The American Center for Artists

Artist and Gallery Listings       Arts Organizations and Grants   Articles Stories and Poems  Staff



by John Sledge

"Even now, as we cross to the beginning of the third millennium since his birth, we count our days by his appearance on earth." So writes Thomas Cahill of Jesus Christ in a new book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus ($24.95), the latest volume in "The Hinges of History" series. Cahill’s two previous volumes in the set, How the Irish Saved Civilization (1995) and The Gifts of the Jews (1998) were both widely acclaimed. Cahill’s stated purpose of this series is to explore the "essential moments" in Western history, "when everything was at stake."

There are more books about Jesus Christ than any other historical figure. Though no one has done an exact count, the total approaches half a million titles. Why add another to the pile? Cahill makes no apologies for his effort. Indeed, since he means to "retell the story of the Western world as the story of the great gift-givers" he can hardly avoid the figure of Jesus. Happily, Cahill is a talented wordsmith and Desire of the Everlasting Hills is a welcome contribution to the literature.

The book begins with a broad introduction to the ancient Greco-Roman world into which Jesus was born and continues with an overview of his life and mission. Cahill reminds us just how radical Jesus’ methods were: He treated women as equals, stressed forgiveness rather than blame or revenge and instructed his followers to give all they had to the poor. "There is nothing like his modus operandi in any other literature of the ancient world," Cahill observes. "Jesus does not speak of destruction or enslavement," he continues. "Instead of lashing out with threats, he holds up an ideal-or rather ideals, which are all humbly concrete."

Cahill writes from a historical perspective but as a believer. His style is immediate and direct, though sometimes too informal for my taste. For example, when listing some of Jesus’ teachings Cahill declares, "And don’t look on a woman with lust? Earth to Jesus: Hello!" There are many such conversational asides, which, in my opinion, dilute the text and rob it of some emotional force.

"Desire of the Everlasting Hills" also features studies of Luke, John and the Apostle Paul. According to Cahill, Luke "sees Jesus as the bearer of glad tidings to the poor, the healer, the liberator" whereas "John’s Jesus is the gravitas-encrusted Christ of the ancient creeds, of tasteless religious art, of German passion plays and Hollywood movies." Paul comes in for some long overdue rehabilitation. Cahill labels him "the New Testament’s ultimate democrat" and decries the currently reigning perception to the contrary as a "pathetic irony."

The earliest Christians, the people of the Way, are also featured and come across as a close-knit faith community surrounded by enemies. Even so, Cahill writes, it is "hard to escape the impression that in their day they lived buoyantly." Cahill beautifully places the Book of Revelation in the context of this early Christian world, and shows that its meaning in any other sense is specious. "To take the many delicate strands of this skillfully woven tapestry and reduce them to some literalist fantasy about the present or future…is only to demonstrate once again the connection between fanaticism and simple-mindedness," Cahill writes.

The Shroud of Turin also features in this book. Though carbon dating in 1991 indicated that the cloth was a clever medieval forgery, subsequent thinking and theory once again place it in the first century. No one disputes that the image is, in effect, a photograph, the result of a flash of light which imprinted the picture on the cloth but did not burn or scorch it. There is, at present, no scientific understanding or consensus about how this extraordinary image came to be. Cahill uses the Shroud to recall Jesus’ suffering, and opines that his awful physical and emotional travail "is surely his ultimate gift, for it is his final act of sympathy with us."

If at times a bit unfocused and wayward, Desire of the Everlasting Hills is nevertheless a good introduction to the most compelling figure in our culture.