Yesterday, Modern Mormon Men ran an shortened version of my interview with James Goldberg, author of the recent novel
The Five Books of Jesus. Today, I’m posting the full interview for those who can’t get enough of James and want some more insight into his writing.
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.
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: What is your favorite non-canonical characterization of Jesus?
JG: Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s first talk as an apostle.
I was on a mission in Germany when he was called. A few months earlier, I’d debated back and forth with one of my companions about what it means that an apostle is a special witness of Christ—he was sure that meant they’d seen him; I didn’t think it mattered.
And then in the fall, Elder Uchtdorf spoke, and was obviously moved as he said,
I want to thank each and every member of the Church throughout the world for your faithfulness despite temptations; for your love; for your dedication to the principles and doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ; for your willingness to follow the living prophet in making the wards and branches grow; for your sacrifices in giving of your time and energy and your emotional, spiritual, and temporal substance. Thank you for paying an honest tithing and not neglecting the poor and the lonely. I have seen the face of Christ in your faces, in your deeds, and in your exemplary lives. You are a modern miracle.
To me, it was an incredible vision of Christ. Here was a man whose eyes had been blessed to see Jesus everywhere.
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: In the Church, there are strict rules about how you can portray Jesus in official productions. For example, in official Church films, you can’t invent new dialogue for Jesus—it has to come from the KJV verbatim. Did you ever worry that your departure from scripture—either in your characterization of Jesus or in the gospel narrative itself—would alienate LDS readers?
JG: Not really.
I mean, I don’t carry the burden of the official. Official productions are expected to get things right, and therefore unable to take many chances (though within the range of chances they can take, they’ve done some pretty bold things—like going without musical scoring in most of the recent set).
But anyone who expects me to be a safe spiritual authority is misguided in the first place, so I feel fine trying out new things. Why not?
There are a lot of advantages to the King James Version. Using it allows us to avoid the doctrinal politics of many recent simple English translations. It gives us a shared text with our Latter-day forbearers, broadening our access to their additional insights, inspiration, and commentary. And hey, it makes English-speaking Mormons some of the last English speakers with organic access to Shakespeare. Which is fun.
A new novel in King James English, though? That just sounds painful to me…
SH: In Mormon literary circles, you’re best known—I would say—as a playwright and an essayist. What challenges did you face shifting gears and working in the novel form? In your opinion, how does writing a novel differ from writing a play or an essay?
JG: Great theater is often highly evocative—it relies on the live human contact between the actors and the audience to draw out audience memory and emotion. It’s also social: part of the experience of great theater is knowing that you laughed or cried or held your breath with another hundred people or more. That sense of communal connection is a part of the magic a good playwright can aim for.
I enjoy writing essays partly because of the convention of direct address. As an essayist, there’s no reason for the author to hide or pretend he’s not talking to you. There’s an immediacy to that, too. And I like that, because I write to reach people. So pulling down the barriers between us can be very nice.
In theory, a novel is different because the characters and author are both at a greater distance from the reader. Unlike an actor (who only performs because you showed up and who breathes the same air you do for an hour or two) or an essayist (who speaks straight to you from the page), novelists typically have to hide their existence altogether, while their characters act as if they exist independent of their hidden, voyeuristic readers.
You know, Scott, now that you ask I’m not sure I did really switch gears to write a novel. My story appears because you came to listen and speaks straight to you from time to time. I may have succeeded as a storyteller in this book, but I suspect I’ve failed as a normal novelist!
SH: What is daily scripture study like for James Goldberg?
JG: From the birth of our second son until a few months ago, it was kind of hit and miss. And then we just made a family resolution to read a page of the Book of Mormon each night no matter how late it gets, and now we’re pretty consistent. On nights when we start by eight, we often have lovely discussions—usually focused on the interests of my eight-year-old daughter, though my wife will often stop and make an observation that’s exclusively for us as parents. On nights when we start closer to nine, daily scripture story is a little bit more like a performance by that old Micro Machines ad guy.
I used to do a lot of personal scripture study—especially when I’d wake up nights worrying. My wife and I used to do wonderful couple scripture study. But “to every thing there is a season” and so our priority for now is child-centered family study, and the rest is not terribly consistent.
At other times? I once studied the gospel by character. My freshman year of college I tried to start each day with a psalm. I once tried to memorize a short summary of each chapter of the Book of Mormon, just to give me a sense of its shape. And I still play a game with my daughter where she reads a passage at random and I try to identify where it’s from.
But there’s no consistent James Goldberg method for studying. The most valuable thing I do is probably not my regular reading of scripture, but my almost-obsessive dwelling on what I’ve read in the past. Lots of things remind me of scriptures, and every scripture reminds me of at least one other scripture, and so there’s a pretty complicated scripture web grown into my head.
I like to think that in the next world, they’ll do a scan of my mortal brain and find the word of God carved all across its synapses in strange shapes.
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 mormonmidrashim.blogspot.com. He is also co-editor of Everyday Mormon Writer, a website devoted to short, shareable Mormon literary works.
Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood