Writing a novel based on the Gospels is a tricky business, not only because the Gospels themselves are such special documents, but because the two literary forms have very different purposes. Both are narratives, of course, but the novel is, historically speaking, a relatively recent phenomenon and basically a Western invention. Mating the two has generally been a disaster, as most attempts have shown. In the case of Walter Wangerin’s Jesus, I believe that the author has been successful, largely because he has remained faithful to the contours of the Gospel genre and also because he is an extraordinary writer.
By sticking veyy closely to the Gospel accounts and by incorporating two eyewitnesses, Mary the Mother of Jesus and John the Evangelist, as sub-narrators, Wangerin has opened up the story and given it an authentic immediacy that overcomes all the usual obstacles. He remains the ultimate narrator, but by introducing those two intimate voices he pulls us into the story the only way a writer can, by making it all credible, giving us the illusion of firsthand narrative.
Wangerin won the National Book Award in 1980 for his first novel, The Book of the Dun Cow. He has published some 20 volumes, including a novel about Paul, and The Book of God: The Bible as a Novel. Since he has worked mainly with Zondervan, a religious publishing house, he has been out of the secular mainstream. He also writes children’s books, lots of them.
Knowing that background, I began the novel with a certain wariness, but after the first few chapters I realized I was in the hands of a pro, a deeply religious one at that. He begins his story with Zechariah, the father of John, going up to the temple in his old age for the Passover. Of course, the whole story concludes with another Passover some 30 years later, when both John and Jesus will have been killed because of their fiery preaching. Wangerin situates his story amid the turmoil of an occupied Palestine, under the watchful care of Roman deputies and at the mercy of a rapacious King Herod. We need not look far today to find many parallels in the third world. “Liberation” groups of many stripes existed then as now to right wrongs and gain advantage. That was the world in which the two cousins grew to maturity, first John in the wilderness, Jesus emerging later. Then as now, religion and politics were inevitably intertwined, because both spoke to ultimate issues.
The story, of course, is a familiar one to anyone reading this magazine. Wangerin does not seek to embellish it but rather to bring it closer to us with vivid details, a host of characters and a plot line that moves inexorably toward its conclusion. What he has added is detail: the primary disciples take on nuance; the secondary figures, like Mary of Magdala (a far cry from the woman in The Da Vinci Code), achieve a certain narrative prominence, especially as the story reaches its climax.
But more important, Wangerin uses his sub-narrators to capture the human dynamics among the disciples: the occasional clashes we find in the Gospels are fleshed out. Mary likewise comes alive as a real person who travels with her son and interacts with him and his friends. Her viewpoint humanizes the story. She comes across as a mother—affectionate, puzzled and sometimes calling her son to task.
At the center, of course, is Jesus—a determined man with a mission, but also with a sense of humor and delight in human company. He knows his friends and loves them, but he is always the Master, pushing them a little further, challenging their perceptions. Interestingly, Wangerin makes Judas a late adolescent, a showoff who is tolerated by his older companions but not fully trusted. He comes from Judea and is proud of his city-slicker status in Jerusalem. Peter, on the other hand, is a mature man but given to enthusiasms. John, the Beloved Disciple, is clearly Mary’s favorite, and his intimacy with the Lord gives him a privileged insight, paralleling Mary’s own.
A good example of Wangerin’s imaginative approach is the way he situates Jesus’ saying about having to become childlike to enter the kingdom just after he has overheard squabbling about priority among his disciples during a stay-over. He calls the 4-year-old girl of the family to him, sits her on his lap and then announces: “Unless you turn, each one of you, and become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves exactly like my Leah, they are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
At the heart of all four Gospels lies the account of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, it is the Ur-account, the story that gave all the other stories their significance. As the climax of the novel, it pulls together all that has gone before, shedding new light, revealing greater darkness, pushing the narrative to and beyond its merely human dimension. Wangerin devotes over 100 pages to it.
Here, too, the author succeeds in measuring the pace, moving back and forth between the Passover preparations in Jerusalem and the calm of Bethany, where Jesus performed his last and most spectacular miracle, the raising of Lazarus. While the men are dazzled and a bit terrified by the Temple and its magnificence, the women prepare the meals and enjoy one another’s company in the outskirts. Jesus meanwhile becomes ever more focused, more intent on his mission. The account of the Last Supper follows the Gospels, expanding a bit to highlight Judas, who still seems oblivious of what his clever plotting will bring about. What Wangerin has added to the scenes is the atmosphere, the look of the place, the descriptions of the bit players who testify against Jesus and the fatuousness of the chief priests and their secular allies, contentedly unaware of the consequences of their actions. Once the scene shifts to Pilate and his Praetorium, the horror increases dramatically, as the wily politician plays the crowd against Jesus. The scourging, the bearing of the cross, the agonizing march all follow in quick succession. Wangerin captures beautifully the moment when Jesus gives Mary to John and John to Mary: “All day I’ve known his dying. I saw the future with sober dread. But I did not anticipate this, such loveliness, such grace upon grace,” John reflects.
The account of the resurrection sticks closely to the scriptural accounts as well, with a number of added touches. Maryam of Magdala arrives first and finds an empty tomb. The men are still in hiding in the upper room, and Peter is unwilling to open the door to her frantic knocking. John does and finds the frightened woman and her message: They have stolen the body. John and Peter rush to the tomb and find it empty. Maryam alone remains near the tomb and so meets the risen Lord first. Only later does he appear to them all, and John reflects: “We are Adam. We are a dull, lumpish clay. Jesus is the Lord God, the Creator in the Garden of Eden, breathing life into the first man’s nostrils, and we’re becoming living beings—all over again.”
Jesus also includes the scene of the risen Jesus’ appearance at the seashore and the subsequent mighty catch, followed by Peter’s commissioning. But it is John the Beloved who has the final word, for he was entrusted with Mary, who accompanied him on his preaching. And so the novel concludes with the great Prologue to his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word….”
In the case of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the novel is necessarily largely fabrication, given the tiny amount of New Testament material. There are some powerful passages in the book, no doubt, but 90 percent of it has no basis whatsoever in the Gospels; it can only be called fantasy.
This is the first volume of a projected multivolume novel based on the life of Christ by the well-known writer Anne Rice, best known until now for a commercially successful series of novels having to do with vampires and other such creatures. More recently she has returned to her Catholic roots and has set about novelizing the story of Jesus.
This first volume concentrates on his early years, using material from two of the synoptic Gospels, Matthew and Luke, as well as snippets from various apocryphal Gospel accounts that were never accepted into the New Testament. The latter snippets and longer passages purport to fill in the infancy narratives and come from a wide range of sources that vary greatly in levels of authenticity and veracity. Most of these texts are now widely available in translation.
The two canonical infancy accounts are both quite short, presumably because reliable material was not readily available, but also because the emphasis was always on the “saving acts” of Jesus in his death and resurrection. It was the risen Jesus who was the focus of early preaching. In a true sense, the Gospel accounts were written backwards: the last act of Jesus came first. Because the same Jesus who was tortured and crucified was revealed to his closest disciples and then to an ever-widening audience of believers as now triumphantly victorious over death, he could now be preached to the whole world as its savior.
The Evangelists began with that belief and filled in the earlier part of the story of Jesus to show how God works in human history—that is, by accepting human frailty and seeing God’s saving power working precisely through it to overcome “kingdoms and dominations.”
Thus the brevity of the two infancy accounts. That Rice has expanded these accounts into a 330-page novel puts an unbearable strain on the texts and requires her to invent most of it. To be fair, she seems to use extra-biblical materials with a certain care.
In addition, by making the boy Jesus the principal narrator of the story, she skews the whole focus of the Gospel accounts; biography—even less autobiography—is the last thing the New Testament is about.
How all this will play out in subsequent volumes remains to be seen, of course. But if the ratio of extrapolation to biblical text is to be continued through the four Gospel accounts, this will be a very long novel indeed!
Jesus: A Novel
By Walter Wangerin, Jr.
Zondervan. 391p $21.99
Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
By Anne Rice
Knopf. 322p $25.95