The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi (Oct., 2011)

This book was actually published in 2008, when it won a most prestigious Catalan literary prize, but it’s just recently made it to U.S. shores.  And we are lucky readers, those of us who pick up this gem.  A gem that is caked with mud, perhaps.  I say that because there are places in this flowing, easy to read, conversational. even funny book where I felt sullied.  Not in an unwelcome way, and I did not resent it.  But in the way that truths about human nature, and the shock of bitter ironies we create, can make us face the inescapable.  It is often a most unpretty picture.  And yet this is a beautiful book that has us living the lives of characters far removed from the lives that many of us know.  I would recommend this book to the following readers:  anyone who has ever traveled to Spain or North Africa; anyone who has ever emigrated or even lived far from home; anyone who has ever grown up and known the optimism, fears, and dangers that accompany budding sexuality; anyone who has ever known, in their own lives or those close to them or strangers whose lives stir curiosity, the pull and push and pull and push of abuse at the hands of family; and anyone who has looked their religion and traditions in the eye and observed their many contradictory meanings.  So, hmmm . . . we have a book here, an adventure, that details an experience so removed — and yet, so very very close.

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