Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Gospel According to the Son

The Gospel According to the Son
© 1997 Norman Mailer
242 pages

I spotted this on on Amazon while looking at Chopra's Jesus. I often look up books I've read on Amazon to find similar books. You might remember that Jesus was a novel about the obvious character depicting him in his twenties as he develops what Chopra referred to as "god consciousness" -- in effect forcing the view of Chopra as expressed in The Third Jesus into a novel that started off well and quickly fell apart. Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son is somewhat different. It is a first-person novel that recounts the basic story of the traditional gospels. While Mailer's Jesus does comment that the gospel writers got some things wrong -- especially "Jew-Hating Luke" -- he does toe the Nicene line and sticks to basic Christian doctrine until the very end (at which point he seems to dipose of it completely). He fleshes out some New Testament stories and omits parts of others. An example of both is his retelling of the miracle of the fishes and loaves -- or one of them, seeing as I remember that happening twice. For those of you who didn't attend a fundamentalist Sunday School, this is the one where Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the middle of no-where and realizes that the crowd is growing hungry. His disciples come up with some kid's lunch (two fish and five loaves of bred) and somehow distributes these among five thousand men, not counting their wives and children. The stories generally depict the food magically regenerating as Jesus and his followers distribute it, and even managing to exceed what the crowd needs: the disciples are stuck toting twelve baskets of left-over fish and bread back to their town through the hot desert. Mailer's Jesus doesn't do this: he tears the food up into over five thousands teeny tiny little bits and distributes them out: the tiny bits become fulfilling once someone "eats" them by putting them on their tongue. It's an interesting take that stays true to canon while toying with a little bit.

How does this work as a novel? Intermittently. The quality was never consistent for me: it would be dry for a few pages as formal quotations from the New Testament are linked with basic sentences that betray little character from Jesus or anyone else and then suddenly it begins reading like a novel, with real people actually experiencing emotions and speaking in ways you might expect a human to speak. Unfortunately, those moments are not as frequent as they need to be and the book in general read flatly for me. The story as a whole read like the New Testament sometimes: as an account of scarcely linked stories about Jesus that lacked emotional depth. If you were to present this book to a person with no knowledge whatsoever of Jesus or the traditional apocalyptic Jewish god, I don't think they could appreciate it as a novel. There's no story here, no overall narrative that ties things together and makes it seem real. Characters usually say things out of the blue: they react in jerky ways like the author is just pulling their strings and making them. Chopra's characters did this too, but not as long -- and many of them developed real depth, especially Judas and Mary Magdalene. There are high points here: Mailer does do Judas well, although I prefer Chopra's Gospel of Judas-inspired Judas to the traditional villain Judas, even though he's rendered believable here. The chapter about Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness has a very intriguing Satan who (from my perspective) makes valid criticisms about Yahweh's behavior (if for less-than-noble reasons) who continues to play a subtle part in the story despite being told off.

I suppose this book is like a plane that gets off the ground but never really takes to the air, instead constantly dipping into and bouncing off of the runaway before suddenly jerking to a stop. There are little moments, but it seems somewhere between fair and mediocre. I think those who find the four traditional Gospels to be an enjoyable read might like this, although those who are very attached to literalism may be annoyed.

Related Reading:
  • Chopra's Jesus.
  • Only Begotten Daughter, featuring Jesus' half-sister Julie Katz. This book is the first time I found a take on Jesus that was interesting.


  1. Liberalism. What a funny word. I feel sure it will go away in a century or so. It's taken on such a snooty connotation.

  2. Do you mean literalism? I think you're right in thinking it snooty: being fundamentalist and "literal" is a major source of pride among those who own such labels.

  3. Ha ha! Hi, Coffee! Actually, I should stop blogging so late at night when my eyes are tired! I really hate the word liberalism and I don't hate the word literalism, but I agree with you that labels are VERY prideful and boring. Yes, I get so tired of fellow teachers assuming ALL teachers are liberals and that we all have the same "take" on politics. I find myself judging all the comments made on the news and then I know it is time for a media fast. Sorry to deviate so far from your original post!


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