Representing Jesus: A Review of James Goldberg’s "The Five Books of Jesus"

At seventeen, I played the Mormon rebel by buying a copy of Jesus Christ Superstar and listening to it secretly for months. Always with headphones. Always with the fear that my parents would bust into my room and catch me in the act of grooving to psychedelic blasphemy. Unless I was in the car. Then the headphones came off and the psychedelic blasphemy had free reign. I could finally sing along to Murray Head’s gravelly-voiced Judas:
You’ve started to believe
The things you say are true
You really do believe
This talk of God is true
And Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian’s Jesus, whose paraphrase of John 8:7 made scripture come alive in a way no Seminary video could:
Leave her, leave her, let her be now.
Leave her, leave her, she’s with me now.
If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones.
If your slate is not, then leave her alone.

Eventually I got caught, as all teenaged subversives do, but to my surprise my parents had experienced the 1970s in real time and didn’t seem to mind my psychedelic blasphemy. My dad even asked to borrow the CD.
I bring this up to make a point about Mormons and representations of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we understandably care about how he is represented on page, stage, and rock opera. In our own cultural output, he’s neither the tortured hippy of Superstar nor the man of sorrow of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth nor the lacerated Agnus Dei of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. He’s usually pretty calm, well-built, and smiling—the ideal older brother. When he speaks,he uses language from the King James Bible or the Book of Mormon.
And when he doesn’t fit this mold, we get nervous.
Which can pose a challenge for Mormon artists when they try to retell his story in fresh ways, as James Goldberg does in his debut novel The Five Books of Jesus (CreateSpace 2012). Like other literary retellings of the Gospels, such as Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (1953) and Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son (1997), the novel offers readers a contemporary perspective on one of the oldest and most familiar stories of Western culture. Yet, even though Goldberg’s Jesus is not the Jesus you usually see in official Church materials, he’s not likely to stir up the same controversy as Kazantzakis’ Jesus—or, for that matter, to lull the reader into a Lazarus-like sleep as Mailer’s Jesus does. In fact, despite Jesus being the novel’s main character, it’s not really about him. Rather, it’s about his disciples—some of them, at least—and their relationship to him and, more importantly, to each other.
That’s not to say that Jesus is a non-entity in the book. He’s there, both a man of sorrow and intense charisma, sharing parables, healing the sick, and wandering the Judean landscape—sometimes seemingly oblivious to the mass of people in his wake. Goldberg develops him most early in the novel, when Jesus is still somewhat unsure of his calling and power. When he goes to be baptized by John, the Baptist asks, “Are you him? Are you the one?” Jesus’ answer is an ambiguous “I think so,” a detail that may bother some readers who want their Jesus always certain of his messianic identity. I think this initial uncertainty personalizes the character, however, and makes it so his later appearances, which are often bookends to Goldberg’s fantastically reimagined parables, seem less impersonal and impressionistic.
The real stars of The Five Books of Jesus are the apostles Matthew, Judas, and Andrew.  Matthew, the tax collector, and Judas, the Jerusalem slumdog, are social pariahs who find acceptance in Jesus’ inner circle. Judas, particularly, is haunted by his sister’s rape, for which he blames himself, and looks to Jesus for retribution. Matthew, on the other hand, is hyperaware of his former relationship to the Romans and feels his community’s disapproval acutely. No less interesting is the cautious and loyal Andrew. Andrew is the novel’s most reflective and Christian character, and his friendship with Judas provides the novel with some of its most poignant and memorable scenes. 
Other characters stand out as well. Peter, for example, is nicely rendered, as is Simon the Zealot and Mary, Jesus’ mother. Goldberg also introduces us to Salome, the mother of the James and John, who is far more interesting in this novels than her sons, who are somewhat sidelined in the narrative. Mary of Magdala, whom Goldberg conflates (not without precedent) with Mary of Bethany, has the energy and idealism of a college-aged activist. After becoming a disciple, she leaves her home to travel with Jesus and the apostlesa reminder to readers that discipleship is not gender exclusive.
Noticeably missing from the novel, however, are Sunday school favorites like Lazarus and the ten lepers—as well as the random naked guy in Mark who loses his robe during Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane. Even so, their absence is understandable as Goldberg’s story aims to avoid the sins of either spreading itself too thin or cluttering itself to the point of incoherence. Besides, even Matthew, Mark, and Luke skipped the part about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  Its absence is missed, but not regretted.
The novel, of course, is not flawless. While I like Goldberg’s focus on the followers of Christ, rather than on Christ himself, I find myself wishing we had more face-time with him. Along with that, I wish the end of the novel had as much detail and lyricism as the beginning. Goldberg’s strategy throughout the trial of Jesus seems to be to cover as much ground as possible without risking the momentum-slowing meditative asides that typified earlier passages in the novel. Wisely, he does not get bogged down in the trial of Jesus—for the most part, we aren’t privy to the mental and physical scourging of Jesus—yet I found myself wanting more textual reflection on the events that are so crucial to my understanding of redemption. However, as Goldberg’s attention at this point in the novel is directed at the apostles and their experiences during the trial, it could be that his philosophical distance from the events was a deliberate attempt to capture the apostles’ own miscomprehension of them.
Whatever may be lacking from The Five Books of Jesus, it does not distract from the work as a whole. It is certainly the best novelization of the life of Jesus by a Mormon writer (my apologies to Gerald N. Lund), and one could even make the argument that it has what it takes to stand up against Gospel retellings elsewhere. (Certainly it beats Mailer’s unimaginative novel.) I personally think that it could serve as an effective literary bridge between Mormon and non-Mormon fiction as nothing in the novel betrays it as an overt Mormon cultural production, yet Goldberg’s reverence for Christ and the Gospel record is entirely consistent with Mormon practices—and perhaps what sets The Five Books of Jesus apart from other contemporary works, which sometimes aim to shock conservative readers with an earthy, human Jesus. Goldberg clearly has more faith in Jesus’ ability to tell a story and captivate without sensationalismor psychedelic blasphemy.
Ultimately, The Five Books of Jesus has something for all readers, even the Mormon rebels and teenaged subversives in your life. Since finishing the book, I’ve been recommending it to everyone. It’s intimate simplicity and thoughtful recreation of the Gospel narratives give presence to Jesus in a way that lingers with you long after you read its final words. More importantly, like any good retelling of the Gospels (including my guilty favorite, Jesus Christ Superstar), it makes you long to return to those four original books of Jesus and read them again with eyes and ears open to new possibilities.  

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of the novel from the author. 

6 thoughts on “Representing Jesus: A Review of James Goldberg’s "The Five Books of Jesus"”

  1. 1. Have you read “Tregan's Mettle” (a.k.a. “A Visit for Tregan”) by Jack Harrell? It's about Jesus making a visit to present-day Idaho, so it's a little different from the works you're talking about here, but I'd love to hear your perspective on Harrell's Jesus. (I'd say it's closer to the Jesus of The Backslider than anything else I've read.)

    2. What did you think of James' use of italics to indicate direct quotations from scripture? I liked it as a technique, but I couldn't find a way to mention it in my review. Also, I never got around to checking if the italicized scriptures were all from a particular Old Testament translation, or if they were James' own paraphrasing. (I just know they weren't KJV.)

  2. 1. Yes. I read it and I remember liking the unconventional Jesus. I think its safe to say that both the heavy metal Jesus and the Cowboy Jesus are less representative of the usual Mormon Jesus than James'. I think both of those less traditional versions nevertheless tap into a wider literary tradition of Jesus returning in the place you'd least expect him to. I Collin Raye had a country song that tapped that root about fifteen years ago. I think James shoots for a more reader-friendly Jesus.

    2. I'd noticed the italics while reading the book, but forgot to mention them in the review. I assumed they were James' own paraphrases. At any rate, I think they worked.

    One thing I didn't mention in this review, but something that Mahonri brings up in his, is how much this novel feels like a kind of pastiche of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I guess your Irreantum review hints at this fact, although only those who have read the novel really get at what your getting at in your allusion to Luke's role in the novel.

    Which brings up another issue, also related to Mahonri's interview, and that is the way I thought James followed Luke in putting more more on the women in the Gospels. Obviously, this has become a matter of some debate, but I thought the way James developed a few of the women characters was a subtle nod to the Gospel of Luke.

  3. A small correction from a fellow reader: Judas doesn't know who raped his sister– he wonders whether it was a soldier, a neighbor, a stranger, a friend. All he knows is that it was evil, that it shows that this world is evil, and that he wants the whole world to end. He doesn't just want Jesus to fight the Romans, he wants him to tear apart this broken universe and inaugurate new heavens and a new earth.

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