What follows is from Giovanni Papini’s introduction to his Life of Christ. Published in 1921, you would think that these words were written just yesterday. John C.H. Wu tipped me off to this book and I found a used copy of it on Alibris.
It’s 408 pages long and is filled with great passages. Written in his native Italian, it was translated in 1923 by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Papini had been an ardent atheist, anarchist and was one of the literary giants of Italy.
Have a blast reading this article about him in Time magazine, from March 31, 1923. Was anything “lost in translation?” Nothing whatsoever. Have a look at sections one and two and see for yourself,
from the Introduction of Life of Christ by Giovanni Papini.
For five hundred years those who call themselves free spirits, because they prefer prison life to army service, have been trying desperately to kill Jesus a second time—to kill him in the hearts of men.
The army of His enemies assembled to bury Him as soon as they thought they heard the death-rattle of Christ’s second death. Presumptuous donkeys mistaking libraries for their stables, top-heavy brains pretending to explore the highest heavens in philosophy’s drifting balloon, professors poisoned by the fatal strong drink of philology and metaphysics, armed themselves.
Paraphrasing the rallying cry of Peter the Hermit to the crusaders, they shouted “Man wills it!” as they set out on their crusade against the Cross. Certain of them drew on their boundless imaginations to evolve what they considered proof positive of a fantastic theory that the story of the gospel is no more than a legend from which we reconstruct the natural life of Jesus as a man, one-third prophet, one-third necromancer, one-third demagogue, a man who wrought no miracles except the hypnotic cure of some obsessed devotees, who did not die on the cross, but came to Himself in the chill of the sepulcher and reappeared with mysterious airs to delude men into believing that He had risen from the dead.
Others demonstrated as certainly as two and two make four that Jesus was a myth developed in the time of Augustus and of Tiberius, and that all the Gospels can be reduced to a clumsy mosaic of prophetic texts. Others conceived of Jesus as a good, well-meaning man, but too high-flown and fantastic, who went to school to the Greeks, the Buddhists, and the Essenes and patched together His plagiarisms as best He could to support His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.
Others make Him out to be an unbalanced humanitarian, precursor of Rousseau and of divine democracy; an excellent man for his time, but who today would be put under the care of an alienist. Others, to get rid of the subject (once for all), took up the idea of the myth again, and by dint of puzzlings and comparisons concluded that Jesus never was born anywhere in any spot on the globe.
But who could have taken the place of the man they were trying to dispose of? The grave they dug was deeper every day, and still they could not bury Him from sight.
Then began the manufacture of religions for the irreligious. During the whole of the 19th century, they were turned out in couples and half-dozens at a time: the religion of Truth, of the Spirit, of the Proletariat, of the Hero, of Humanity, of Nationalism, of Imperialism, of Reason, of Beauty, of Peace, of Sorrow, of Pity, of the Ego, of the Future, and so on.
Some were only new arrangements of Christianity, uncrowned, spineless Christianity, Christianity without God. Most of them were political, or philosophic, trying to make themselves out as mystics. But faithful followers of these religions were few and their ardor faint. Such frozen abstractions, although sometimes helped along by social interest or literary passions, did not fill the heart which had renounced Jesus.
Then attempts were made to throw together facsimiles of religion which would make a better job of offering what men looked for in religion. Free-Masons, Spiritualists, Theosophists, Occultists, Scientists, all professed to have found the infallible substitute for Christianity.
But such mixtures of moldy superstition and worm-eaten necromancy, such a hash of musty rationalism and science gone bad, of simian symbolism and humanitarianism turned sour, such unskillful rearrangements of Buddhism, manufactured-for-export, and of betrayed Christianity, contented some thousands of leisure-class women, of condensers of the void…and went no further.
In the meantime, partly in a German parsonage and partly in a professor’s chair in Switzerland, the last Anti-Christ was making ready. “Jesus,” he said, coming down form the alps in the sunshine, “Jesus mortified mankind; sin is beautiful, violence is beautiful. Everything that says ‘yes’ to Life is beautiful.” And Zarathustra, after having thrown into the Mediterranean the Greek texts of Leipzig and the works of Machiavelli, began to gambol at the feet of the statue of Dionysius with the grace that might be expected of a German, born of a Lutheran minister, who had just stepped down from a chair in a Swiss university.
But, although his songs were sweet to the ear, he never succeeded in explaining exactly what he meant when he spoke of this adorable “Life” to which men should sacrifice such a living part of themselves as their need to repress their own animal instincts. Nor could he ever say in what way Christ, the true Christ of the Gospels, opposed Himself to life, He who wanted to make life higher and happy. And the poor syphilitic Anti-Christ, when insanity was close upon him, signed his last letter, “The Crucified One.”
And still Christ is not yet expelled from the earth, either by the ravages of time or by the efforts of men. His memory is everywhere: on the walls of churches and the schools, on the tops of bell-towers and of mountains, in street-shrines, at the heads of beds and over tombs, thousands of crosses bring to mind the death of the Crucified One.
Take away the frescoes from the churches, carry off the pictures from the altars and from the houses, and the life of Christ fills museums and picture galleries. Throw away breviaries and missals, and you find His name and His words in all the books of literature. Even oaths are an involuntary remembrance of His presence.
When all is said and done, Christ is an end and a beginning, an abyss of divine mystery between two divisions of human history. Paganism and Christianity can never be welded together. We can seek out what comes before Christ, we can acquire information about it, but it is no longer ours, it is signed with other signs, limited by other systems, no longer moves our passions. It may be beautiful, but it is dead.
Caesar was more talked about in his time than Jesus, and Plato taught more science than Christ. People still discuss the Roman ruler and the Greek philosopher, but who nowadays is hotly for Caesar or against him? And where are the Platonists and the anti-Platonists?
Christ, on the contrary, is still living among us. There are still people who love Him and who hate Him. There is a passion for the love of Christ and a passion for His destruction. The fury of so many against Him is a proof that He is not dead. The very people who devote themselves to denying His ideas and His existence pass their lives in bringing His name to memory.
This is a great book folks. Too bad it isn’t available on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. Put you local librarian to work though. Find this book!
Update: Papini writing on the Road to Emmaus and After.