Whoever and Whatever They Needed to Be, at Any and Every Point in Time – A Review of Apostle by Tom Bissell

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Anyone who has been to the Philippines and lived here for more than a year knows that an enormous majority of the schools are run by Catholic, Catholic-affiliated, or Christian institutions. I myself studied at Catholic schools my entire life – yes, even when I went to university. As a result, I am entirely familiar with the notion of catechism, or, as we called it in grade school and high school, “Religion” classes. In these classes we were taught such things as scripture, doctrine, dogma -everything the school deemed necessary for us to know in order to become good Catholics. By the time I graduated high school, my head was filled with a whole host of facts, figures, and ideas about the Catholic Church that I rather quickly forgot unless it had been insistently drummed into my head by constant repetition. This means that if someone asked me to list all of the Twelve Apostles I would probably only be able to name the most famous of them – but I can go through the motions of the average Catholic Mass (my cousin calls it “doing Catholic aerobics”) without thinking too hard.

However, despite my rather complicated relationship with organised religion in general and Catholicism in particular, I still find myself drawn to the stories told about and within it – in particular, its history. And there is plenty to be interested in – not least the many conflicts and questions that have shaped Christianity into the form (or, more accurately, forms) we recognise today. When I read Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, I did so in an attempt to understand the figure at the heart of Christianity. It made sense, therefore, to read Tom Bissell’s Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve, in order to understand the disciples who followed Jesus and who, for better or worse, laid down the groundwork for turning Christianity into the globe-spanning faith it is today.

Apostle begins with an Author’s Note, featuring an interesting epigraph:

My religion makes no sense
and does not help me
therefore I pursue it.

Anne Carson, “My Religion”

The epigraph tells the reader all he or she needs to know about why Bissell chose to write a book on the apostles, though he clarifies it further in the Author’s Note itself:

Even after I lost my religious faith, Christianity remained to me deeply and resonantly interesting, and I have long believed that anyone who does not find Christianity interesting has only his or her unfamiliarity with the topic to blame. I think, in some ways, I wrote this book to put that belief to the test.

The notion that Bissell wrote the book “to put [his] belief to the test” is one that resonates with my own relationship with Christianity. While I no longer subscribe to (indeed, am wary of) organised religion, I am still deeply curious about its history and structure and how the most popular forms have managed to survive to this day. My interest in Christianity specifically is only natural given my own personal background – and again, similar to Bissell’s, since it was his own history in the faith that drove him to write Apostle in the first place.

Aside from explaining the raison d’être behind the book’s existence, the Author’s Notes also explains Bissell’s approach to his subject:

From 2007 to 2010, I traveled to the supposed tombs and resting places of the Twelve Apostles. … This book has no interest in determining which sites have the greatest claim to a given apostle’s remains. It is instead an effort to explore the legendary encrustation upon twelve lives about which little is known and even less can be historically verified.

… Indeed, since the very beginning of Christian history, the Twelve Apostles have wandered a strange gloaming between history and belief.

These statements, and many others throughout the book, are sure to set off alarm bells in the heads of more devout readers, but that, I suppose, is why Bissell does the reader the courtesy of writing an Author’s Note in the first place. If the reader is looking for information that will conform to Christian doctrine, then he or she will be sorely disappointed, perhaps even angered, by its content. Take this excerpt, for example, which deals with the question of Jesus’s relatives – or seeming lack thereof – in Christian discourse:

Why there is not more information about the influence of the relatives of Jesus has been said by some to be the greatest riddle of early Christianity. Yet Christians failed to preserve and in many cases destroyed the works of countless early Christian writers, including that of Papias, Irenaeus, Origen, and Hegesippus. The likely Gentile Christian response to work that emphasized the enduring influence of Jesus’s family’s descendants is not terribly difficult to imagine. Recognizing Jesus’s family endangered the doctrine of the virgin birth, placed the exceptionality of Jesus himself at risk, and unhappily reminded Gentile Christians that at the beginning there was only Jewish Christianity.

Having asked similar questions to the one posed in the above excerpt, and having encountered people who are not comfortable answering them, I can see how it may difficult for someone who is not very open-minded to wrap their mind around what the excerpt – and Bissell’s book as a whole – is trying to say. If some of the reviews I have seen are any indication, I think it is quite safe to say that Bissell as lit more than a few fires in his wake.

But I think it is also clear that Bissell did not write this book for the narrow-minded set. Apostle is a book for those who, like Bissell, are practitioners of “the boldly searching Christianity [he] has always been drawn to.” This is a book for people – believers or otherwise – who like asking questions, and like finding answers to those questions. It is for readers who are driven to address their faith, not with blind belief, but with the desire to “comprehend the comprehender”, to paraphrase Augustine. It is also for readers like myself, who no longer subscribe to Christianity but are driven by curiosity to understand it anyway.

For such readers, Bissell’s book is easy to enjoy without the guilty squirming someone with a less open mind might feel. His language is easy to understand and get into – especially when he leavens the more serious historical analysis with snarky comments, both in the main text and in the footnotes. The following is one of my favourites, and is related to Bissell’s observations regarding medieval European cathedrals and basilicas:

The peasants who lived in the shadows of these costly, otherworldly churches must have accepted all this as reasonable, just as we somehow accept that earning tens of millions of dollars for pretending to be Iron Man is reasonable.

While the above excerpt does say something interesting about the medieval peasantry’s attitude towards the great cathedrals built in their communities, I think it says a lot more about Bissell’s scorn for Hollywood blockbusters than anything else – something the reader may find humorous, or irritating, depending on his or her preferences.

Aside from the snark, Bissell also tells anecdotes from his travels while researching the book. There are quite a few amusing moments, but he tells one story, in particular, that I find remarkably touching:

“I love Americans,” she said. “Do you want to know why?”

I did, if only because the number of times a Muslim had asked me if I wanted to know why she loved Americans had just increased by 100 percent.

“Because Americans can be many things, many ethnicities, and many religions, just like the Kyrgyz people. Because Americans, like Kyrgyz, are free people.” Then she took my hand. “You are looking for Matthew?”

“Yes,” I said. “I am. Or I was.”

“May God let you find him,” she said. I tried to retrieve my hand, but she was not yet done: her fingers warmly tightened. “May God straighten your road. May God put the wind at your back. May God allow the rain to come down softly. And may God bring us together again.”

The above scene takes place in a wooden Russian Orthodox church in Kyrgyzstan, and aside from Bissell and the Muslim woman, there is also a Russian Orthodox priest present – a friend of the Muslim woman’s, with whom she trades poetry. This story is a reminder to the reader (as it must have been to Bissell, I imagine) that religion is not such a hard-and-fast thing as it is so often made out to be, that it is possible for all people, regardless of their religion or even lack thereof, to live alongside each other in peace, if only we are more understanding, more openminded, more willing to see the similarities instead of the differences.

Still, despite Bissell’s language, travel anecdotes, and snarky comments, this is not an easy book to read. Bissell has structured the book in such a way that each chapter is a self-contained essay on its chosen subject, but within each chapter the narrative organisation is not as clear or cohesive as the reader might want it to be. There is a tendency to meander between travelogue and historical analysis, with a pace that varied wildly from relatively snappy to absolutely plodding. I also have an issue with the last chapter, which has an ending that feels like Bissell just throwing in the towel on the whole book. I do not expect any sort of triumphant ending, because this is not a book that requires one, but I do wish that Bissell had chosen to conclude his book in a manner that is more satisfactory than one that seems to say: “Well, that’s it, that’s all folks!”

Overall, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve can be an enjoyable book, in its own way, but it is also quite a challenging book, especially if the reader is a devout Christian not ready to confront certain ideas about his or her religion. However, for readers who are ready to ask such questions, or for readers who are not religious but still curious about how Christianity came to be, then this is a book will prove remarkably informative and may possibly open up other lines of inquiry in the future. As long as the reader is also willing to put up with Bissell’s sense of humour and the vagaries of his narrative organisation, then he or she should have fairly minimal problems with this book.

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