Messiah Lite

There’s a new book out by Norman Mailer retelling the Gospel story—and from what critics say, it sounds like another scandalous production that will cause Christians to rise up and picket bookstores. Newsweek calls it "manifestly batty." The New York Times derides it as silly and self-important, and the Arizona Republic calls the book "a sort of novelized Jesus Christ Superstar." Yet, if we listen to what Mailer himself says, it appears he was writing out of a sincere—if very flawed—spiritual search. The book is called The Gospel According to the Son, written in the literary form of an autobiography, as though composed by Jesus Himself. And it’s no wonder critics have been so harsh: Jesus’ miracles sometimes fall flat, and He struggles with various sins. Yet, despite the liberties Mailer takes with the Gospel texts, he says his underlying goal was to make Jesus come alive as a character. The book grew out of his admiration for the writings of Pope John Paul II, which prompted Mailer to read the Gospels again for the first time in 50 years. Mailer was also influenced by attending Bible studies in the church of his father-in-law, a Southern Baptist deacon. "The feeling I had about Jesus," Mailer said, "is what a difficult life, what a noble life, and I had never written about a person I considered noble before." His goal was to show why the Gospel remains what he calls "the keel of Western civilization." What this tells us is that Jesus Christ—2,000 years after He walked the earth—still has the power to capture the imagination of even a jaded literary lion. Remember, Mailer helped kick off the rebellious sixties. In his early writings, Mailer urged people to break out of their inhibitions: Forget "the single mate, the solid family, and the respectable love life," he wrote, and enjoy the life of "Saturday night kicks," of sex and drugs. But now, as he nears the twilight of his own life, this former "hipster" is drawn to the life of Jesus Christ. I am not recommending that you read Mailer’s book; it is full of egregious theological errors. Yet it is also a poignant reminder that we are all in a spiritual search, right up to the end. There is a spiritual hunger for God imprinted on every human soul, and no one is beyond redemption. In Norman Mailer, we see a man who seems to be genuinely struggling to understand Jesus and interpret Him for today’s readers. In our post-Christian age, the bookstore shelves are loaded with books that debunk the Scriptures and try to capture Christianity for some alien ideology. As believers, we need to be more discerning than ever. But while we point out the theological heresies, we also need to grasp the author’s underlying motivation. The publication of Mailer’s book reminds us that we must never give up on the possibility of salvation for anyone. As Augustine put it some 16 centuries ago: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." May Norman Mailer find the rest that he so obviously seeks.


Chuck Colson


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