I’m not going to make any notable efforts to prevent “spoilers” in this review. For a few reasons. First, if you haven’t read the book yet, no one’s making you read this review. Besides—I’m pretty sure you already know the gist of this story. So any spoilers have little to do with what and much to do with how.
2. Uncorrelating the Savior
To start with, he’s generally called Jesus in this novel. Compare that to these instructions from the General Handbook of Instructions:
If the Savior is portrayed, it must be done with the utmost reverence and dignity. Only brethren of wholesome personal character should be considered for the part. The person who portrays the Savior should not sing or dance. When speaking, he should use only direct quotations of scriptures spoken by the Savior.
I’ve thought a great deal about that final sentence over the years. In fact, I’ve been aware of it long enough that when The Testaments was new, I was scandalized by the final word in the movie, even as I was weeping. After all. “The Savior” never said “Helam” in scripture.
3. Jesus looks like a bro
Speaking of The Testaments, maybe the thing that bugged me the most about the movie was that Jesus is this strapping Danish dude with sweet hair. I’ll be the first to admit we don’t know what the historical Jesus looked like, but Tomas Kofod seems like a stretch.
It’s nice to have a Jewish Jesus. But more on that in a minute.
Let’s get back to names. Goldberg’s book is about Jesus—not the Savior, not Him—Jesus. In part of course, because he isn’t the Savior. Not yet. He is a man. Becoming the Savior. Consider this exchange:
“I want you to baptize me,” says Jesus to John.
“So soon? I’m not ready,” says John.
“But it’s time now. I’m sure of it,” says Jesus.
John looks at him. The long, deep look John is known for.
“Are you him? Are you the one?” says John.
“I think so,” says Jesus, and they’re quiet for a while. (8-9)
Jesus is a man. Correlated works sing the song of the Savior. The Five Books of Jesus chronicles a man’s path to saviorhood.
But Jesus and John are not the only characters with names. The final character introduced is Luke—and for a while I thought Goldberg would not be giving us Luke’s name. And then he casually dropped it in, no big deal. This is Luke. He is named. He is not a mystery. You know this guy.
Each of the apostles carries a name. And although there are too many of them to easily keep track of, each has moments in which he is the one speaking to or of Jesus. And the narrator observes that several of the apostles share names with Jesus’s mortal brothers, and invites us to find meaning therein.
A few people—characters who choose to act as villains such as the high priest and the governor—people who do not attempt to get to know Jesus—are never given names in the text. They are lost, lost.
The power of names mattereth much, whether it is the name of the little man who spun your straw into gold or the fluidity of God’s own name or the new names we are given in the temple, knowing names matters. In this novel, we read Jesus’s name over and over and over again. We become intimate with it.
The only name left to introduce into the tale, dear reader, is your own.
5. Is Jesus messing with me?
Correlation is not just a Mormon phenomenon. The New Testament got whittled into its final form ages ago and we’ve all had plenty of time to decide what the Prodigal Son is really about or to note our obvious superiority over the priest and Levite of the Good Samaritan. But Jesus doesn’t want you comfortable with his teachings. He doesn’t want us to shrug off a story with a Yeah, I got that, Jesus.
I had the chance recently to bump into a challenging uncorrelated Jesus and that experience fit in nicely with my concurrent reading of The Five Books. Watching Goldberg’s Jesus work with words before an audience that had never heard these stories before—and watching them struggle with the challenge—gave me the opportunity to reinvent my own understanding of old tales.
Which Goldberg helps along by reinventing the stories. Not altering them beyond recognition or worth, but re-inventing them. Allowing us readers to feel our way through stories we cockily thought we knew. Because now they are again new.
6. Recorrelating humor
The Church has a manual designed to help the membership become better teachers. Of course, one of its theses is that we are called to teach as Jesus would teach. From the manual, quoting Bruce R. McConkie:
In all our teaching we represent the Lord and are appointed to teach His gospel. We are the Lord’s agents, and as such we are empowered to say only those things which He wants said. (8)
The Lord, we are told, was the master teacher. We, as teachers—and we are all teachers—are to follow his example. Yet it’s a bit difficult to imagine a properly correlated image of Jesus following this advice (skip to #7 for a caveat):
Use light humor. With a lighthearted touch, you may be able to turn the person back to the lesson. (85)
The correlated Jesus smiles, but is a pretty serious guy. Yet Jesus told jokes! I remember in high school discovering Jesus waxing sarcastic and being so delighted I had to share it with everyone. Jesus is funny! No one ever told me! A bit of humor can pull in the resistant or tired or distracted or teenaged listener.
When his listeners seem to be getting tired, Jesus tells funny stories: everybody laughs at the way he staggers around as if he had a giant plank sticking out of his eye while he pretends to pluck out a grain of sand that’s gotten in Nathanael’s. (117-118)
7. We need not be correlated just because we must be correlated
I’ll be quick to agree with anyone who argues that many of my complaints about the correlated Jesus are becoming less reasonable regarding more recent Church-produced presentations. But Goldberg’s novel is proof that we do not need to constrain ourselves with the same constraints “the Church” is constrained by. We can, as it were, be in the Church without being of the Church while creating art. So much of non-correlated Mormon art strains to pass as correlated art. And to what end?
We’re no longer in an era where the people in the mountains will try to contain us. We live in a golden era where Salt Lake City trusts the members of the Church. Although the mormon.org profiles are policed somewhat, some pretty surprising stuff still passes through.
But we certainly don’t have to be correlated in our personal projects. If it’s not on the cultural-hall stage, we don’t need to correlate ourselves. We can present a Jesus who staggers around like a clown. We can present disciples who get a bit tipsy at Passover and slumber through Gethsemane. We can take chances and try to tell the truth without stressing over whether our Jesus speaks in KJV shibboleths.
8. Let’s get literary
As Goldberg has recently written, his is a literary novel. Which I choose to interpret to mean language per se is important to the telling. And language certainly is important in The Five Books of Jesus. As the cover suggests, we are carried along in a river of language. And the language is as important as the disciples’ reactions in solving the beautiful-girl problem.
The Beautiful-Girl Problem: Your story requires that the audience believe a character is the most beautiful girl in the world. No description can quite live up to that billing though. And if this is a movie, the problem is even greater. The only possible solution is to have the other characters treat her as if she is the most beautiful girl in the world. If their wonder is honest, the audience will follow along.
Jesus is the most beautiful girl in the world. Wherever he goes, people flock. People love. People hate. But how do you make that believable?
Goldberg does have one advantage in that his character is Jesus and we’re already predisposed to accept his magnetism. But the other character’s attachment to him must be believable. And the river of language must never get stuck in the shallows but continue to carry us along.
9. The present tense / our tension with the past
The present tense, as we all well know, is intended to “enhance the immediacy” of a work. A sensible choice, then, for The Five Books, as it’s goal seems to be re-invention—raising this Jesus up and allowing us to witness him anew, for ourselves.
The narrator says as much in the final two pages of the book. After meeting Luke as he researches the life of Jesus for his own work, the narrator abandons individual past moments and becomes timeless, watching as the story spreads “from land to land, language to language, generation to generation” (316). The narrator notes that some changes from fact are still true—even though Jesus was born in the spring, how can it be wrong for it to be “the darkest time of year when the people of the north celebrate the coming of the Light” (316)?
And then the narrator challenges the correlated understanding of historicity entirely:
The stories don’t mind shifting a little to fill the shapes of their listeners’ deepest needs.
And I believe they’re all true. . . .
And he [Jesus] shows you how to take the stories in your hand, and tear the pride of this world apart.
After all, isn’t historical accuracy a form of worldly pride? We accept the scriptures on faith but, as Mormons, we accept knowledge from all quarters. And sometimes that knowledge can muddy the simple teachings of Sunday School.
Sometimes, when we learn that the correlated lessons are incomplete, we fall away.
Sometimes, when we learn that the correlated lessons are incomplete, we retrench and ignore the world and what it has to offer.
The Five Books of Jesus suggests another path. One in which we determine truth not by correlation or historical evidence, but by its Truth. By divine witness.
Which requires taking a terrible risk—may, in fact, require leaving everything behind—and following Jesus.
10. He that speaks of himself
The verse following the one I just paraphrased:
He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.
This, I think, is the great fear in taking on an uncorrelated, for-profit Jesus project. No one fears appearing priestcrafty more than a Mormon.
I have no intention of judging the heart of the author. Nor, indeed, am I sufficiently confident to judge the work’s general worth.
But I am confident in judging my own response to it. And, to me, it seeks the glory of another. At least, having finished the novel, I want to find he that is lost.
11. Jesus is lost?
I’m afraid so. We barely see him after he is taken by the Romans. And then it’s often just his screams of pain or stumbling in the street.
And we never see him resurrected.
Perhaps because the resurrected Jesus is the “real” Jesus—that is the Jesus you must meet for yourself.
12. Forgotten blood
The narrator flits throughout the text like a holy Vonnegut, dipping into whomever’s mind (though not Jesus’s) and offering liberal commentary throughout.
One thing this narrator is always aware of is other’s suffering. The novel solves the Judas problem by making him desperate for salvation from his suffering. The novel allows certain characters to see what Jesus sees—the pain and the suffering and the sins and the blood hidden behind friendly blackmarket smiles selling you ill-gotten goods.
The God celebrated in this novel is aware of all creatures’ pain, no matter how small.
Jesus shouts a warning to the dove-sellers and then throws open cage after cage. First dozens, then hundreds, of birds fly out into the sudden freedom and circle above the Temple for the whole city to see.
God watches one of them as it falls back to the ground. (225-226)
Then, as Jesus prays before he is taken, the weight of the world presses him like an olive under a millstone and his blood is pressed out to pay for all the innocent blood that has been mixed with dust and forgotten by the world.
It is spring.
But the whole world feels dead.
It is spring.
But there is nothing to hope for anymore. Ever.
In what strange way has this spring come? (293)
With Jesus dead, the disciples are lost, perplexed, confused. How could they be so ignorant? we ask from our safely correlated perch 2000 years in the future. Weren’t they paying attention?
But: don’t we know that “it’s often easier to accept the miracle you only hear about than the one you actually see” (256)? And don’t we know that accepting a heard-of miracle is easier than wrestling with an experienced miracle? Don’t we see that hope cannot be resurrected unless it first dies?
Mary of Magdala realizes Jesus knew he was going to die, and that he gave her a task to accomplish when he had gone. And by hearkening to that wish, she becomes the first to meet him.
Not that we witness that meeting. We only have her word for it.
The Five Books of Jesus will show us angels and miracles, but that alone does not make us equals with the novel’s heroes. It ends instead with a call to action—a call to engage with the stories as they did and thus, I presume, to know what they knew. We only see Jesus from his baptism to his death. What came before, what came after—those are other seasons.
14. A time, a season, a place, a people
The Jesus of The Five Books of Jesus is a Jew. A Jew in a conquered Jewish nation, but exquisitely purely absolutely a Jew.
I’m not well prepared to judge this Jesus’s Jewishness, but I will say the weird path of reading I took before getting to this book (an extremely long chapter of Jewish jokes from Asimov and this book) prepared me to think about Jesus as not just someone who should look like “a Jew” but as someone who should be a Jew—whose relationship with the Word should be Jewish, whose relationship with family should be Jewish, whose social interactions should be Jewish.
Again, I can’t authoritatively judge Goldberg’s success here, but, in particular, his Jesus’s relationship with scripture seemed not only accurate to my understanding of the Jewish mind, but useful to me as reader—a foreigner in this land.
Because ultimately Jesus came to introduce himself to his own people. And that is what this novel is about. Jesus in Judea.
And you know what? That story won’t mind if we shift it around a little to fill the shape of our own deepest needs.