27 June 2016

fiction about the life of Christ: a definitive ranking.

This one book about Jesus' guardian angel. Oh, all right, I know what it's called; I just wanted to give you a second to enjoy the concept in its purest form. It's called Darien: Guardian Angel of Jesus, by Roger Elwood. I never read it, but we had it in my high school library and I've chortled over the jacket copy more than once.
It was over.

He had failed.

His mission had ended in utter disaster.

Assigned the great honor and daunting responsibility of being the guardian angel to the Son of God, he had begun with vigilance, hope, and commitment, but his hands had been tied at every turn. "Why, Lord? Why?" he groaned over and over as he grieved beside his master's body in the darkness of the tomb. Then he heard the voice of God speak again...

"Remove the stone...!"
The nineties were an incredible time. I still can't decide if I actually want to read this or not, but I adore the implication that Darien has no idea what the plan is. They just gave him the job to mess with him!

"Jason Zerillo Is an Annoying Prick," Robert Shearman. (Published at link as "Jason Zerillo, fl. 30 AD.") I enjoy Rob Shearman's writing usually but this one's a solid eh. It is clever and I can see what he's doing, but the characterization of Jesus is—it's not good, frankly, and even craftwise I feel like this is below Shearman's usual standard. I'd read it before, but I had to re-read it for this post because I remembered almost nothing about it. (Unlike the other Shearman story on this list, which is—it's almost too memorable.) Ultimately the thing is that there's a crucifixion and no resurrection; I wasn't planning on awarding very many points for doctrine on this list, but I have a few scruples left. 

All the Gospel movies I watched in high school Bible classes. So many white Christs. The only thing I remember about this lot is that during the nativity portion of one of them there was a rather sweet scene between Mary and Joseph, and my teacher said with no little satisfaction, "And that's why Jesus had brothers." You heard it here first, kids: St. Joseph the Worker was smokin'. (In fact it was ambiguous whether he meant "because St. Joseph was smokin'" or "because Mary and Joseph were massively into each other." Until I hear otherwise I'm going for a little from column A and a little from column B.)

The one I'm writing. I've been working at this off and on for a while, on the basis that no one else is going to write the one in my head so I might as well give it a crack. There was even a NaNoWriMo iteration of it, about which the less said the better. It focuses on John and Peter, because they're my favorites. It's got lines in like "Andrew gave Cephas a look I recognized. It meant, and had always meant, something like 'Simon, shut up until Dad/that Pharisee/Yeshua is out of earshot, please,'" which should give you some idea of the tone I'm aiming at. (At which I'm aiming.—Ed.) It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare. This is the single dullest novel I've ever read.

"Tiny Deaths," Robert Shearman. I'd call this theological science fiction, but before that I might almost be moved to call it psychological horror. Starring Jesus, as after the crucifixion he goes through a series of reincarnations. I hardly think I need to say that I don't believe anything of the sort ever happened. This is... well, it's a hard story to write about. It's definitely not for everyone, and I can't really in good conscience recommend it. But—while it's tempting to dismiss it as blasphemy, and I should really like to do so, I can't shake this awful suspicion there's something genuinely beautiful and true going on there. It's a haunting story, and the point it makes about Jesus knowing intimately all our small and stupid lives and dying for us anyway is as true as anything even if the way it gets there is extremely debatable. It's almost a rebuttal, albeit a very strange sort, to Stevie Smith's "Was He Married?" which is a poem I've been thinking about off and on for years. I don't think there's much I can add beyond linking this thoughtful review.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Anne Rice. (There is a sequel, The Road to Cana, which I have not yet read.) This is a story about the child Christ, told from his own point of view. It's badly let down by the fact that Rice can't write convincing children. Hardly any of us can, especially as POV characters. Terry Pratchett could, though I'm not saying I'd want to see his take on the infant Christ. Otherwise it's... I think the best word is interesting, and also very well-researched. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise, there—I really enjoyed being able to see just how much research went into this. All the best things in it, though, come out of the medieval religious ballad tradition.

The entire medieval religious ballad tradition. We're leaving out the Christmas ones, but look up "St. Stephen and King Herod" sometime; it's insane. "The Bitter Withy" is a perennial favorite, of course, the story of how the nasty big boys wouldn't let Jesus play so he murdered them. And then Mary beat him—well, you would, wouldn't you? My favorite, though, is "Judas." It's one of the oldest surviving English folksongs, thirteenth century at least. It's in thirteenth-century English, too, so allow me to provide a brief prose translation.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus rose up and said to Judas, "Judas, you've got to go into town and buy us bread for supper. Here's thirty pieces of silver. I suppose in the broad street you might meet some of your family!"

Judas waltzed off into town and ran into his wicked sister. "Judas," she said, "you deserve to be stoned for following a false prophet." 
"Shut up," said Judas, "if Jesus heard you he'd be avenged." 
The sister, fed up with all this, suggested that Judas take a nap. While he was napping, she pinched the silver off him and did a runner. When he woke up and realized Jesus' silver was gone he pulled on his hair so hard his scalp bled and everyone thought he was mad.

Then Pilate turned up. "Would you sell us Jesus?"

"I wouldn't sell my lord for anything," declares Judas, "except, ooh, hang on, I really do need to get back that thirty pieces of silver I owe him. I don't suppose...?"
...which may be the ultimate example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I think you know the rest of the story; there's a brief scene in the upper room, but this is the meat of it. I really can't think why more groups don't do recordings of this. I think possibly Steeleye Span did one once, but then Steeleye Span have done everything. By the way, I don't want you thinking that I think that the medieval Christians who produced this song actually believed anything like it, and I don't want you going "ha, silly medieval Christians." They didn't necessarily believe something just because they sang about it, and the Dark Ages continue to be a myth. Still, it's an insane story. Here's someone singing it.

"The Exercise of Virtue," "Storm Clouds," and "Some Secrets in a Privacy Forever Ours," tree_and_leaf. Yes, those links are to a fanfic archive. Mock not, lest ye be mocked. Tree_and_leaf writes great fanfiction about religion—they (I don't know their gender for certain and I'm trying to break myself of the habit of assuming all fanfic writers are women) have also done lovely variations on "Susan Pevensie finds God" and "an Evangelical who thinks magic is of the devil gets her Hogwarts letter." The Narnia one is my favorite—the author shows signs not only of liking and understanding Susan but of liking and understanding Lewis, if you can credit it. "The Exercise of Virtue" focuses on the Syro-Phoenician woman, "Storm Clouds" is about the calming of the storm, and "Some Secrets in a Privacy Forever Ours" is about John after the resurrection. They're wonderfully human stories, moving and funny all at once, and the disciple snark is excellent. I think I detect more than a bit of Dorothy Sayers in these.
"Rabbi," growled Peter from behind an oar—and it was obvious that he would have yelled had he had breath—"It is my professional opinion that I'm perfectly justified in being bloody terrified, because we are all going to die very soon unless some sort of miracle happens."

"Oh you of little faith," said Jesus, sounding vaguely disappointed. "Doesn't my professional opinion count for anything?"
"Yeshua," Unapologetic, Francis Spufford. This book is a defense of Christian feeling (whereas an apologetic is a defense of Christian thought), and Spufford describes the life of Christ as a story that Christians have instead of an argument. He devotes this chapter to a fictionalized account which functions as a short story on its own and which I could well imagine appealing to people who couldn't be bothered to read the whole book—or indeed people who would be horribly offended by the whole book; in many ways this chapter is one of the most orthodox bits of Unapologetic, and Spufford is in general much stronger on Jesus than he is on God. (And, rather surprisingly, he's not much good on the disciples at all.) Lines like this:
So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away, what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says.
are great bits of writing, and as close as I've ever come to reading the Gospel novel that exists in my head. (Because if I'm honest what I really want is a novel written by someone with all my aesthetic sensibilities but, also, the writing skill which in my case I have not got.)

The Man Born to Be King, Dorothy L. Sayers.
A cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ; I should very much like to see/hear them performed, but they're terribly good even in print. Her colloquial language took more guts then than it would now, and it pays off, and if I don't remember very many details about the plays themselves I think that's down more to me than to her. She's very good on Pilate and the thief on the cross, and very good indeed on Lazarus. (He's a bit suicidal. It really really works.) I'm planning a re-read as soon as possible.
LAZARUS: I love you dearly. To say that I would die for you is nothing. I would almost be ready to live for you if you asked me.
JOHN: Oh, Master, hold him to that promise. Look, Lazarus, you have made your sister cry.

"Friday Morning," Sydney Carter. He's best known for "Lord of the Dance," of course, but I think even that song much as I love it doesn't get across just how much Carter got it. Again, to cite Francis Spufford—Christians have stories instead of arguments. This is the best story I know about the Problem of Evil.
"To hell with Jehovah," to the carpenter I said.
"I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead.

Goodbye and good luck to you, our ways will soon divide.
Remember me in heaven, the man you hung beside.
It's God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,"
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.
Here's N.T. Wright singing it. I'd quite like to sing that in chapel, but I don't think you're allowed to say "to hell with Jehovah" in Edman Chapel or indeed anywhere on Wheaton's campus. Blessed shame.

And there it is. It should go without saying that this ranking isn't anything like as definitive as it amuses me to pretend it is, and that especially when it comes to my favorites it can be shuffled around a bit and I'd still put my name to it gladly. Also, I haven't read anything like all the work on the subject that exists, and when I've read more I'll certainly provide updates on them. Suggestions from the floor are more than welcome; they'll go onto the to-do list and eventually into the rankings. I won't read Philip Pullman's one, though, as I've been practicing self-love. (Joke, more or less. Don't look at me like that; it's still not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.)

Taste, as ever, exists on a Cartesian plane where the axes are "respect" and "affection." I may need at some stage to go three-dimensional and add a z axis for "agreement," creating among other things the options "I agree with you but I don't like or respect you" and "I like and respect you but you're wrong." Plotting all these stories out might be instructive: I have quite a bit of respect for "Tiny Deaths" as a piece of craft if not as a piece of theology, but whether I like it on any given day is a toss-up; I adore the medieval ballad tradition but I'm afraid I don't always take it very seriously. (Chronological snobbery?) I don't like The Bronze Bow and I don't think it's very good either. The top [edit for clarity: by top I mean best—as in top of the list—rather than the physical top of the post] three or four here, though, I both like and respect and can recommend without hesitation.

And if you object to anything about my rankings, I am as always ready to fight it out in the comments.


  1. I've read so little of the books listed that I have not much of a comment, except I very much like Dorothy Sayers and I'm wondering what is so awful about the Bronze Bow, which I have not read.

    1. I think you'd like The Man Born to Be King very much indeed; it's very much the play you'd expect Sayers to write.

      wrt The Bronze Bow, you'll notice that I didn't use the word awful! I haven't read it in a long time, but I remember it being very edifying and very very flat.