I would begin by saying that I like James Carroll. I came to his books through his newspaper editorial pieces which consistently reflect largeness of spirit, intelligence, and political views which are admirably progressive and compassionate.
There is much in Christ Actually that I find interesting and important. In particular, I appreciate Carroll’s acknowledgment of the role that the church has played in obscuring Christianity’s Jewish roots and providing a philosophical foundation for anti-Semitism.
The problem that I have with Christ Actually is this: at the beginning of his chapter about the human quest for meaning, Carroll writes, “I have outgrown my childish faith. About time, for a man my age. I’ve left behind naive assumptions about reality irreparably divided between the material world and a separate spiritual world, the bifurcated realms of nature and grace, this life and afterlife.” So Carroll begins with the assumption that any belief in a spiritual world is childish. But as Carroll surely knows, the materialist view that he espouses here has been rejected on logical and scientific grounds by a rather impressive array of contemporary theologians, philosophers, and scientists. The philosopher and Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart comes to mind as a contemporary thinker who has quite persuasively dismantled the materialist argument.
The words “plausible” and “plausibility” occur with remarkable frequency in Carroll’s book, and he uses the concept in two ways. On the one hand, he uses it to defend highly speculative assumptions about the New Testament narratives. For example, he posits a rivalry between John the Baptist and Jesus for which there is no evidence at all--but which he describes as “plausible”--although many readers will find the account of the relationship described in the gospels as equally plausible.
Carroll also uses the “criterion of plausibility” to discard elements of the New Testament narratives which he finds incompatible with his materialist view. Obviously If one uses “plausibility” as the criterion by which to accept or reject the account of a miraculous event, few will make the cut.
One can certainly empathize with what Carroll refers to as his quest for a “plausible and morally responsible faith.” But one also must ask at some point whether what survives can plausibly be described as faith at all.