At the Sunday morning session of the October general conference Elder Jeffrey R. Holland related the episode in the New Testament where the risen Christ appears to the Apostles and instructs Peter to feed his sheep . As he did so, Elder Holland modernized the scriptural language and provided context and interpolation that brought a fresh experience and added meaning to that episode of scripture. It was a powerful talk. And it put me in mind of James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus, in which he applies a similar approach to the whole of the Gospels.
But it’s not just the plain yet lyrical and evocative language that James brings to this novelization of Christ’s life that makes it such a success. It’s not just a translation compiled into a coherent narrative (although that aspect in and of itself is of value). Rather, it is an exploration of social movements and relationship dynamics and Jesus guides both of those into a situation where his teachings and ministry forge a small community that can survive his death, believe his resurrection and establish His Church.
A novel like that requires careful balance: too little context and it risks being insubstantional; too much and it’s plodding historical fiction; too much characterization (by examing the feelings and motivations of those in Jesus’s circle) and it bogs down; too little and we’re left wondering why his apostles and family members react the way that they do.
James gets the balance right.
In particular, he plants the narrative within a strong sense of place and of the physical needs of life on the road (which is, of course, what most of Christ’s ministry is — itinerant, local). Food is a concern. Communication requires travel. And, especially as Jesus becomes more of a phenomenon, care must be taken to not disrupt the Roman or Jewish authorities too much — not until it is time — and to not overwhelm cities and villages (and Jesus himself) with mobs of followers/lookers-on. Thus all the parables, all the teachings, all the miracles happen in a conversational context and in communities. And James assembles them in such a way that we see how Christ very much responds to particular situations and people, modifying his availability, his words, his actions as the situation requires. What may seem capricious or fragmentary in the Gospels is here made coherent. And all of it, of course, leading up to his death (and resurrection). A death we know to be inevitable, but that comes as a surprise to most of his disciples.
Of course, this coherence is not fully historical or historicized (although it’s clear that James had done a fair amount of research into Biblical scholarship). And it’s all the better for it. It’s a story. A re-telling. And excellent one at that.
Notice that I have not yet said anything so far that paints the work as specifically Mormon. That’s because the novel doesn’t require a knowledge of LDS theology to be understood and enjoyed. However, there are a few resonances that come through. And I would suggest that the matter-of-factness in which the sacred and the banal* are presented and mingled (while still in tension) can be ascribed in part to James’ Mormon-ness.
I have not spoken in detail yet. That’s because a) most of you already know the source material and b) I don’t want to spoil the reading experience for you.
But let me call out just a few things:
- I better understand Jesus’s relationship with his mother and brothers because of this novel.
- Judas’s betrayal is handled in a very interesting way.
- I love how John the Baptist is a presence throughout the story. He very much comes across as an Elias.
- Part of me wish James had pushed things further with Christ’s relationship with Mary Magdalene; part of me thinks he handled it just right
- I would have been tempted to add in or play up. What makes the novel work is James’s restraint. It’s a restraint that creates forward momentum and tension rather than frustration or blandness.
*The sacred and the banal are one of Terryl Given’s four paradoxes of Mormon culture described in his book People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture.
Note: this post is based on an electronic copy of the book provided by the author. And, in case you didn’t already know — James has published my work. I have blurbed and reviewed his work. We correspond by email sometimes, etc.