Sarah Perry
May 24, 2016 · 9 min read


Sarah Perry

Some years ago, on one of those aimless days when you can’t imagine having ever taken pleasure in anything, I went alone to the British Museum, and soon found myself in a dusky corner surveying a case on which there was the handprint of some previous visitor. I stood a while transfixed by the object hanging behind the glass, and in the intervening years it’s taken on the quality of myth, or of something I once overhead, so that whenever I return I don’t seek it out in case it is gone.

It was a series of spheres of ivory or bone, each nested within the other and shivering on a thread when I tapped the glass. Each sphere was so intricately carved it might have been lacework, the pattern differing with each layer; sometimes quite jagged as though broken, sometimes suggestive of petals blooming on a bough. It was clear, even in that dim light, that it had been carved from a single piece: there was simply no other way it might have been made. At the centre of the spheres it was possible to make out an empty space, which was both there, and not there; it was an absence, and yet absolutely present. I turned my head left and right — I paced back and forth before the glass — and it seemed that as I did so the spheres turned, and altered the substance of the hollow.

Those turning spheres seem to me to represent the layers of narrative that compose the Passion drama — circuitous, offering glimpses of something at the core, and no two glimpses ever quite the same. And so I do not see the story as one that begins with once upon a time, and ends with the expert story-teller’s double-bluff of tragedy and hope; not an ordinary unfolding of time, that began once and now is done, but an endless attempt to imagine and re-imagine the story in the hope of beholding the suffering man at the crux.

Any novelist will tell you that it’s hard to discard the tools of the trade and simply enjoy a tale well told: the temptation is always to pick and pick at a narrative, and discover where it works, and how; and where it doesn’t, and why. So I survey the Passion drama as a bungling craftsman might a masterpiece: how did this story of all stories survive the millennia? Certainly there are other tales that have outlasted the years: that of Persephone dolefully eating her pomegranate in the underworld, or Noah waterproofing his boat. But none have proved so persistent, or so seductive; none have so strongly provoked writers both secular and sacred say: “No, it would not have been like that, not quite: it would have been more like this.”

How then to account for the extraordinary persistence of the Passion story? I think it is because as each layer of story is added — each distinct from the other, but like those ivory spheres still somehow constituting a whole — there remains at the centre the supreme piece of characterisation in the person of Christ.

Characterisation is so essential a skill that whole libraries of textbooks have been written on the subject. In overheated seminar rooms across the world writers and tutors are even now examining Moll Flanders and Jane Eyre, the Great Gatsby and the poor fool Cordelia, looking for the stitches and seams that construct their characters, and plucking at exposed bits of stuffing. The merits of an omniscient narrator are set against the problem of the first person; the tricksiness of point of view is deplored and admired. How does this man speak, and is he fond of dogs? What motivates this woman, and how might she vote? Some characters remain elusive, as folk so often do: we think we’d know their voice, if we heard it, but would be hard pressed to say where they were educated, or what is their taste in music. Others are painted with thick bright layers applied with a palette knife, and you could hazard a guess at their shoe size, and whether they passed A level French. What is worse (or better, depending on the writer’s skill and their readers’ good nature) a character alters with the altered viewpoint of the observer. Henry James’ child heroine Maisie knew her parents were loving and good: our point of view is altogether more astute, and we know otherwise.

“No human being is simple”, points out EM Forster, writing on the problem of people in fiction, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Passion’s central character, the man Jesus. Even to say “The man Jesus” proves troublesome, whether reading the drama as history or myth, or a conflation of both: the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, making one of the earliest accounts of the Passion, finds himself equivocating as he introduces “Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works.” Josephus beholds the man, but finds himself unable to say what kind of man he is.

To read the gospel accounts of the Passion is to stand as a fifth observer, with eyes always fixed on Christ: there is Matthew, perhaps the tax-collector of tradition, who records Christ’s last days with a civil servant’s precision; there is Mark, who they say wrote in the years of Nero’s villainy, recording how Christ foresaw the betrayal of hot-headed Peter. And Luke, perhaps a physician, alone of all the gospel writers noting how Christ healed the ear of his enemy when a disciple severed it with a sword. Then there’s John, the disciple whom Jesus loved — by tradition also John the Revelator, John the Divine. Of all the gospels it is John’s which tradition has held likeliest to be an eyewitness account, and it’s possible to perceive there a richer character at the centre of the Passion drama — to behold a man both more completely human, and more divine. The narrative reads as an act of love: it is there we find Christ washing his disciples’ feet as the day of his crucifixion comes near, and encounter a narrator enraptured by his subject.

For all that, it’s impossible to conceive of gospel accounts of the Passion photocopied and handed around a creative writing class as exemplars of dramatic characterisation. Where’s the consistency? Why so much repetition, and what is he thinking, there at the gates of Jerusalem? And what does he look like: could he not have looked into the pool at Bethesda and observed his own reflection? The Christ of the Passion is one of apparently irreconcilable opposites: a king and a rebel, a willing sacrifice and a man prostrate in a garden with grief and despair, abandoned by his friends. He curses a fig-tree to barrenness when it fails to oblige him with fruit, yet comforts a condemned man in their shared last hours; he’s a teacher, but won’t answer when Pilate asks on behalf of us all, “What is truth?”

In its most perfect form, characterisation creates an inevitability within the drama: we not only believe events that befall those we’ve followed through the pages, but see no alternative. Hardy’s Tess may seem a victim, but she is active, not passive — all that unfolds, unfolds because of her. So — despite the inconsistencies, the frustrating elisions, the breaking of narrative rules — it’s possible to see the events from Gethsemane to Calvary not as a timeline along which Christ moves like a tragic hero pursued to his fate, but as having been generated by his character. It is as if because he was as he was, the story could never have been otherwise; that he did not submit to the cross, rather that at the moment of his birth it became necessary to plait the crown of thorns.

These gospel accounts of the Passion — squabbled over by historians, laboured over by scribes, thrust at passers-by outside supermarkets and Underground stations on wet afternoons — are the narratives with which we’re most familiar, but are neither the first nor the last. Scholars and believers have peered through their layers to better behold the man at the core, and find him in the ancient book of Job, who knew that his Redeemer lived; or in the 22nd Psalm, where David the musician king writes, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture”, as if he’s somehow looked outwards to later stories circling his own, and seen the events of the Passion, and how they gambled for fragments of Christ’s clothes.

On and on the Passion story goes, told and re-told in verse and prose, by historian and myth-maker, by those who believe and those who don’t and those anxious on the borderline, circling always about the Christ character as the sky spins round the North star. There’s Josephus with his terse but wondering despatch from history; there’s Julian of Norwich in her anchorite’s cell who “saw His sweet face as it were dry and bloodless with pale dying.” There are the passion plays that began in Latin then slid into the vernacular, in which Judas showed his wickedness by means of a black bird held to the mouth and agitated until it flapped its wings. In 2020 half the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, in gratitude at having once been spared the plague, will play out the Passion; and each year, in certain quarters of the Philippines, young men will be crucified in imitation of Christ, with nails adroitly aimed to avoid severing the essential tendons.

In recent years it’s the novel form that’s taken up the endless query “what manner of man is this?” Philip Pullman splits the character into the good man Jesus who dies on the cross, and the sickly mystic Christ, who watches from a scoundrel’s distance, then walks away “very carefully, trying to make no impression on the earth.” In The Liar’s Gospel, Naomi Alderman sees Yehoshuah, a wandering healer, a rabble-rouser: “This was how it happened”, she begins. In Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead, the narrator occupies the mind of the crucified Christ: “I have seen things and done things that other people will never see and do.” So it goes on, and each new imagining of the Passion story attempts to pierce through the accumulation of history and myth, doubt and faith, and find what they’ve been looking for: fraud or prophet, carpenter or king, man of sorrows or son of God.

I confess it is years since I’ve been what you might call a practising Christian: I cannot with an honest hand sign my name to creed or rule, since what faith I have gutters like a candle in a draughty room and I fear is just as likely to blow out. I find myself living in a state of disgrace, excommunicated by my conscience from church and chapel, but exiled from lands of reason by that obstinate flame that burns behind my ribs. Even now, as you may have observed, I cannot call him Jesus, which seems to me irreverent, the carpenter’s name but not the Redeemer’s; I must use the title Christ, the anointed.

My friends, of course, are largely atheist, baffled and affronted by my failure to accede to their view. Often I say — spreading my hands, aware I have much to apologise for — that faith as I have known it is not adherence to a set of rules and regulations, many of which I despise, and all of which could be readily cast off. Casting about for means to explain myself I say that faith’s nearest equivalence is love: an unbidden, sometimes unwanted emotion, directed not towards an idea (I do not believe it possible to love an idea) but to a character. Since I could not persuade a stranger to love my loved ones by reason and evidence, nor would I try, how then could I persuade others into faith, or myself out of it?

I suppose it is for this reason that I read the Passion drama as I do: not as a story that ended, but one endlessly told and retold. I eavesdrop, as you might listen in hope of hearing news of a friend you’ve not seen in a while, whose dear face you’re afraid you’ve forgotten. Like the Passion storytellers I circle the Christ character in love and doubt: at times I think I find him, at times I’m afraid there are only shadows; often half-hoping one day to hear a voice at my shoulder, asking why I seek the living among the dead.

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