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Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Our Century Needs Alternatives": James Goldberg on "The Five Books of Jesus"

by Scott Hales (bio)

Chances are, you've read the stories of Jesus. Or, if you haven't, you've heard them in church, seen them in movies, watched them on television or Broadway, read them in comic books, reenacted them with action figures, or witnessed them live at Christian theme parks.

The stories of Jesus are everywhere. So why do we need another book about the life of Jesus? James Goldberg, author of the novel The Five Books of Jesus, answers that question.

Scott Hales: First, I’d like to clear up a matter. Were you or were you not the guy who told Joseph and Mary that there was no room in the inn? Be honest.

James Goldberg: I am indeed ... in the Church's Bible videos. I show up three times in the New Testament series: as an innkeeper who shakes his head at Joseph, as an innkeeper the wise men ask for directions, and as the innkeeper who helps the Good Samaritan. Last time I left the set, the director said, "We'll give you a call if we need another innkeeper." I like to think of it as a family business.

SH: Tell us about The Five Books of Jesus. Why this book at this time in your writing career?

JG: On its surface, The Five Books of Jesus is a lyrical novelization of Jesus’ ministry. On another level it’s a meditation on “the kingdom of God” as a radically alternative way of relating to others. It’s about people who are willing to follow a visionary out past the edges of their expectations and toward a promised land they’re not completely sure how to imagine or understand.

Why this book now? Because in its own way, our century needs alternatives every bit as badly as Peter’s century did. We need another chance to consider what stories of Jesus might mean to us today.

SH: The gospels have been recast many times as novels and films. What does The Five Books of Jesus bring to the table?

JG: “Many times” is a nice understatement. If you're interested, Zeba Crook (one of two scholars specializing in Jesus novels) has compiled a partial, provisional list dating back to 1770. But based on my reading of Crook’s and Meg Ramey’s scholarship on Jesus novels, The Five Books of Jesus breaks new ground in a few ways:

- Other writers seem most focused on events (“What might have happened in Jesus’ life?”) while I am focused primarily on the text (“What might the gospels really be getting at?”).

- Other novelists seem to rely either on modern historians or on recent Christian views when fleshing out Jesus’ world. I am most interested in the narrative world Jesus lived in—my telling is structured around and soaked in stories from the Hebrew Bible.

- Other novels largely want to either subvert the gospels (as in Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha) or else simplify them for a broad modern audience (as in Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told). My book seems rare in honoring the gospels in their complexity and inviting readers to deepen their engagement with the ideas and dynamics of the source texts.

SH: Your Jesus seems to be a man who is, on the one hand, always on the verge of sickness and starvation, and, on the other, endlessly powerful. Early on, he also seems imperfectly perfect in the way he acts on faith—first at his baptism, then when he first heals a leper. There’s almost a trace of uncertainty about him. Is this how you see him as a character in your novel? What are the challenges of characterizing Jesus, a perfect individual?

JG: Jesus has to combine human vulnerability with miraculous power. That’s the core of his story. Think of Matthew’s temptation narrative—if Jesus acted like Superman, he would have failed the trials in the desert. The logic of the gospels and the prophets before them demands that Jesus suffer even as he serves.

But beyond those two basic elements, there is a huge challenge in characterizing Jesus. My writing group described this book as written in a “doughnut omniscient” voice because the narrator has access to all information except what Jesus is thinking. I can’t imagine how it feels to be Jesus, so I characterize him through the way others see his actions rather than from his own perspective.

That said, it’s a line of dialogue that suggests uncertainty at the baptism. When John the Baptist asks Jesus if he’s the Messiah, Jesus says, “I think so.” Some advance readers felt like that line was a contradiction to the gospels, but it’s actually a harmonization. Most Latter-day Saints remember the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism best as Matthew reports it: “This is my Beloved Son.” But in Mark 1:11, the voice says, “Thou art my Beloved Son.” I love both versions, because each suggests a different person who needed reassurance. And since Luke 2:52 and D&C 93: 12-14 suggest that Jesus did learn and grow in his life, Mark’s implication that Jesus needed the voice of God to tell him or remind him of his identity doesn’t bother me. 

SH: To me, The Five Books of Jesus feels very contemporary, but it also feels very old school—like something a storyteller would share around a hearth. Was this a deliberate choice? What kinds of narratives influenced the way you told this story?

JG: I’m glad to hear that combination came across! I don’t like intentionally archaic language in historical work, since every language felt contemporary in its own time. And I did want this book to have the feeling of a recitation and to read well out loud.

Two Bible translations are probably a big influence here. I love Everett Fox’s translation of the five books of Moses: he tries to recapture the orality of the originals in his version, and it’s great. I also am very influenced by the 1980 Einheitsübersetzung of the German Bible, which combines linguistic accessibility with musicality. Especially for the psalms and the prophets, the Einheitsübersetzung is great.

My background in theatre is probably also an influence. And the theatricality of traditional South Asian poetry.

And, of course, a rich family culture of storytelling and verbal play.  

SH: In some ways, The Five Books of Jesus seems more about the apostles and their faith
journeys than about Jesus. Who was your favorite apostle to write? What informed your characterization of him?

JG: I can’t pick a favorite.

Judas was the most obvious challenge. I needed to like him a lot in order to make him sympathetic to readers, but I didn’t want to make the betrayal into a big misunderstanding as some Jesus novels do. I wanted it to have weight. I wanted readers to understand why this Judas betrays Jesus and why it’s a very serious thing.

Andrew was the biggest surprise. He doesn’t get a lot of attention in the gospels, but because he’s described in various passages as a disciple of John the Baptist and as the brother of Peter, he became a natural bridge from the beginning of the narrative into the apostle-centered sections. And that gave me reason to develop him into a character I ended up very attached to. I just like Andrew—he’s a good, solid man.

My other favorite apostles in the book are probably Matthew and Thomas. I enjoy the way Matthew navigates his external tensions and Thomas wrestles with his internal tensions.

You asked about apostles, but I want to mention a few of the women as well. I love Salome (the mother of James and John) for her outspokenness and particular brand of humility. She may have been the most fun character to write. And I enjoyed the quiet, careful work of crafting moments for Mary (Jesus’ mother). She’s the main presence in many of the moments of the book which I find most intimate and moving.

SH: Finally, what makes The Five Books of Jesus the perfect Christmas gift?

JG: It’s seasonally appropriate and really, really pretty. Also, you can give it to just about anybody. It’s got the right balance of heart and head to appeal to different kinds of readers.

James Goldberg is one of the top five Sikh-Jewish-Mormon writers of his generation. He won the 2008 Association for Mormon Letters Drama Award for his play Prodigal Son, has had a short story nominated for a Pushcart Prize, tied for first in the 2010 David O. McKay Essay Contest, won the 2012 Wilderness Interface Zone Spring Poetry Runoff, and blogs at He is also  co-editor of Everyday Mormon Writer, a website devoted to short, shareable Mormon literary works.

Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

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