Friday, June 18, 2010

Take a Letter, Maria: The Galilean Secret: A Novel by Evan Drake Howard


Ask yourself: Would a suddenly discovered document unquestioningly written by Jesus make any difference today? Even if we could confirm without any doubt that the man Jesus of Nazareth had written it? Do you think that it would cause peace or war? I wonder, too. Over the centuries, Jesus’ teachings have gotten caught up in so many interpretations and church creeds and angry politics, not to mention wars and crusades, and many people have their own personal Jesus with whom they pray, that such a discovery might prove more disastrous than miraculous. Even just by reading the gospels by themselves, it becomes hard to recognize the Jesus described there in all of what the churches have done with their theologies, private salvations, indulgences, prayer book controversies, baptism controversies, communion debates, and battles over who’s in charge and who should sleep with whom. And, of course, all the churches would have to approve the letter as written…you could almost write a sad comedy on this premise.

Well, that’s a story for another time. The discovery of such a scroll by Jesus is the premise of a new novel, The Galilean Secret, by Evan Drake Howard, a thoughtful and versatile writer, who perhaps strained a little too much in this story that has many strengths and weaknesses, and who was perhaps pushed a little too much by publisher and agent to write another Da Vinci Code. It’s a shame. Howard claims he got the idea for the novel when taking his child’s sixth grade class to Ground Zero and there envisioning the possibility of peace rising from those ashes, rather than war. But I fear marketing got in the way.

And no wonder. Causing perhaps as much if not more excitement than a letter from Jesus was the phenomenon of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a few years back. Now, I read the book and I saw the movie, but I can’t for the life of me remember much about what The Da Vinci Code was about. It was a great read, a thrill a second – that I remember. But I came across the movie on television a few weeks ago, and seeing Tom Hanks, I had to think hard, Is that The Da Vinci Code? I couldn’t remember. For all the excitement it created way back when, it was just, well, fun. Like all fun things, it made a lot of money, and that means…imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

The Galilean Secret opens like a thriller, in the now usual Dan Brown style. A young Palestinian man, Karim Misalaha, scrambling through Qumrun, accidentally uncovers a document buried for centuries that, apparently, has been written by Jesus of Nazareth to Mary Magdalene. This is proven to just about everyone’s satisfaction very quickly, which is hardly likely, but that’s a weakness of the author’s idealism. Jesus’ letter comes to be accepted by all races and creeds and, after some gunshots and car chases and a death (and a love affair with an Israeli peace activist), peace and love prevail. Well, okay, I wish. We do have Jesus’ words in the gospels, and so I don’t know what a P.S. would do at this juncture. Also, Howard seems to throw authority to the Catholic Church when it comes to offering evidence that the letter is authentic, and no one seems to mind. Will all this bring peace and love?

Ah, but is peace and love the real point of this novel? This is where I fear some marketing forces got in the way. The one memorable aspect of The Da Vinci Code is that great question that dominated discussion of that book. You know, the question that was more important than anything else: Did He or didn’t He? Did Jesus have a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene? Were they in fact – ohmigosh -- married? No one seems to be breathlessly asking, Was Mary Magdalene really the Apostle to the Apostles? Did she have the key to Jesus’ teachings? Was Peter clueless all along and not only clueless but ambitious? Is the church that was founded on Peter’s rock a forgery?

Howard has put some thoughtful effort into these questions, although the exciting adventures surrounding Karim get more attention. However, in a story that alternates with Karim’s, Howard creates another, set in the time of Jesus’ ministry. The resulting back and forth nature of the book is slightly annoying, but it does focus attention on what everyone in the book focuses on: Jesus and his message. Howard’s historical story is interesting, and his most interesting character is the book’s strength. That character is not Mary Magdalene, who is actually pretty whiny. No, the leading character of the historical story is Judith, a young woman who, although betrothed to one young man, Gabriel, ends up impetuously running off and marrying Gabriel’s brother, Dismas, a Zealot. In time, the story meets up with Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas. The tension of the story, ie, what keeps you turning the page, is that you know that somehow a letter that Jesus wrote to Mary Magdalene (and somehow everyone reads it but her!) is going to become important in our time too, and in the combined stories, you can follow the reasons for its writing and what happened to it. But most of all, you care about Judith and what happens to her. Alas, it is really easy to lose track of her story with all the car chases and commiserating Karim and his cohorts do about Jesus’ letter. But we want to see the movie, right? We need to have these scenes, right?

What does Jesus write about that got everyone so excited? What’s everyone excited about? Using the Genesis text of how God created women and men in God’s own image as support, Jesus writes in a rather Platonic vein that we are all both male and female, and that sexual problems result when we do not learn to balance our masculine and feminine sides. I got a little lost in there, so I can’t tell you how precisely that works, and there’s nothing in the gospels about this (but there is some evidence of this train of thought in the Gnostic writings, which is where there is some evidence suggesting a strong relationship between Jesus and Mary). Howard contrasts Jesus with Judas, and in the novel, Judas betrays Jesus because he was jealous of Mary Magdalene’s love for him. (All this time we’ve wondered, and it was just The Guiding Light?). Jesus credits Mary Magdalene for helping him discover his feminine side, and, with the help of that insight, Jesus chooses to follow his call and not give in to his sexual attraction and marry Mary Magdalene. Judas Iscariot is not able to do that, and both men confuse Mary Magdalene. No wonder she’s whining.

This book takes on an enormous burden. Howard has to put words in Jesus’ mouth that are not in Scripture, write a thriller with car chases and surprising twists, alternate that plot with the story of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, deal with Jesus’ sexual attraction to Mary Magdalene, and bring together Jews, Muslims, and Christians at the end, which goes up to the year 2050. Whew! This is way ambitious, but Howard writes with a winning (if pedantic) sincerity and witih a strong background in Middle Eastern history that serves him well.

I kept wanting Howard to get back to Judith. Karim’s character was a little too annoying; even after he’d read the letter and been greatly moved by it, and puts his life on the line for it, he finds time and energy to feel guilty about his love for an Israeli peace activist who does exactly the same thing, and we have to read all those annoying paragraphs that were written just to put a romantic spin on the contemporary tale (and probably help the case for a movie). But with all the twists in the story, Karim’s plot is not as engaging as Judith’s character.

Even though he displays a curious lack of knowledge about women’s history in Jesus’ time, Howard emphasizes women’s importance in Jesus’ mission and his openness to them, and this is nice. Other characters are pretty predictable: Peter is dense as a rock. Judas is well intentioned but weak, Nicodemus is a wise convert, Barabbas is the raging rebel, and Jesus is the calm in the storm. (One interesting thing is that Howard goes out of his way to say that Jesus is really not handsome!) But Judith, the fictional character, is most engaging despite the weakness of the prose, because of her strong voice. And she’s the character we don’t know. We know what happens with just about everybody else: Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, Judas, and for those who know their New Testament traditions: Dismas. And, if you know what happens with Dismas, it adds to the poignancy of Judith’s story.

What’s disappointing about the book is that Howard can’t carry it off, even as you know he can’t and wish he could. You read about people’s responses to Jesus’ letter, you read about people reading it and immediately being converted to what the letter says, but you – with one exception – never get to read Jesus’ words in what must have been a very lengthy document! (How did Jesus find the time and the supplies to scratch all that down?) Instead, we hear about it secondhand, summarized in, alas, a dull, uninspiring way. And when we do finally get to read some of Jesus’ words, it is, alas, disappointingly dull prose, so that you wonder what you’re missing when characters burst into tears and come to believe in his message at once. So the reader’s credibility is strained, and that’s a shame.

Despite the book’s dull tone, it is obviously thoughtful, earnest, and sincere, so much so that you want all this to be true, for the writer’s sake, and for Judith’s sake (not to mention for the sake of world peace!). But alas, the writer set himself up with a terrible challenge – writing as Jesus would. He can’t do it. It’s difficult to accept the whole premise, and I want to, so I feel cheated. It’s hard to see how Israel and Palestine will come to peace because of this really dull letter. Several obvious platitudes based on the letter that begin each chapter also don’t help. So, I feel left out of all the excitement that everyone in the book feels. Oh, well. But I do still wonder about Judith.

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