Friday, November 30, 2012

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. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Anti-Mormon Novels in the Internet Archive

Lately I've been reading The Viper on the Hearth, Terryl L. Givens' fascinating study of nineteenth-century anti-Mormon fiction. I thought it might be helpful to come up with a list of the digitized anti-Mormon novels  available on the Internet Archive, a good go-to place for nineteenth-century Mormonalia.

Here are the books I found:  

Belisle, Orvilla S.
---. In the Grip of the Mormons (ca. 1919) [This seems to be a reprint of The Prophets]

Bell, Alfreda Eva.

Benoit, Pierre.
---. Salt Lake; A Novel (1922) [Translation from French]

Clark, Charles Heber.

Curwood, James Oliver.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan.
---. A Study in Scarlet (1887)

Gash, Abram Dale

Gilchrist, Rosetta Luce.

Grey, Zane.

Hannett, Arthur Thomas.

Henry, Alfred H.

Hudson, Mary W.
---. Esther the Gentile (1888)

Kerr, Alvah Milton.

Mitchell, Langdon Elwyn.

Paddock, Mrs. A. G. (Cornelia).

Richards, Robert

Riddle, A. G.

Spencer, Mrs. George E.

Stevenson, Robert Louis.
---. The Dynamiter  (1925)

Switzer, Jeanie Bartlett.

Walsh, Marie A. (“Sandette”)

Wilson, Harry Leon.

NOTE: Absent from this list are the many anti-Mormon poems, memoirs, and histories written in the nineteenth century and early twentieth. Also absent are anti-Mormon novels not digitized on the Internet Archive.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Orson F. Whitney and "the True History and Character of My People"

I came across this today:

"However, it is now my purpose to print; and though I may not hope to win for my verse favor and recognition, such as are accorded to and merited by productions of poetic genius, it may be these humble songs will help dispel the dense cloud of prejudice and misapprehension handing like a pall over the true history and character of my people, and show that the author of these lines, if he cannot create poetry, can at least admire it, and linger if not follow in the footsteps of those whose divine mission is to make the world more lovely and more lovable by producing it. That the name 'Mormon' is not necessarily a synonym for coarseness and carnality, need not be told to those cognizant of the truth" (iii-iv).

--Orson F. Whitney, Preface to The Poetical Writings of Orson F. Whitney (1889)


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Voting Instructions for the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest

In case you haven't voted in the Four Centuries of Mormon Stories Contest, here are the official voting instructions:

The winner of the “Four Centuries of Mormon Stories” contest will be selected by audience vote. Voters must first read (or hear, in the case of voters who are not yet literate) at least six of the twelve finalists and then rank their top four. These four ranked votes should then be emailed to with VOTE in the subject line. (One vote per person please, even if you have multiple email accounts.) Votes with fewer than four pieces ranked will not be counted.

First place votes will be counted as four points, second as three, and so on. The piece with the most points by the end of November 6th will win.

Again, to cast your vote:

1) Read at least six of the twelve finalists and rank your top four.

2) Email your ranked list of four to with VOTE in the subject line.

Also, in order to be valid, votes must:

1) Be sent to by the end of 6 November with VOTE in the subject line.

2) Include four pieces ranked from 1st favorite through 4th favorite. (Be sure to list votes by story title, as some authors have two stories.)

Feel free to include any other feedback you have on the “Four Centuries of Mormon Stories” contest in the body of the email below your ranked vote list.

Please share these voting instructions with friends–give them a chance to be part of this contest’s story!

Friday, November 2, 2012

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

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.

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: 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 Einheits├╝bersetzung of the German Bible, which combines linguistic accessibility with musicality. Especially for the psalms and the prophets, the Einheits├╝bersetzung 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 He is also  co-editor of Everyday Mormon Writer, a website devoted to short, shareable Mormon literary works.

Photo by Vilo Elisabeth Westwood

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Small Changes for the Low-Tech World

Earlier this week, Wm Morris announced that I am now a regular contributor to the Mormon arts and culture blog A Motley Vision. This is something that has been in the works for a week or two now. I've been looking for a way to get more reader response to my writing and A Motley Vision seems like a good place to get it. And I've wanted to be a part of the AMV team for a while, so I'm glad I can now say I'm hanging with the cool kids.

Those of you who follow this blog know I'm already stretched fairly thin on the Mormon Bloggernacle. Aside from this blog, I also contribute to Modern Mormon Men and Dawning of a Brighter Day. I will continue to be a part of these blogs on a monthly basis--at least as long as they'll have me--but with my new spot on AMV, I'm going to change my approach to how I contribute to each blog.

Here's what I have in mind:

The Low-Tech World will continue as my home base. I'll continue to post something every week, but my focus will now be on book reviews, author interviews, and found items from Mormon literary history (short stories, poems, photographs, news articles, criticism, etc.). I'll also post announcements and other news related to Mormon literature and my progress and a doctoral student.

Modern Mormon Men will continue to be where I post about Mormon literature and culture for a general audience. I'll continue to promote books, give short interviews, and try to bring the Mormon masses around to a greater appreciation of their literary heritage. I'll also keep writing self-deprecatory posts about my awkward teenage years and goofy things I notice with my Latter-day spectacles.

(By the way, check out my MMM interview with James Goldberg today on his new novel The Five Books of Jesus...and then swing by here tomorrow for the uncut interview.)

Dawning of a Brighter Day will be where I throw around ideas about creative writing and the directions I think Mormon literature should be taking. Here I plan to speak more generally about trends I see in Mormon literature and not get too specific when it comes to individual works and authors. I think of this blog as where I'll go to post Mormon literary theory.

A Motley Vision, on the other hand, is where I'll post Mormon literary criticism. On this blog, I intend to post about individual works and authors and get into the details of Mormon literature. My hope is that AMV will prove to be a place where I can share some of the ideas I have about Mormon texts and historical trends and get some feedback on them. I imagine what I post will have some connection to the work I'm currently doing in my dissertation, but I don't intend to limit myself in that respect. If I have something of a scholarly vein to say about Mormon literature or culture, and want quick feedback on it, I'll post it on AMV.

I expect to cross-post every now and then--especially if I write something I'm really proud of. I don't want The Low-Tech World to die off in any way, and I want it to continuing being a go-to place for all your Mormon literary needs. But I also want to keep my efforts focused and not run my brain into the ground.

Changing things up in this way, I think, is the right step to take.