Uncategorized | November 15, 2005

With the holiday season bearing down upon us, it seems appropriate to note the arrival of two new novels about the life of Jesus from a pair of prominent American authors—Anne Rice and Walter Wangerin Jr.While the life of Jesus as a subject for Wangerin, a Lutheran pastor and author of the National Book Award-winning Book of the Dun Cow, should not come as a surprise—Wangerin has already written a pair of Bible-based novels (Paul: A Novel and The Book of God: the Bible as a Novel)—Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt represents, at least on the surface, a surprising departure from the vampires and other-worldly creatures that have made her a best-selling author.

Told from the perspective of Jesus, the Rice’s novel traces the return of Jesus and his family from Egypt to Nazareth when he is seven years old. The novel is intended to be the first in a series of novels tracing the life of Jesus. In interviews, Rice has explained her decision in the context of her own spiritual transformation, a return to the Catholicism of her youth. While she recognizes that some of her fans may be disappointed, Rice states that she “wanted only to write for Jesus Christ.”

Of course, Rice and Wangerin are only the latest authors who have attempted to write novels that imagine the life of Jesus. And it hasn’t been only the faithful who have attempted to tell the old, old story in the form of a novel. The interpretations offered are often not the sort one would encounter in a Sunday school class, sometimes curious mixtures of scholarship, personal vision, and theology–orthodox and otherwise.

Among the first successful attempts to blend the biblical story of Jesus with the narrative elements of the novel came from Unitarian minister William Ware, whose Julian: Or, Scenes in Judea (1841), according to Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, “developed the basic outline of many Jesus novels to come.” Ware focused his story not upon Jesus himself, but upon those around him, thereby telling the story of Jesus indirectly. The Prince of the House of David (1855), by Joseph Holt Ingraham, an Episcopalian minister; Ben-Hur, a Tale of the Christ (1880), by Civil War general Lew Wallace; and The Robe (1942), by Lloyd C. Douglas, all followed this pattern and all were both best-sellers of the genre. The latter pair became even more famous as movies. In The Nazarene (1939) by the Polish-born Yiddish writer and playwright Sholem Asch, the soul of the Roman soldier who oversaw the execution of Jesus inhabits the body of a Christian scholar and through him tells the real story of Jesus.

Other novelists have attempted to imagine and to create novels that fill the gaps in and/or extend the biblical narrative, sometimes in ways quite shocking to the faithful. In The Man Who Died (1929, originally titled The Escaped Cock), D.H. Lawrence imagines a Christ who revived from the cross and went on to live his life, no longer caring about his mission. The Jesus of Lawrence worries that he over-emphasized the giving of love and so, after the cross, takes love too—in this case, embodied by his affair with the priestess, Isis. Robert Graves combined scholarly work and his own occult interests in the triple goddess mystery religion to create King Jesus: A Life (1946). In The Last Temptation of Christ (1955), by Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus struggles to come to understand the voices in his head and to eventually accept the mission his heavenly father has given to him. Though its publication nearly resulted in Kazantzakis’s excommunication from the Greek Orthodox Church, it became most famous in the late 1980s, of course, for the movie version directed by Martin Scorsese and the uproar that it produced, complete with protests and boycotts and threats. In its most controversial scenes, Jesus imagines the possibility of coming down off the cross and living out his life as a husband and father—the last temptation.

While among more recent novelists Shusako Endo (A Life of Christ, 1978) and Anthony Burgess (Man of Nazareth, 1979) have taken more reverent approaches to the life of Jesus, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Jose Saramago have taken much greater liberties. In The Gospel According to the Son (1997), Mailer turns the duties of narrator over to Jesus himself, to correct the false interpretations of his life offered by the authors of the biblical Gospels and Paul. In Vidal’s Live from Golgotha (1992), a modern-day television crew is transported back to the crucifixion to cover it “live,” Saramago, the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer, in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1993), “interprets the key episodes from the Gospels from an ironic point of view, inventing new miracles and prophesies. In the novel God and the Devil negotiate over evil, and Jesus questions his role and challenges God. All this Saramago paralles with the creative process of a writer.” In Quarantine (1997), Jim Croce recreates Christ’s forty days in the desert in the prelude to his ministry.

In an AP story, John Wilson, editor of the evangelical journal Books & Culture, said, “It’s a difficult challenge. None of these novels are masterpieces” and “often they just seem absurd. You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, both with the pious variety and the debunkers.”