What would happen if someone found an authentic letter written by Jesus of Nazareth? What would it say? And how would impact our lives? That is essentially the question raised in this novel written by an American Baptist pastor and first time novelist. The book carries strong advance praise by such luminaries as Harvey Cox, Richard Rohr, and Joseph Girzone, persons who find in it a message of hope. And, indeed, that is the intent of the book – it is a message that seeks to bring together those who are estranged, including Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Drake seeks to emulate some of the mystery of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, without Brown’s skepticism. Like The Da Vinci Code part of the plot centers around Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene, though in this novel the two are neither married nor sexually intimate. And yet there is a special relationship envisioned, one that gives occasion for this most priceless of letters.
In laying out the book, Howard alternates a first century narrative with a modern day narrative. In the ancient narrative, we see the gospel stories expanded. In this part of the story, Jesus has deep feelings for Mary, but decides that his mission necessitates celibacy. As he wrestles with his own feelings, he comes to an understanding of humanity that would revolutionize human existence. But Jesus and Mary aren’t the only characters in this plot line. Besides them there is Nicodemus the wise follower from within the Jewish power structure. There are the disciples, but they play a rather muted role. There are Zealots, led by Barabbas, and there is Judas. Somewhat like Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas plays a significant role.
In this telling of the story, Judas is a scoundrel who hangs with the Zealots. At one point he becomes attracted to the message of Jesus, or at least sees Jesus as a means to an end. Judas is money hungry – as often portrayed in the gospels and extra-biblical literature. But, in this novel, he’s also a bit of a lusty fellow. First he takes a shine to Judith – a significant fictional character in the novel – but she rejects his advances. She is, after all, the wife of another of the Zealots. Later, as he comes into contact with Jesus, he takes a shine to Mary. In fact, he even has a rather intimate encounter with Mary, who is feeling rejected by Jesus. You see, everyone has read the letter of Jesus to Mary, except Mary. But ultimately, she rejects Judas. In the end, Judas will betray Jesus, in large part because of jealousy of Jesus. But, then guilt gets the better of him and he commits suicide, but not before hiding a note explaining his betrayal in a cave in Gethsemane.
Jesus doesn’t really play a major role in the novel – except as the author of the letter. Howard intersperses Jesus’ sayings throughout the novel, borrowing from all of the gospels, but with a special focus on John’s gospel. The important piece, the one that will revolutionize everything is this secret letter, a letter that will later get hidden in a cave at Qumran.
This ancient plot line is accompanied by a modern one that includes a Muslim student named Karim, a Jewish peace activist named Rachel (along with brother Ezra, a Commander in the Israeli Defense Force), Brother Gregory, an expert in Aramaic, and a rather nasty archaeologist. This plot line starts with Karim, running away from his father’s Palestinian Militia and stumbling upon a scroll, that turns out to be a letter from Jesus to Mary. Spotted by the archaeologist, who tries to kill him in order to get the manuscript, which he believes belongs to him, he flees and gets caught up in a Palestinian protest, where he his wounded by IDF bullets, but is rescued by Rachel. The rescue leads to more chases and a new love story – a forbidden love story. This part of the story is full of chases, intrigue, and attempts to understand the revolutionary nature of this letter, which offers hope of peace among all peoples. I’ll leave the rest of the story for the reader to discover.
And what is this revolutionary message? Well, it seems that Jesus discovered that the key to happiness and peace is reconciling the feminine with the masculine within us. Yes, Jesus discovers his feminine side, and by bringing it to the fore his life is transformed – including his feelings for Mary. We can have the same sense of peace, if we too will affirm the feminine within us, and bring the masculine and the feminine into alignment.
As you can tell from the way I’ve laid this out, I’ve got problems with this line of thinking. It’s not that I have an issue with reconciling the feminine with the masculine, I just can’t find any strains of this in Jesus’ own thought. Howard seems to want to bring modern psychological theory into the teaching of Jesus, which just doesn’t seem to fit. Why one might ask, if this is such a revolutionary idea do we not see any hint of it in the gospel accounts? I’m not sure how this secret message found in a letter to Mary will bring Jew, Christian, and Muslim together in peace? The book is hopeful and calls for our attention to the message of Jesus. I’m just not sure that the message of the fictional letter either accomplishes the mission, nor does it sound all that like Jesus. It has gnostic elements to it, though Howard makes it clear that he’s neither a gnostic nor does he want to present a gnostic message. He’s trying to offer a middle ground.
As I conclude the review I must confess that I’m not much a reader of novels, so that may color my take. I found the book much too long and the plot lines too complicated. There are too many characters being developed so you find it difficult to follow the train of thought. The second confession is that my historian sensibilities kicked in, and so I wanted his Jesus to fit with my conception of Jesus as derived from the gospels. I don’t mind the speculations on whether Jesus had feelings for Mary, but I’m not sure I tracked well with his interpretations.
But, any one willing to offer hope of reconciliation between Muslim, Jew, and Christian deserves some attention. So check this out.