I am not a major reader or judge of fiction and religious fiction has never usually grabbed me. Where especially Jesus is concerned I do want history and the facts so that imaginative reconstructions, though they can be helpful, are problematic for me and I inevitably disliked Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ which I couldn’t get through. If need be, in absence of facts I’ll opt for the distanced and mysterious approach of Ben Hur, the novel or film, where Jesus’ character is more suggested, a sort of miracle amid the stream of worldly events. Getting Jesus right or even credible is almost a grail for the fiction writer as it is for certain scholars of the historical Jesus quests.
In recent times I was puzzled by my mixed reactions to Anne Rice’s much praised Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt which I wanted to like (and which had an afterword about historical Jesus studies which I thought quite marvellous and worth the whole book for its insights). Then I realized it wasn’t just the style with its short sentences, influenced as it is by telling the story through the words of a very youthful Jesus, that was hard for me but something to do with implicit Catholic assumptions, the easy acceptance of apocryphal sources etc. I gave the book to a Catholic friend and was unsurprised they read it with passion and thought it excellent.
In contrast to this and published only this year we have Kittredge Cherry’s controversial Jesus in Love which is more Protestant even if some would say Protestant heretical. Due to reports of the novel that screamingly preceded its publication from sections of the religious press (basically that it was blasphemous and refers to a multi-gendered Holy Spirit, something many of us don’t believe in) I thought I might dislike the book, but taking it on its own terms I didn’t. It may seem an odd comparison but one reads it rather as one sees the film, Marie Antoinette, which mixes history and the authentic with disco, hot rock and the modern and somehow has great success holding them together. In short one is dealing with something truly post-modern.
A POST MODERN JESUS
That could however mean the book is just an aesthetic success, which I would say it was, but is it more? Especially in one way it succeeds and even possibly beats all its rivals so far. It does so by giving its Jesus, who realizes himself in his own individual way to be divine, a genuine interior life which unfolds within a rather dream sequence life that is poetic and quite compelling. (Ms Cherry is incidentally a descendant of English poet, John Donne, in whom the religious and erotic are linked as in a rather different way they are in his descendant’s fiction). Instead of looking at Jesus the reader can actually live through him somewhat. Unexpectedly the very post-modernism helps the enterprise because as a trend/theory it is allied to queer theory which dissolves boundaries and favours the multifarious. And as it happens this is a story of a queer rather than the gay inclined Jesus that readers might have expected from a former pastor of the MCC (gay) church and that some scholarly trends presently favour.
This Jesus is overwhelmingly in love with people, so in love that he can scarcely see, and keeps forgetting, gender for the pure person beyond it while he himself can feel wholly male or female. He does not so much suffer sexual temptations as tensions, (temptation is more what people have in relation to him and some readers will baulk at). The essential imbalance of feeling and energies between Jesus and others is so great he can really only give himself and be married to a Holy Spirit imagined (as in some Jewish traditions, though not in the given N.T source ) as feminine – or frequently so. Anyway the reader can get the feel of the meaning of elements within Christ’s life when historically and culturally the story is not being, nor I think aiming to be, exact. At times this Jesus and his disciples sound a bit like Californian Jesus people of the sixties and seventies or people more recent for some of their jargon, including of course terms like “gay” and “bi” and “consensual sex”. Undeniably this can be quirky but you either accept that as part of the total effect or you don’t.
JESUS STORY AS PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
It’s not possible to separate author and story in this case, nor should we try. The surprising and moving introduction sets the whole enterprise in the light of certain autobiographical considerations. Ms Cherry suffered debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for years, was abandoned by many associates and had to re-think her beliefs and values including the American attachment to positive thought and a shallow compulsory optimism. Helped by a deeply devout physician with whom she had recourse to alternative therapies and medicine Cherry made a journey from a very liberal, rationalist Christianity to a more traditional, esoteric and symbol laden one where everything from demons to the blood of Christ and miracles which feature in the novel began to assume new meaning. Then too, more imaginatively or spiritually depending on one’s view, the author also felt Jesus presented himself to her in visionary ways so that she learned his story directly from him and wrote it down, at times sometimes only a sentence a day due to the weakness she was suffering. The suffering was acute and the social dismissals, including not least from publishing, all added to it. I empathize hugely with the author here having years ago come close to CFS myself and known both for myself and others enough of the ruthlessness and insensitivity of many within publishing where sensitivity should be at a premium but isn’t. The route to acceptance, even basic acknowledgement of Cherry’s work has been slow but is now assured. Translations into German and Portuguese are due.
Even though the reader may not agree with many of the opinions and/or implications of ideas presented in the narrative they will always be challenged to think. For example I do not personally believe that Jesus loved the demons he exorcized and in fact there is an anger in Jesus which “rebukes” illness and the demonic. The novel however presents a Jesus so full of love that the demons have to leave the possessed because they cannot stand in the presence of that love. It’s a thought provoking and ingenious idea like many others including on sex. Sex is always taken seriously in this novel and assessed basically from the esoteric viewpoint that the individual is soul marked by sexual encounters so that one should beware just who and what one takes on since always more than the body is involved. Again, while I don’t believe, and I don’t think the author intends us to believe, that Jesus discussed sex in the way reported with a Mary Magdalene he converted from prostitution ( which historically she is unlikely to have practiced), but there are meanings in what gets said all the same. (My greatest fear with this book is that many today who don’t know the gospels well might mistake some of these stories, like the disciple Andrew’s affair with the Magdalene, for the original record).
THE DRAMA OF PERFECTION
There is something that connects both Rice’s and Cherry’s treatment of Jesus and if it weren’t for the fact I see a similar trait emerging in Mel Gibson’s Passion film I would be tempted to say it is a woman’s treatment of the Christ theme rather as some feminist theologians contrariwise maintain our understanding of Jesus is biased towards male understanding.
What I notice is that neither author is fictionally challenged by the problem, which perhaps shouldn’t be one, of the perfection of Jesus required under Virgin Birth doctrine ( which neither authors deny though Cherry’s references to it are inevitably a bit different). Given this doctrine which makes him free of the effects of Original Sin strictly speaking one can’t have a Jesus who has ailments (headaches and nausea) or memory lapses or who, as in the Gibson film, as a child falls about so that his mother needs to catch him. Some people would protest the perfectly healthy and capable Jesus couldn’t exist or wouldn’t be truly human if he did. I disagree and among other things because I am aware that even among we normally imperfect people those born under Virgo (and I believe there are solid historical and astrological reasons to assume Jesus was born under this sign) can sometimes demonstrate unusual levels of perfection under this sign of perfection. And this can make its own fiction.
Virgo Irish short story writer, Frank O’Connor, has a marvellous story “The Saint” built around the problems of being a wonder child at school and being just so consistently perfect that the difficulty would almost seem to be how to be bad or being accepted for who one is. And here would be the substance of drama for the Christ story just as it is: acceptance and being understood in an imperfect world. And maybe too the fact that one was never ill, would increase one’s compassion and insight as a healer. However, it’s a fact that especially feminist theologians would maintain that perfection is an obsession of the abstractions of male thought and the privilege of men who could traditionally demand that women deal with the dirt and mess of life while they live above it. As said, I question this, I think it’s a superficial view and I still think the “perfect” Jesus has potential for the fiction writer even if he/she is obliged to present a lot of conflicts from outside the person rather than inside.
It’s just terribly difficult to write good Jesus fiction. It’s a quest all its own that parallels more scholarly exercises in New Testament studies but Kittredge Cherry’s work marks an important stage in its development.
You can read more about Kittredge Cherry’s work and order any of her books at