Walt Wangerin loves Jesus. You can’t read his latest book, Jesus: A Novel without experiencing that clear conviction. Jesus may be a “novel,” but it is also a poetic devotional reflection on the object of Wangerin’s affection.
Using two primary points of view—those of Mary (Jesus’ mother) and John (the “beloved” disciple)—Wangerin crafts a loose, episodic story of Jesus’ adult life. Narratives of Jesus’ birth are briefly recounted through Mary’s flashbacks, then Wangerin stitches together a patchwork of scenes from the full range of the gospel quartet.
In telling Jesus’ story, Wangerin avoids a purely chronological approach, a psychological inquiry into Jesus’ mind, and a socio-political interpretation of Jesus’ world. Instead, he unpacks representative scenes, closely tracking biblical speeches and dialogues. All the while he give hints about the personalities of the people surrounding Jesus (Mary frets and is an isolated widow; Judas Iscariot comes across as tall, thin, young, and manic in over-eager ambition; Simon Peter lumbers around, always impetuous; Mary Magdalene is strong but childlike), though none emerges fully developed.
Many have tried, by writing religious fiction, to flesh out the lives of Bible characters. Few, however, can equal Wangerin’s marvelously honed literary skills coupled with his rich theological insights. Wangerin’s Jesus feels like the Christ of the church and is as familiar as a Sunday sermon.
Still, Wangerin’s mighty accomplishment cannot overcome the usual difficulties. When pulling scenes from all four gospels, the integrity of each is compromised. For instance, the first “sign” in John’s gospel (water into wine) overshadows the Sermon on the Mount, which is the initial major event in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ story. Similarly, the Last Supper is both the occasion of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13) and the institution of the Lord’s Supper. While these things may be true historically, when the gospel records are merged something of each unique approach is lost.
Jesus is probably not a good evangelistic tool, since it presumes familiarity with the biblical gospels. But those who already know Jesus will find their hearts warmed by this loving, fresh, and nuanced telling.