Culture > Books

Books: Fictionalizing Jesus

Books | Contemporary writers show devotion to the Christs they've fashioned into their own image

Issue: "Madness in the Methodist," July 25, 1998

It is an odd proof of Christianity that even nonbelievers seem attracted to the person of Jesus. Whereas it is no problem to disagree with the founders of major ideologies or even attack them personally, Jesus is a compelling figure, even to non-Christians. Those nonbelievers, however, try to remake Jesus in their image. Leftists try to turn Jesus into a social revolutionary, New Agers into a mystical visionary, feminists into a proto-feminist. Their attempts to identify themselves with Jesus become little more than exercises in self-justification, self-righteousness, and self-deification. They blithely throw out everything in the New Testament they oppose, including what makes the Jesus of the Gospels most interesting: his divinity, his sacrifice, and his resurrection. Contemporary writers are thus spinning out their own fictional, self-justifying gospels. The play Corpus Christi, which portrays Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals, is attracting the most controversy. But today's literary heavyweights are also turning Jesus into a fictional character. Quarantine by Jim Crace is a well-written book about Jesus' 40-day fast and temptation. It won the 1997 Whitbread Literary Award for fiction and is getting favorable reviews in the mainstream press. But the question remains: Which Jesus is this book about? As the story begins, Musa, a fat, conniving merchant, is dying of fever in his tent pitched high on a cave-riddled plateau in the transJordan. The caravan has left him to die, attended only by his pregnant wife, Miri, whom he has treated like an animal. Soon five pilgrims approach, each to seek a cave for "quarantine" (from the Italian quarantino for "40 days"), a period of fasting and religious contemplation. Each has needs for God to fulfill. Marta, a wealthy Jewish woman, is barren. Aphas is a sick old man. There is a mysterious villager, and also Shim, a blonde half-Gentile seeking enlightenment. They will reside in the caves, fasting only during the day. Last to straggle up the hill comes one named Jesus, thin, nervous, and with a womanish face. While Miri is out thankfully digging a grave for her brutish husband, Jesus enters the tent, helps himself to food and water, and half by accident presses on Musa's chest, releasing the fever. Then he goes to his own tent to attempt a total fast: 40 days without food or water. Jim Crace is a British author with a background in journalism. This is his fifth novel, and it shows the marks of a pro. The characters are fully realized, the descriptions compelling, the scenes well-developed. The story moves at a good pace and builds to a dramatic climax. Mr. Crace skillfully uses the contemporary literary technique of multiple points of view combined with the third-person limited narrative voice. That is, he takes you inside each character by turn, and shows events through the individual character's eyes. Along the way, he weaves in biblical allusions and references to first-century Judean culture. Taken as a self-contained work of literary art, the story is believable. It would seem that Mr. Crace has attempted to create the kind of reality that could have developed into the oral traditions that theologically liberal scholars believe form the basis for the Gospels. Trouble is, the story demonstrates what happens when a secular mind takes up a religious subject: disaster. First, Mr. Crace should have done his homework. It is clear from Scripture and from current studies that a man can in fact fast for 40 days by abstaining from food but not water. It says of Jesus in the wilderness, "Afterwards he hungered." When he is thirsty, the text says so, as at his crucifixion. After three days without water, you die. So to have Jesus go on an extended fast without water is completely untenable. Second, and more important, the Jesus described here is a mentally unbalanced religious fanatic who throws away his clothes during his fast. There is nothing of the just-baptized savior being led by the Holy Spirit. Third, this Jesus is not tempted directly by Satan, but by his fellow-pilgrims who at one point offer him food and water. Fourth, on the 31st day of his total fast, he dies. Then he is buried. And that's the end of him. So who is this Jesus? Not the one I know. No matter. Jesus isn't the central character anyway. Musa is. After his recovery he bilks the pilgrims by selling them food and water, snows them with made-up stories about this miraculous Galilean who healed him, continues to abuse his wife, and, to top it off, graphically rapes poor Marta. As the story ends, Miri and Marta escape together. Musa reinvents himself as a huckster of religion, getting rich not from selling shoddy merchandise but from telling fanciful stories of a healer who died and rose again. So a novel set in the first century makes a 20th-century point: Women are good, men are bad, and the gospel is a sham. Something similar happens with Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son. Norman Mailer's writing a life of Christ is like Jerry Falwell's writing a biography of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. It can be done, but there's no true empathy for the subject. Mr. Mailer, who has been a famous novelist since he was 25 and is now 75, takes on the ultimate challenge for a writer in this, his 30th book. He writes in the first-person point of view, so the reader is given a story in which Jesus himself narrates: "In those days, I was the one who came down from Nazareth." Right away, Mr. Mailer's Jesus sets himself up in opposition to the Gospels: "While I would not say that Mark's gospel is false, it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered." So, away with the canonical Four Gospels-here is the real story. Surely that Amen we just heard came from the Jesus Seminar. Yet half of this novel, like the Book of Mormon, is lifted directly from Scripture- and in King James English to boot: Judas takes "a sop." To his credit, Mr. Mailer does have his Jesus rise from the dead. But he shifts to the third person and merely relates the Gospel accounts he has already dismissed, giving no imaginative first-person narration of what it might have been like to rise from the dead. Mr. Mailer's Jesus is supposed to be the Son of God, but he is too human to be a believable savior. What he is, is a schizophrenic, or so it would seem, a man becoming a god. After his baptism by John the Baptist, he says, "Now I knew the other man who had lived within the shell of myself, and he was better than me. I had become that man." Something like someone becoming Napoleon. Add in a big dose of blasphemy: After his temptation, Jesus says, "I could now employ Satan's manner of speaking." This Jesus includes homosexuals among his disciples in Jerusalem, apparently the San Francisco of Judea: "I felt affection for my new followers, they were gentle in spirit." But this Jesus never calls these sinners to repentance. Come to think of it, a Jesus like this would make a good liberal clergyperson, maybe even an Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J. Why, then, did Mr. Mailer write this book? The conceptual center, if there is one, is Jesus' conversation with Judas. Judas surely speaks for Mr. Mailer when he says, "The truth, dear Yeshua, is that I do not believe you will ever bring us all to salvation. Yet in the course of saying all that you say, the poor will take courage to feel more equal to the rich." So Judas and Jesus and Norman Mailer all rise in a mighty chorus to indict the rich. Even the Devil says Amen as he says to Jesus, "The rich will possess you as well. They will put your image on every wall. The alms raised in your name will swell the treasure of mighty churches." No mention, of course, of all that the church has done for the poor down through the ages. And no mention of the size of Mr. Mailer's advance. Both novelists attempt to separate Christ (whom they like) from Christianity (which they don't). The only way they can do this is to take the Bible as a novel (a form, C. S. Lewis reminds us, that would not be invented for 17 more centuries). Jesus, however, is not a fictional character.

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