The title was like a magnet.
Many years earlier, while browsing through the shelves of a bookstore in Harare, Zimbabwe I’d stumbled upon Kahlil Gibran’s Jesus, the Son of Man and I’d been completely taken in by the idea of a novel about Jesus Christ. I’d found Gibran’s book so engaging that it’s now top on the list of books I keep reading and re-reading. Norman Mailer’s Gospel According to the Son is also joining that list.
The two books are similar to each other. They are both based on the Gospels. They both take a familiar story and they re-imagine and re-tell it. They both present an imaginative account of the life and work of Jesus Christ and explore the effect that Jesus had on the lives, hearts and minds of the people he lived and worked among. The story in both books is presented in the first person by a person who was close to the action. And, to me, the spirit that informs and pervades both books feels so authentic that each of the books reads like an alternative Gospel.
The main difference between the two books is that Jesus, the Son of Man was first published in 1928 while The Gospel According to the Son came out in 1998. Also, while The Gospel According to the Son has one narrator, Jesus, the Son of Man is told from multiple perspectives. It is told from the individual point of view of a variety of characters who’d known, lived with, met or heard about Jesus Christ. Most of the characters whose voices we hear in this book are also mentioned or implied in the Gospels. These characters include Anna, the mother of Mary; Mary Magdalen; Caiaphas, the High Priest; Joseph of Arimathaea and Simon, the Cyrene. Jesus, the Son of Man gives these and other characters more time and space than they were given in the Gospels and allows each of them to tell what they saw, heard, thought and felt about Jesus in their own words.
In The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer does more-or-less the same thing. While in the Gospels which appear in the Bible, we hear about the life and work of Jesus from people who heard about him from his disciples, in The Gospel According to the Son, Mailer allows Jesus to tell his own story in ‘his own words’.
Mailer allows us to imagine how Jesus Christ might have told the story of his own life. He allows us to imagine Christ as a man like any other man and to see some the inner conflict Christ must have felt and experienced and how he resolved or failed to resolve this conflict. Mailer allows us to imagine what Christ might have thought and felt about key stages or events in his life, among them: his birth; his apprenticeship as a carpenter; his relationship with his mother and immediate family; his relationship with his disciples; his relationship with God; his relationship with religious leaders of the time; his death; his resurrection and the wars that have been fought in his name.
Both Jesus, the Son of Man and The Gospel According to the Son are written in language that is accessible and easy to read. They contain nuggets of observations on life and spirituality that encourage the reader to think about life, religion and his/her relationship with others and with God. The books also have the effect of making the reader want to go back and re-familiarize himself/herself with the Gospels and the account they present of the life and work of Jesus Christ.