Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: The Five Books of Jesus by James Goldberg (Whitney Finalist)

Title: The Five Books of Jesus
Author: James Goldberg
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Whitney Finalist
This book would be rated: G or PG

When I learned that one of the books in the historical fiction category for the Whitney Awards would be a fictionalized version of the ministry of Jesus, I heaved a great sigh. I thought the book was going to be either cheesy or didactic. I did not think that the book would be poetic and moving and inspiring (without being inspirational). But it was all of those things.

Goldberg's book opens with Jesus' baptism and follows his ministry, his death, his resurrection, and a little bit of his legacy, hitting the highlights of where Jesus went and what he said and did. Goldberg employs an interesting point of view. At times the narration feels a bit detached, like the narrator is viewing the events unfold from above the action, and then he will swoop into the minds of different characters, revealing deeply personal insights. We get into the mind of both Marys, Martha, Judas, Peter, and several other disciples, but never into the mind of Jesus himself. As I was reading, I couldn't decide if I liked this narrative style or not, but several days after finishing the book, I feel that I really remember the parts where he was in the mind of a specific person.

One of the things Goldberg does is to try to make sense of some of the more confounding parts of Christ's ministry. Why doesn't Jesus make Mary help Martha instead of giving Martha a hard time? In Goldberg's story, Jesus makes up for Mary's oversight by helping Martha with the dishes himself (but doesn't suggest to the 80 or so people assembled that things might move faster if everyone pitched in). This is just one example of many where Goldberg humanizes the stories of the gospels.

Another thing that Goldberg does is to "humanize" Jesus himself. While he's the son of God, he also has a mother who worries that he's too thin. He has deep, dark circles under his eyes from the strain of constant preaching. He stumbles after healing-- this ministry is hard work, and while Jesus does it willingly, it's also evident that it takes a lot out of him.

I feel that the images and messages of The Five Books of Jesus have stuck with me longer than anything else I've read for the Whitney Awards so far, and that Goldberg's poetic writing made the story feel a little bit mystical (in a good way). I also feel that I'm not doing this review justice by typing it with a kid chattering in my ear, but I really, really liked this book.


Katie said...

Sounds very interesting. Is this the James Goldberg from our program?

James Goldberg said...


I did my Creative Writing MFA at BYU from 2008-2010. You were the year after me, I believe.

-James Goldberg