52 Titles: Jose Saramago’s “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ”

Jose Saramago is one of my favourite authors. I like that he isn’t afraid to spend 1,000 words cataloguing every step of a character’s thought process — especially when that person is Jesus Christ. Nuance isn’t always considered when people talk about the Bible and its tenets, so it’s nice to read something that contextualizes Jesus Christ as a person as well as his role as a religious figure.

The Gospel is fiction, yes, but a writer from Portugal — a country that is 85 per cent Roman Catholic — intuitively knows what buttons to push. Saramago took the bare bones of what we know about Jesus from the Bible, then fills in the details with fiction. Nothing could be more maddening to a devout believer than to hear plausible, unflattering fictions about your icons. Of course, if you believe Jesus Christ was a real human, then he must have had real emotions — why then it is so implausible to believe he could have human flaws? In it, he marries the prostitute Mary Magdalene, runs away from home, argues with his mom Mary, and outgrows his shoes. At times he asks, ‘Why me?’ because, if you were Jesus, wouldn’t you too?

My mother, a devout Christian, asked what I was reading; when I told her she dismissed it as sacrilegious (in so many words). That a believer would take that view is exactly Saramago’s point in writing the book. His view of Christianity and of faith is neither here nor there — the book succeeds not because it is controversial, but because he makes the faith part seem irrelevant to what is essentially an interesting story about an interesting man.

Put another way: I don’t think it’s a good read because I grew up in the church, or because doing something my mom considers sacrilegious makes me gleeful. It’s a wonderful social experiment, and a wonderful way to reconsider the tired, recited-by-rote Bible stories I’d heard growing up. All those bumper stickers ask: “Do you know Jesus?” This book makes you feel like you might.

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