Sunday, April 24, 2011

Novels about Jesus

On this Easter morning I have been thinking about all of the bad fiction about Jesus of Nazareth written by those who believe in him. Some of it has attained fame (Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, Lloyd C. Douglas’s Robe, Thomas B. Costain’s Silver Chalice), but for a reader outside the church, pretty much all of it is pretty hard to take. Have there been any good novels?

Various non-believers have come at the Gospel story from various non-Christian angles. Probably the most controversial was Nikos Kazantzakis, whose Last Temptation of Christ (1951) was placed on the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. George Moore was determined to leave a realistic account of the life and wrote The Brook Kerith (1916), imagining an entirely human Jesus who nevertheless survived the crucifixion. D. H. Lawrence’s last book was The Man Who Died, published the year before he died in 1930. Resurrected to become a wanderer, Jesus finds himself in an Egyptian temple and falls in love with a priestess there, who believes he is Osiris.

The Yiddish novelist Sholem Asch wrote The Nazarene in 1939, and caused a literary scandal. (He was very nearly written out of Yiddish literature, although Time magazine was quick to reassure readers that “it should not offend Christian sensibilities.”). Robert Graves wrote King Jesus (1946), one of his weakest historical novels (a recent reviewer called it “Graves’s Satanic Verses”). Norman Mailer wrote a novel in the form of Jesus’ autobiography, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), which sounds like a knockoff of Kazantzakis’s novel, if Michiko Kakutani is to be believed—quite a leap of faith in its own right.

The late Reynolds Price wrote a novella, an “apocryphal gospel,” entitled The Honest Account of a Memorable Life (1994), originally published in Theology Today. It may be more interesting as theology than fiction.

Except for Price, though, I am forced to conclude that only someone who is neither a believer nor a non-believer could possibly write a good novel about Jesus of Nazareth.

Update: A reader writes to suggest The Master and Margarita, while adding that he suspects Bulgakov was not “a believing Christian.”


Miriam said...

I recall liking Jim Crace's Quarantine quite a bit--although again, not by a believer. Jose Saramago's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ didn't make quite as much of an impression, although I don't remember disliking it.

There's an offbeat Victorian variant that really ought to get a scholarly edition, Eliza Lynn Linton's True History of Joshua Davidson, Christian and Communist, which imagines Jesus reincarnated as, yes, a mid-Victorian Communist organizer. (The Christians kill him again, in case you're wondering.) But Linton was an agnostic.

PMH said...

Written in the 1930s but not published until the 1960s, Bulgakov's (Ukrainian)account is very interesting and mystical without being religious. Bulgakov had a very subtle sensibility and his Jesus is both not the son of God and sacred at the same time--at least humanistically so. The primary drama of the novel is the losing of one's soul by recognizing evil and doing it anyway. As a character both in history and in a novel-in-a-novel(the Master's novel), Pilate, therefore, comes up for special punishment by God (although God is never named) for allowing an innocent, misunderstood, and harmless wanderer (Jesus) to be murdered for political reasons. This fits into the larger satirical (and magical-realist) project of the novel as the main story concerns Satan's arrival in pre-WWII Moscow and his exposure of the hypocrisy, materialism, venality, and violence of the Soviet autocratic system. The Master (like Bulgakov) has been punished by the state-controlled literary establishment for creating a Jesus and Pilate who are human, sympathetic, and believable.
That the Master is a modern secular Jesus is somewhat obvious, I suppose. I think that Bulgakov believed that wherever there is political authoritarianism, Jesus-figures multiply.

Shelley said...

"Bad Fiction About Jesus" for some reason sounded to me right away like a band name....

interpolations said...

Unlike Miriam, I thought Saramago's riff on Jesus and the kernel of Christianity was flat-out brilliant and highly recommend it. Take good care. Cheers, Kevin

AJ said...

I wonder if a good novel can be written about Jesus. It would be difficult to pull off for sure. If you conceive of Jesus as a human historical character, then all you have is just a story about a man, which would be about the same as a novel about any other significant historical character.

If you conceive of Jesus as a fantasy character in a non-fantasy world, you get some sort of a science fiction novel, again, there is nothing new or good about such a novel. And if you take the conceit of the New Testament seriously as a novelist and you write from that point of view, then you end up with a story that no one can really read and appreciate, you end up with a "bad" novel.

dsnapoli said...

If we’re going to include second-coming stories, what about They Call Me Carpenter by Upton Sinclair? In this one Jesus steps down from a stained-glass window, walks around L. A. in his robe and sandals, and is soon offered a movie contract.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita, I recommend to your readers Edward E. Ericson's book, 'The Apocalyptic Vision of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita' (Mellen Press, 1991). Ericson's viewpoint in this commentary is that Bulgakov's beliefs were orthodox Christian doctrine, and that the novel was written for those who "have eyes to see and ears to hear." He also wanted to get the book past the Stalinist-era censors--no small matter--which it failed to do for a quarter century. Some knowledge of the Eastern Orthodox Christian church is helpful in reading this novel. This novel is a denial of Marxism as adequate to explain the human condition.

Professor Ericson taught English at Calvin College and is the author of Solzhenitsyn: The Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1980). He and Daniel J. Mahoney are editors of The Solzhenitsyn Reader, a collection of Solzhenitsyn's writings.


Kerry said...

I agree with Miriam that Jim Crace's Quarantine may be an exception to your otherwise well documented rule. I think it is an excellent work. I'd be interested in hearing your opinion.

And Bulgakov's work is excellent.