by 2000 years of theological and spiritual writing. They have led to some extraordinary things done in Christ's name: some appalling, some inspiring.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Christianity is its idealism, particularly the belief that the kingdom of heaven can be built on earth. That way lies Utopia, always a recipe for disaster. But there have been other dreams, inspired by Matthew, chapter 25: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me..." That helped give rise to the theology of justice and also of solidarity. And that in turn led to a trade union of the same name, and the eventual transformation of eastern Europe. Now that was some revolution.

Catherine Pepinster is the editor of 'The Tablet'

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