The Savior’s Friends: On Tom Bissell’s Apostle

By Ed Simon

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell, Pantheon Books, 2016

“We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”

– 1 Corinthians 4:9-13

Alone among the exalted choir of the saints are the apostles. While the subsequent hagiographies of the grand golden treasury written over the past twenty centuries contain stories as varied as Lucy (who carried her eyes on a platter) and Denis (who carried his severed head in his hands) only the apostles can tell tales of personally knowing Jesus.

Theologically, every saint’s story involving a Eucharistic miracle or a vision of the Christ is one in which they have experienced a man as well as God; technically these belated saints also know the physicality of Christ. The disciples, the list of whom varies across the synoptic gospels, are counted alongside Jesus’ family (of which James may be potentially included among both categories) in knowing Christ as not just God, but indeed as man. The apostles should be viewed through a more subtle, yet perhaps more meaningful distinction: they knew the material existence of Jesus the man not only through sacrament, but they indeed knew him as a friend. As writer Tom Bissell says in his beautiful, fascinating, exhaustive, and personal Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, “Jesus is not a ghost but something tangible – someone who could be held if you wanted to hold him or touched if you wanted to touch him.”

51m1vryjrhl-_sx334_bo1204203200_Understanding these men as Christ’s friends is not metaphor, or New Age feel-good gospel platitude about a personal relationship with Jesus; the nature of the apostles’ relationship is a very literal one threaded throughout the New Testament and the Apocrypha. Theologians know Christ through the mystery of hypostatic union, the Christological coequal relation of God and man; the canonized of the post-apostolic age experience Christ’s physicality through miracles of bone and flesh and sinew and cloth and blood; but it was the apostles who knew Jesus as a guy. Francis of Assisi and Catharine of Sienna may have had visions of Christ, but it was men like James, Philip, Peter, Thomas, and, of course, Judas, who were raised with him, broke bread with him, denied him, doubted him, and maybe most intimately of all, betrayed him. The Apostles knew Christ not as idea, but Jesus as man whose tallit could be touched; they knew Christ not as concept, but Jesus as human who they could wrap teffilin alongside. God is to be worshiped, but these were the men who lived, cohabited, ate, traveled, cried, and laughed with him. Bissell writes movingly of the Apostles that “to many believers, the interpersonal dynamics of the gospels were precisely that apparent. As apparent as every miracle, as every word of Jesus.” The Twelve are, of course, all the more human seeming because of it, in all their glorious imperfections and short-comings.

Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (2010) is possibly his most widely read work, and is fast becoming the standard volume for a defense of the aesthetic virtues of a largely critically maligned medium. Apostle may seem to be a radical departure from that earlier book, but in it Bissell is returning to the genre of his first book and style for which the for which he has won the most critical acclaim. Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia (2003) was a culturally minded travelogue in which he evoked the stories of  Victorian gentleman who went to sundry and exotic locales so their readers wouldn’t have to.  That particular book drew upon Bissel’s Peace Corps experience in Uzbekistan in crafting one of the more insightful books by an American about the particularities of post-Soviet life. That same keen skill of analysis combined with empathy for the people he meets is marshaled to incredibly affect in his latest work in which he has penned an immensely affecting account of his travels among shrines to the Apostles, taking him from predictable pilgrimage sites like Jerusalem and Rome, to the more unexpected like Madras, India and Kyrgyzstan (the tombs, or place of death, for respectively Judas, Peter, Thomas, and Matthew).

In some sense it’s easier to explain what this book is not; it isn’t a work of Christian devotional tourist literature or a New Age Eat, Pray, Love for the spiritually disaffected Generation-Xer. Nor is it some New Atheist screed mocking the devotion of those penitents and pilgrims who journey to Patras or Tours. Bissell is a Michigan raised former altar boy, and while he tells us that his “loss of faith was… sudden and decisive” he refreshingly “never once looked back on those years with anything but fondness.” He explains that, “Even after I lost my religious faith, Christianity remained to me deeply and resonantly interesting.” Perhaps due to this sympathy, the author comprehends that basic axiom of true religious devotion, ignored by both the reductionisms of the fundamentalist and the snarling skeptic, that “belief and doubt are not always at war but kindred emotions within the same internal struggle.” Religion isn’t simply Summa Theologica, it’s also the arthritic hands fingering rosary beads; faith isn’t only Institutes of the Christian Religion, but also the voice of the gospel singer in harmony. Religion can never only be in the mind, or even only in the heart, but it must be felt in the body first and foremost.

If Apostle has a major theme it’s about the physicality of the divine as experience, of the bodily life of these twelve men and those who venerate them. Bissell is able to explain the intricacies of homoousian as explicated at the First Council of Nicaea and the metaphysics of Chalcedonian Christology, but he can also describe things like a “platter of candles… half of which were lit. As the candles wept wax tears, their stubborn little flames quivered in a draft I could not quite feel.” A humane perspective motivates Bissell’s journalistic endeavors, which when combined with an astute theological literacy results in an estimably unusual and rewarding book, equal-parts journalistic account, personal narrative, cultural critique, popular history, and theological treatise. Indeed, it’s rare to find the non-specialist writer who is so casually familiar (and good at explaining!) multisyllabic theological terms like Docetism, Monophysitism, Miaphysitism, Arianism, and Nestorianism, but Bissell’s erudition is obviously and charmingly conveyed by his immense curiosity.

Bissell has done  a massive amount of research, he is more than conversant with the scholarship of both theologians and historians of early Christianity like Michael Goulder, John Painter, Raymond F. Brown, R. Alan Culpepper, Bart Ehrman, and Richard Bauckham, with a veritable dissertations-worth of endnotes and works cited. But there is a difference between what Bissell accomplishes and that of his secondary sources, one illuminated by his own explanation of the respective strengths and weaknesses of Paul compared to the Gospel writers. He explains that Paul was the more theologically sophisticated, but that it was the Gospel writers who intuited the power of a good story told well. He explains that “Jesus is an idea in Paul,” but that he is a “character in the gospels,” demonstrating the important difference between ideas and stories. Bissell uses ideas, but he is very much telling a story.

The beautifully minimalist text of the New Testament does not provide any sort of straight-forward forensic account of the Apostles. As Bissell writes, “the Twelve Apostles have wandered a strange gloaming between history and belief,” indeed the very noun phrase that they are referred to appears in the Bible approximately once, in Matthew 10:2. That the gospels have broad contradictions in basic issues of narrative agreement – from Jesus’s genealogy, to details of certain events, to the very listing of the Apostle’s names (and their identities themselves) – is common knowledge. The only succor, for the literalist against such inconsistencies, are the contorted attempts at harmonization between the four accounts that have been attempted since they were written. That the gospels were directed to specific communities, Matthew to Jewish Christians, Luke to Gentiles and so on, is also widely accepted. As any close reader knows, the texture of literary difference can lead to profoundly different interpretations – in Matthew a distraught Judas returns his pieces of silver to the Temple priests and hangs himself in contrition, in Acts his festering and bloated body breaks open in a veritable explosion of divine retribution. Not a small contradiction. Certainly not a small one in matters of plot, but more importantly in emotional register as well, so that we are confronted with two radically different Judases, one a repentant suicide, the other a malignant demon struck down by the Lord. These subtle differences in emotional register need not be so dramatic, as Bissell explains, “Mark’s Peter is doltishly prone to misunderstanding; Matthew’s Peter is full of misplaced love.”

These subtle differences are explained by the author to the Sola Scriptura Evangelical Protestant from Tennessee whom Bissell shares several beers with after meeting in front of the tombs of Philip and James in Rome. The Tennessean may have discomfort with what he sees as the overreliance of traditionalism in the Church who maintain the shrine which he is visiting, but if we were to rely on the Bible alone we’d have a profound deficit of stores concerning the ciphers in the New Testament we call the Apostles. Bissell’s reliance on tradition has a long tradition in its own right of course, his Evangelical compatriot in Rome may blanche at the accumulated non-biblical accounts of Catholicism, but nobody really believes that tradition has no role in faith. After all, based on a reading of the Gospel accounts alone we have no idea if Jesus was crucified on a cross in the traditional shape, in the demeaning X of St. Andrew’s Cross, or if he was simply tied to a rectilinear post. And yet the biblical silence about something so fundamental as what the very instrument of death which killed the savior looks like hasn’t stopped the majority of denominations which hold sola Scriptura as a matter of doctrinal necessity from choosing some variation of the traditional cross as their symbol.  Even the pious Tennessean movingly admits the power of legend here in the crypt of Philip and James, telling Bissell that even if much of what we think we know about the Apostles comes not from the skeleton prose of the New Testament, but from human invention, that that’s no matter. For he explains they were still “my Savior’s friends and they died for him. They deserve our respect and our love.” Myth, legend, tradition, narrative, story, plot – these are the ingredients of faith. Fact is secondary to faith – that axiom can be interpreted many ways, but one way that it shouldn’t be understood is as a condemnation.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

Using scripture alone to write anything like a collective biography of the Apostles is to anatomize a shadow, or to weigh a ghost. Of course part of the brilliance of the Gospel accounts is their stunning restraint, what they pass over in silence is not a deficit of interiority, but rather the heavy intensity of things left unsaid. Bissell does not rely on scripture alone of course, he has two thousand years of tradition which accumulated around John, Jude, Andrew, Bartholomew and so on in which to present the multifaceted, fractal narrative associations which have accrued to these names. In traveling from the Jerusalem of Judas and his Field of Blood, to the catacombs carved out beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, the sun-drenched apocalyptic isles of Patmos’ Greece, and Thomas’ shrine in sweltering India, the author assembled a brief about the many post-biblical traditions concerning these people. While the literalist may deny the obvious, writing and living religion is very different from composing history. He explains that, “Storytelling has and always will have a corrective power less fragile than that of faith – less fragile because it is not vulnerable to mere fact.” This theme is threaded throughout Apostle; that the ecstatically irrational paradoxical truths of Christianity are greater than empirical data, and that even if the stories are embellished, exaggerated, or even fabricated, that they are still true in the grander sense. He explains, “indeed, most things – could be true and untrue at the same time, that the untrue could abide with the true as the believer abided with the believer.”

It may seem strange to compare a cheerful unbeliever like Bissell to that consummate proponent of orthodoxy C.S. Lewis, and yet both are partisans in embracing the conundrums of Christianity, and both of them spurn the inanities of either religious literalist or dismissive rationalist. The wisdom of Lewis’ trilemma which said that Christ was either liar, lunatic, or Lord, is that it doesn’t reduce the enigmatic and unknowable postulations of Christianity to mere ethics. Bissell is in agreement, understanding better than generations of well-meaning but milquetoast liberal Protestants that, “The moral teachings of a man named Jesus are not, and never have been, the defining component of Christianity.” Any ethical formulation of Christ’s that can be enacted by living men can be found in every major tradition, any ethical formulation of Christ’s which is novel is impossible for living men to implement. Concerning personal allegiances Lewis assents and Bissell declines. But whatever God may be, God is not reducible to mere reason, or even mere truth. God is bigger than “fact,” it is being beyond being. He writes, “What Christianity promises, I do not understand. What its god could possibly want, I have never been able to imagine, not even when I was a Christian.” Fully lived, the religion is beyond understanding, want, and imagination, so that in some ways abandoning Christianity is its own type of Christianity. The author finds this among the churches, basilicas, shrines and mere holes where the Apostles lay, at these “coordinates of cosmic faith” that are “rationality’s cease-fire zones.” That Christianity is a stumbling block to some, and foolishness to others is not to say that the faith is secretly amenable to some cheap rational positivism, it’s to say that the center of Christianity is defined by the glorious paradox of the categories of man and God collapsing into one another. Faith is not reducible to an “Ergo,” but only an “Amen.

And the beautiful, bloody, beating heart of the mystery of Christianity is in that physicality of God, which Bissell traces remnants of from the Mediterranean to Central Asia to India. In incarnating as man, Christ demonstrates not only the mystery of God, but indeed the mystery of us as well. Christ represents the single strangest and most inexplicable reality of what it means to be a human being born into a body that shall live, suffer, and die. The genius of Christianity is that it somehow physicalizes divinity while avoiding idolatry; and the profundity of Christianity is that it locates the sacred, at least in part, in this messy materiality. Bissell, reflecting upon the bloody and tortured reality of the crucifix, asks, “Had any other religion settled upon such a pessimistic, but demonstrably true, organizing symbol…?” There are the illusions of the empty cross and of Sunday, and the profound reality of the crucifix and Friday. What other religion, in its most profound implications, so completely admitted that God has died? But in dying, Christ affirms the profundity of physicality, which again lay at the heart of Christianity’s understanding of the sacred. The mystery of the incarnation demonstrates the mystery of physicality itself, what it means to be a ghost in a machine, the relationship between spirit and matter, the profound unusualness and perplexity of possessing a body, but also the profound beauty and wonder of what it means to have that same body. You cannot hold God’s hand, kiss God’s lips, embrace God, or wipe God’s tears away. The powerful beauty of the Christian message is that you can hold Jesus’s hand, kiss Jesus’s lips, embrace Jesus, and wipe Jesus’s tears away, and that this is somehow still an interaction with God. The full implication is that maybe any interaction with a fellow man or woman can be this interaction with God. For the Apostles, the person they loved may or may not have been God, but he was most definitely a man, and for their love of him we have come to love them, in all of their and God’s human fragility.


Ed Simon Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he researches the religion, literature, and culture of the seventeenth-century. He has been widely published at a variety of sites, and can be followed on twitter @WithEdSimon, or at his website.


Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.

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