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Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World

Why is one of the world’s holiest cities the flashpoint for so much violence?

By Jackson Holahan / April 12, 2011

Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World By James Carroll Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 432 pp.

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Most everyone has somewhere they call home. Somewhere they feel most comfortable or free to hit the recliner and TV on-button simultaneously. People like having a spot of their own where they can determine the rules and do as they please.

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Nations are not strangers to this phenomenon, albeit on a much larger scale. Religions of all types also associate themselves with places, events, and even things – now relics – that give meaning to their communal views.

Jerusalem is the place where three of the world’s most prominent monotheisms have long maintained competing claims of ownership and residency that persist to the present day. The great importance of this walled town has prompted massacres, trans-continental migrations, pilgrimages, and conflicts that continue to show discouragingly few signs of abating. National Book Award-winner James Carroll seeks to understand and account for these Jerusalem-induced conflagrations in his most recent book Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World.

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Ordained as a Catholic priest during the height of the Vietnam War, Carroll left the Church soon thereafter to pursue a writing career. Throughout this book he attempts to explain how religious violence can sprout from the human desire to quell violence. Certainly a topic worth considering, Carroll undertakes a strange compositional journey to get there.

Not unlike Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, Carroll uses the first 40 pages of his boook to test the reader’s patience to the limit. Reviewers have little choice but to push forward, but the non-contractually obligated may choose another course.

The strange introduction involves an explanation as to how man evolved from the Big Bang to cave dwellers to hunter-gatherers and so on. This rambling account could be justified if it induced a certain eureka moment in upcoming chapters, but unfortunately, it only serves to illustrate the need for a more discerning editorial eye.

Emerging from the desert on page 44, the trial ends. Carroll dives headlong into what he should have started much earlier: examining the ways in which Biblical violence informed the human conception of permissible conduct in ancient Mediterranean society.

Carroll identifies the timeless pull of many of the world’s people to Jerusalem. Its shared history as the site of Muhammad’s ascendance to Heaven, Jesus’ crucifixion, and the home of the first two Jewish Temples has ignited rival claims of ownership and authenticity of narrative that have long sparked conflict among each faith’s adherents. After nearly 300 pages, Carroll’s hardly astonishing conclusion has been asserted without a doubt: In his mind, this religious violence is unacceptable.

With precious few pages left, Carroll seems to realize that the work is incomplete without his prescriptions for civilizational healing. His final chapter, entitled “Good Religion” reads like the writing of someone who is running out of space and has spent an entire book not really saying what he intended to say.
The second tenet of Carroll’s good religion is the recognition of God’s oneness as a “principle of unity among all God’s creatures.” Carroll’s conclusions here are colored by astonishment that people do not – and never really have been able to – get along with each other.

Carroll’s final chapter is a disappointing conclusion from a book that is little more than a superficial history of religious violence from biblical times to present. As much as we would all like the world to join together and act as one, the four pillars of Carroll’s “Good Religion” are as presumptuous as the very narrow-minded worldviews he condemns. Unfortunately, a prescription leading to world peace cannot be written in 19 pages, and certainly not when one of the recommendations is a thinly veiled call for humanity to link hands and sing Kumbayah.

Carroll is right to be fascinated by religion. What people believe is hugely important and has a tremendous impact on human behavior and interaction.
But cheap entreaties demanding a shared worldview turn a blind eye to what is best in mankind: our ability to be different.

There is no neat solution to the problems that have long caused humans to fight and kill one another. Unfortunately, Carroll’s book leaves you feeling like you’ve read little more than a haphazard world history sprinkled with a few irrelevant conclusions.

Jackson Holahan is a second lieutenant in the US Army stationed in Vicenza, Italy.

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