Desire of the Everlasting Hills, The World Before and After Jesus by Thomas Cahill

reviewed by Tom Tredway

Thomas Cahill has determined to do a seven volume series on the "Hinges of History." The first book in this effort was the best selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, and the second dealt with The Gifts of the Jews. In 1999 he published his treatment of Jesus, Desire of the Everlasting Hills, and it is hard to imagine how any of the four remaining "Hinges" volumes will surpass it in grace, wit, insight, and, even, wisdom. For pietists it has, as they say, some good news and, alas, some bad, or at least sobering, news.

The importance of Cahill’s treatment of Jesus—certainly from a Protestant, Pietistic and, maybe even, Evangelical perspective—is the seriousness and reverence with which he treats the person of and the texts about Jesus. After a century-and-a-half of nervously reading biblical criticism, culminating (or perhaps degenerating) in the ballot-counting sessions of the Jesus Seminar, in which scholars and others gather to decide by casting colored balls which of the Gospel texts are authentic (i.e., traceable to Jesus and the group immediately around him) and which are in, varying degrees, suspect additions by later generations of the Church, those who want a knowable and followable Jesus will be happy to read Cahill. This informed and careful layman seems to have read and understood the great scholarly work, conservative and radical, which has been done regarding the New Testament since the mid-nineteenth century. Though he, like A.N. Wilson (Jesus: a Life, 1992), holds no academic chair in biblical studies, Cahill has digested, as Wilson seems also to have, the writings of those who do.

But unlike Wilson, who leaves us with a will-o-the-wisp Jesus, hardly knowable after the layers of later accretions are removed from the synoptic sources, Cahill presents us with a Christ whom Christians claim to have met and loved. We have in Desire of the Everlasting Hills, a picture of Jesus which is based upon scholarship and which is at the same time recognizable. He is a person whose life and teachings changed the world forever, truly a "Hinge of History." Before him the model human being was Alexander the Great, heroic, conquering and brutal, blazing his way through the world subduing or slaughtering. The ancients who admired him so much saw mercy as weakness and compassion as silly. And then came an obscure Jewish teacher, enjoining pity and elevating the poor and the humble.

Of course, Cahill gives a Jesus who is more than simply a teacher. He traces the development of the biblical understanding of Jesus through Matthew and Mark, Paul, Luke, and John. No one of them presents precisely the same person. But through their several perspectives there emerges a knowable, admirable, and worship-able Christ, above all because such a person did live and die and come to life again. We can rely upon the New Testament texts because they rely upon the life that inspired them. To those who are cautious and weary from the not-always-constructive work of scriptural scholars, Cahill’s precis of the more positive of these works—and even more of the biblical texts and perspectives themselves—will be great good news. And the book is so well written besides!

That is the good news. What could possibly be troubling about such a book? Well, Cahill is clearly no protestant, no pietist, no adherent to sola fide. That is surely not a fault, but for those who find themselves in the Reformation tradition, it is sobering and a challenge. Jesus, says Cahill, came "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." To those who are comfortable with the doctrine of justification by faith alone, Cahill’s book itself may be slightly afflicting. For his reading of the synoptics, of Paul, and of John gives us a Jesus whose purpose was by his life, death, and teaching to demonstrate an uncompromising way of life built on an ethic that demands full obedience and that admits no half-way loyalty. The later chapters of Desire of the Everlasting Hills focus upon the crucifixion:

Not unnaturally, we prefer to this moment of abysmal bitterness the glory of the Resurrection—which has surely led to the marked preference of the West for happy endings… Our most common reference to the horror of the crucifixion is the sanitized cross, which, whether Protestant-pure or festooned and entabled in the manner of the Eastern churches, seems determined to keep our mind off the "worm and no man" (of Psalm 22) who hung there, the "man of sorrows" (of Isaiah)…. The crucified criminal, open-mouthed with pain and dripping with blood, is exiled to the cellars of Latin excess and the storerooms of masochistic bad taste.

And those who think that the benefits of this death can be appropriated by a faith which is, as Luther and Kierkegaard suggest, "a single thread, hanging above the abyss, by which the believer is attached to God," misread not just Jesus himself, but Paul as well. For Paul, like Jesus, says that what matters in the end is not sola fide, but three qualities: faith, hope, and love. And of these love is the greatest. And again, for Paul as for Jesus, this love is shown and made real by faithful and disciplined commitment to those for whom Christ most cared: the poor, the sick, the afflicted. There is no arguing with the terrible weight of Cahill’s reading of the New Testament; for him the only sure evidence of loyalty to Christ is to live as he lived, to care for those for whom he cared, and to demonstrate one’s loyalty to him with active, concrete loyalty to them. One cannot live by this world’s values—pride, self-direction, success in competition—and follow Jesus. The suffering that he endured must be entered into and lived out in one’s own life—that is to be a disciple of Jesus.

Who will deny the force of such a presentation of Jesus? But faced with such demands, such a call to perfection, who can dare to hope? That is where the core experience of Luther has been meaningful to some Christians, even if in so many ways that man was boorish, arrogant, and unappealing. Luther tried as hard as any monk in medieval Christendom to follow Christ, to live as he understood Jesus had lived. Though the Jesus he sought to follow was encrusted in layers of centuries-old traditions and ritual, in the middle of all that lay the New Testament message that Cahill is concerned to make clear. Luther knew he could not match up to such demands and fell into black despair. In the depths of that despair, probably while he was evacuating his bowels (as he himself, the analyst Erik Erikson, and the playwright John Osborn made plain), came the words of St. Paul: "the just shall live by faith." Luther thought that though you did your best, you would fail to live up to the demands of Jesus. That was Luther’s great affliction. And in that affliction came the comfort of faith, faith in its simplest form, faith that God is love, as the life and death and resurrection of Jesus show us. Only such faith is the ground of our hope. And the first two of the three Christian gifts, faith and hope, are of course directed to and derived from the third and greatest, love. This is the love of God for us and the love that it awakens in us and between us.

Cahill’s remarkable book is, therefore, at the same time comforting and afflicting. It is good news to discover that a thoughtful and careful reading of the New Testament (and of modern scholarship about it) can give us, contrary to what some critics have suggested, a cogent and reliable picture of Jesus. It is challenging, if not downright afflicting, to learn that such a reading does not give Cahill a sense of the Christian life as many Protestants, pietists and/or Evangelicals understand its inner dynamic. Serious pietists (what other kind are there?) might be well advised to wrestle with Cahill’s interpretation of Jesus’ life and teaching. If they convert to a sort of secular monasticism, that will be good for the cause of Christianity in the third millennium; the church will only benefit by having such people in the world. And if, on the other hand, they are first driven back to a deeper examination and understanding of sola fide and the relationship between faith in Christ and works of love, so much the better for the protestant branch of Christianity; it will be better prepared for its role in the great ecumenical unfolding that awaits us as history moves toward its next hinge moment.

Random House, Inc., New York. 1999. 353 pp. $14.00 US/Can. $21.00 Paperback.

Tom Tredway is a teacher of history and president emeritus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He is the author of “Conrad Bergendoff’s Faith and Work: A Swedish-American Lutheran, 1895-1997.”

See all articles by Tom Tredway