When Jesus is the hero

"When Jesus is the hero" Continued...

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

1. Why not consider the "lost gospels" from other points of view? Why not consider how Mary Magdalene or Judas Iscariot saw Jesus? Taylor Caldwell, in I, Judas, saw this tragic disciple as a zealot who was too arrogant to allow Jesus to follow His own path to the Kingdom of Heaven, demanding an overthrow of Rome, here and now. James Carse, in The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, let a Samaritan woman tell the story. Steven Fortney, an American Buddhist under the influence of the Jesus Seminar, in The Thomas Jesus tells the story from Thomas' point of view, presenting Jesus as overtly homosexual. Michael Faber, in The Fire Gospel, tells the story of discovering the gospel of Malchus, the soldier whose ear, according to John, was severed by Peter. Faber turns the story into a postmodern adventure regarding the nature of the discovery and the authentication of the manuscript, not to mention the copyright issues with such a remarkable discovery, and the fury that results from the ultimate publication-focusing on the document rather than the subject matter.

2. Why not fill in the blanks left by the four Gospels? Surely a creative writer can picture the Christ child coming to an understanding of His godliness, or facing His interest in sexuality. Why restrict art to the words of Scripture? Among the most audacious of these alternate gospels is the one written by Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), which purports to be the account written by Jesus Himself. It begins by giving some credit to Mark, though insisting his Gospel is exaggerated, and reveals that Matthew, Luke, and John gave Jesus words He never uttered, describing Him as "gentle" when He was pale with rage. This brief retelling of essential parts of the Gospel stories offers a puzzled Jesus, who is not at all sure of the nature of His ministry or even whether He is the Son of God. The book sounds like the outgrowth of reading the findings of the Jesus Seminar rather than the Bible.

3. Why not look for an explanation in history, tying Jesus' hopes and expectations to the contemporary passion for a Messiah? Or even better, why not look at other "myths" popular at the time, thereby explaining Jesus as a type of hero-like Moses or Hercules? The myth of the dying god can surely explain the contemporary interest in the crucifixion. Robert Graves' King Jesus narrates the life of Jesus some 50 years after the crucifixion from the point of view of a Greek historian named Agabus the Decapolitan. Agabus, a mouthpiece for Graves, a scholar of mythology, launches into very peculiar by-paths regarding the influence of the Great Goddess. D.H. Lawrence, another writer in love with exotic mythology, limited the story of Jesus (in The Man Who Died) to a post-crucifixion scene, in which Jesus reconsiders His mission on Earth and has an affair with a priestess of Isis.

4. In fact, why assume that the Gospels are factual? They are filled with angelic appearances, miracles, stories of the virgin birth, healings, and resurrections from the dead. Can't these be explained by psychology or some other natural means? Once the writer rejects the doctrine of divine inspiration of God's Word, he often respects no limits, feeling free to re-imagine the ancient story. Jim Crace, in Quarantine, thinks that Jesus cannot have survived the 40-day trial in the wilderness and must have gone mad-though He may have been resurrected.

Not every novelist is a postmodernist. Moderns often retell the Bible stories with great fidelity and reverence. Mary Ellen Ashcroft tells the story from the woman's point of view in The Magdalene Gospel, and Marjorie Holmes produced a trilogy in the manner of Frank Slaughter's The Crown and the Cross. Perhaps the best known of these New Testament stories in modern English is Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told, a reconciliation of chronological issues in the Gospels that avoids individual interpretation.

The writer who insists on introducing Jesus as a character in a work of fiction has a daunting challenge. A mere paraphrase of Scripture leaves the reader wondering, Why bother? But the writer too delighted with creative possibilities and unencumbered by faith in God's Word will allow art to triumph over truth, offending believers by ignoring the details of Scripture.

This is sacred material and must be approached with fear and trembling. Our discovery of truth may be enhanced by the creative imagination, but the Christian reader must be aware above all of who Christ is and how we know. The writer of biblical fiction can hardly expect us to "suspend our disbelief" and enter into the spirit of the story when that spirit violates our faith. The novelist may help the reader to see the truth "slant" and therefore enliven it, or discover a deeper meaning based on individual experience. But the Christian reader knows that truth is not changing. This truth is beauty-without any need for twisting or embroidering.


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