Jesus: A Novel
If you've grown up in the church, you may have heard the story of Jesus so many times you don't really "hear" it anymore. But in the capable hands of storyteller and National Book Award winner Walter Wangerin Jr., this classic captures our attention in a new way.
Wangerin switches back and forth between the viewpoint of Mary, Jesus' mother ("Mim"), and the disciple John (called "beloved") to tell the story, which opens at the Feast of Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus is 12. A long narrative from Mary to Jesus in italics serves to fill in the details of her unexpected pregnancy, marriage, and the nativity of Christ.
Readers will enjoy Wangerin's imagining what Jesus might have looked like (heavily freckled with a tight cap of curly reddish brown hair!) and his mannerisms (ticklish, accessible but unknowable). In Wangerin's narrative, Jesus is an only child who works as a carpenter with his father until Joseph meets an untimely, accidental death.
But what really sings in this narrative is the relationship between Jesus and his mother, as seen from her perspective. When Jesus returns to Nazareth to begin his ministry by reading in the temple, he's first warmly welcomed, then driven away by his small hometown. We feel Mary's pride in her son, and then her pain at his rejection.
Later, when Jesus goes away alone, she follows him to give him some tragic news. In beautifully crafted prose, Wangerin describes the scene as Mary tells Jesus that his beloved cousin John the Baptist is dead. "Heaven is sandy with stars, the myriad marks of God's promises, the heavenly host all holding their breath --- so Mary imagines --- preparing to weep with Jesus." Later, Jesus whispers to her, "Oh Mother, Mother --- how I loved my cousin." And Mary, who calls Jesus "My baby," (as well as "Yeshi"), comforts him as he falls asleep on her lap.
Wangerin excels at offering specific details about the culture of the time period in which Jesus lived. The wedding at Cana is embellished with a bridal procession where lusty lyrics are sung: "How sweet is your love, O sister, my bride! And sweeter your loving than spices and wine." Wangerin spends several pages explaining interesting details about the wedding ceremony and the honor involved in providing enough food for seven days of celebration. Jesus' miracle, he shows, saved the bridegroom's family from shame and dishonor. Nice details for contemporary readers.
In another retelling of the biblical narrative, he opens a chapter with the terse observation: "Magdala stinks." Wangerin goes on to explain that fish were dried and pickled there, and includes plenty of details about the fishing life. The stage also is set for an encounter with Mary ("Maryam"), whom he will deliver from seven demons. Wangerin fleshes out some of the more practical aspects as well. When Jesus and his disciples are on the road, Wangerin describes how Mary wanders the hillsides and ravines, finding the right herbs to cure the ills and injuries incurred by the little band of believers (Simon has a bad cough, for example). Wangerin is specific in his descriptions, which makes the story richer.
Particularly nice is a short section that imagines some of the interactions between John and Mary after Jesus' death and resurrection. John is now entrusted with Mary's care, and he finds her a bit of a challenge. She can't help interrupting him and correcting the details of his stories as he shares the Good News and the marvelous works of Jesus. "No, not Jericho. He did that near the pool of Siloam...." made me chuckle.
While many readers may enjoy some of the juicy, Wangerin-ish dialogue between the characters, it occasionally creeps over the top. "Calculate before your promise, partner," says a bandit to Simon in response to his threats. Sounds a little bit like a late night western. But if you love Wangerin's style of writing, this sort of thing won't trouble you. It's part of his unique voice and inimitable storytelling style.
This beautiful, unique retelling of the life of Jesus should find a home on the bookshelves of any Christian who wants a fresh perspective on their faith.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 13, 2011