Last week my novel The Five Books of Jesus became a finalist for the Whitney Awards in the historical fiction category. So lately, I've been thinking a little more about why religious readers have and haven't liked the book.
Since readers who like the book are more likely to talk to me about it, I've heard a fair amount about what's working for them. Some have mentioned the prophetic electricity they feel in the book's treatment of John (the Baptist). Some enjoy the flashes of personal insight that come from being invited to look at familiar stories from a slightly different angle. And some relate strongly to the book's focus on what it means to follow Jesus when you know he matters but don't know exactly where he's taking you.
I also know, though, that my book makes some religious readers uncomfortable. And that the discomfort typically centers around the depiction of Jesus himself. But so far, I mostly have to guess at where specifically that discomfort comes from.
I'm pretty sure part of it comes directly from the pre-baptism dialogue between John and Jesus, in which I try to harmonize Mark 1:11 and Luke 3:22 with Matthew 3:17 by suggesting that Jesus himself as well as the witnesses needed some reassurance about his divinity and mission. But that's basically one line--what about the rest of the book?
My current theory is that my book emphasizes some aspects of Jesus as depicted in the gospels which seem to be in tension with the aspects of Jesus many Christians emphasize today. It's interesting--I know some people are nervous about Jesus appearing in fiction in general, but our ideas about Jesus may be every bit as much shaped by imagined representations of Jesus in painting and sermons as they are by the gospels themselves. In a sense, we can't escape modern imaginings of Jesus even if we did want to.
And especially when contrasted with popular LDS art, I think there are three broad patterns to the behaviors/characteristics of my book's Jesus some religious readers may find jarring.
1) My Jesus is cautious and cryptic.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus teaches his apostles to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." But today we tend to associate Jesus more with dove-like innocence than with a snake's calculated evasiveness. A concrete example of this tendency can be seen in Simon Dewey's painting "Abide With Me" and the accompanying artist's statement, which presents a guileless, welcoming Jesus dressed in an idealized dove white. Jesus comes across as an easily approachable presence who communicates in clear, transparent terms.
In my book, though, Jesus is definitely cunning as a snake. Even though his message is good for the world, he realizes that it will be perceived as a threat to certain interests and proceeds cautiously. He hints at many things rather than saying them outright. He keeps secrets. When conflicts seem headed toward a climax, he often just quietly slips away. Even his apostles have to work hard at times to make sense of the veiled things he says, and when they struggle to understand, he often doesn't give them any direct help putting the pieces together. He's still reaching out for us, but in a markedly different way.
A particularly good example of this is in the parables. Today, we often imagine that Jesus used parables primarily to make his teachings easier for people to understand. So my book's Jesus may strike some readers as obtuse and annoying when he uses parables to hide the full impact of his message from casual listeners while hinting at deeper truths to serious seekers (the approach described in Matt 13: 10-13).
The distant between Dewey's Jesus and mine may seem like a fundamental doctrinal difference, but I don't think it is. I think that sometimes Jesus approaches us in a straightforward, open way. And I think other times, Jesus still communicates with us just as carefully and cryptically as he often did with people in the gospels.
2) My Jesus gets physically and emotionally drained.
As far as I know, all Christians believe that Jesus suffered terribly in the last week of his life. But for the other difficult times in his life, there seem to be two very different ways to imagine Jesus. One, evident in Greg Olsen's painting "O Jerusalem" and the accompanying artist's statement, is that Jesus typically faced difficult times with a deep serenity drawn from his vast perspective. This view is certainly grounded gospel incidents like the storm on the lake, and has the appeal of showing how turning to Jesus can draw us above our own troubles.
My book, though, tends to emphasize Jesus' intense physical and emotional engagement in his work and assumes that periodic physical and emotional strain/exhaustion is the natural result. In my book, the constant crowds around Jesus are a significant demand on his energy. When he heals the woman with the issue of blood, it takes something out of him--and when he next raises Jairus's daughter from the dead, he can barely keep walking. His sleep on the boat in the lake is so deep precisely because his work is so draining.
There's also a huge contrast between Olsen's view of Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and mine. While Olsen sees Jesus' prophecy as primarily reflective and tempered by his firm hope in the future, I treat it as absolutely devastating to Jesus that the temple and the holy city are going to be destroyed.
Whose view is better? I don't know--both are grounded in the gospels and express important truths. By giving Jesus serenity in trying times, Olsen invites us to find greater serenity. By letting Jesus fully mourn when there's cause to mourn, I think I give a sense of how close divinity and full humanity really are.
3) My Jesus is challenging and demanding.
We know that Jesus loves us, and so we often emphasize his kindness, patience, acceptance, and mercy as culturally standard manifestations of that love. As an example, consider Del Parson's "The Savior" and the accompanying artist's statement.
But in the gospels, Jesus is not all patience and acceptance. And my book takes seriously his willingness to challenge people and make great demands of them.
One of the talented writers from my old workshop group really struggled with the scene where Jesus dismisses his concerned mother and brothers when they come looking for him. Even though she knew the source story in Mark 3:31-35 and elsewhere, she found it difficult to believe that Jesus ever would have done such a thing.
In my book, though, Jesus doesn't hesitate to push people for more when their spiritual vision falters. He tells his concerned relatives that his true family consists of whoever will hear and do the will of God. He compares Peter to Satan the moment Peter fails to accept what sacrifices will be necessary to finish the work. He doesn't treat people with gentle sweetness when they ask for signs--he calls their fidelity into question and reminds them that Jonah got a sign when he was swallowed by a shark.
My guess is that the Jesus in my book may make some readers uncomfortable for some of the same reasons Jesus made people uncomfortable when he was on the earth. Because he demands more from us than comfort. Because he sometimes challenges us in the very moments when we think we're ready for simple acceptance and affirmation.
There are times when the kind, patient, and accepting aspects of Jesus are what we need to remember. And it's good that many artists use their creativity to help others remember those qualities in him. But there are also times when we can grow only if we allow Jesus to challenge us and make painful demands of us. And I like to think my book helps show how those aspects are also part of who Jesus is and was.