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There’s no need for drama in this lucid Jesus story from Owen Dudley Edwards - BOOK REVIEW: Saint Johnny: A Study in Historical Imagination by Owen Dudley Edwards

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Book review: There’s no need for drama in this lucid Jesus story from Owen Dudley Edwards | Culture | The National 21/12/2015, Review by Hugh MacDonald

THERE is, of course, a God. It is obvious that he/she/it exists for many as a central force in their lives and for others at least as an idea, even if it is one that has to be argued against forcefully.

In this respect, it would be as daft to deny God as it would be to cavil against the existence of postmodernism or dialectical materialism. The superhuman exists as a theory, at least. It could also be argued that a deity (extant or otherwise) provides much of the grist for some of the best novels. And some of the worst, too.

But if the presence or absence of a benign god is at the core of many of the most influential novels (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are obvious examples) then the figure of Jesus Christ is relatively untouched by human hand in fictional terms, certainly at the most elite level of writer.

Norman Mailer, Anne Rice, Anthony Burgess and Nikos Kazantzakis lead the limited corps who have been the prominent in the fictional evocations of Christ and it is the last that I find the most engaging. The Last Temptation of Christ by Kazantzakis is compelling because it portrays Jesus as a man who has to accept the burden, even the uncertainty of being the Messiah. It is convincing because how else can one understand the mystery of Christ and his suffering, particularly in Gethsemane?

Unbelievers can hold the view that he was a prophet or a preacher whose fear of inevitable and painful death was wholly and justifiably human. But what of the Christian? How do we reconcile that dread with the belief that Jesus Christ must have known he was immortal, that suffering was only temporary and that eternal joy was to be his reward. The answer to this, of course, is not only what will define the faith of the Christian but also shape his or her life.

It is why the episodes in Gethsemane and beyond hold such power in Owen Dudley Edwards’ novel. The miracles of Christ can be dismissed as conjuring tricks or even in the case of Lazarus as a tale manipulated and bent out of its true form. But the best and worst of us will suffer. And all of us will die. The power of Saint Johnny largely resides in this mundane certainty and the turbulence it causes. The case for God is built on need. Dudley Edwards creates a Jesus who is unmistakeably human but also quietly and irrefutably of another world.

Saint Johnny is a simple novel in that it is largely told from the viewpoint of a John who is 10 years old. Dudley Edwards remarks in a postscript that this owes much to the “convention of an approachable youth Its profundity lies in its ability to tell a great story without unnecessary drama. The greatest impression given by the Jesus of St Johnny is one of humanity, albeit it marked by exceptional wisdom and unfailing mirth.

There is little ambiguity in Saint Johnny. The brilliance, for example, of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary is to wonder at how much of the life of Jesus was true or how much was fabrication. Saint Johnny offers a gentler but still gripping question. It is this: how does one react to the story of Jesus? It is thus possible to read and enjoy St Johnny as a historical novel of considerable learning and lucidity. But it is also possible to be moved by the depiction of a man, even a deity, who is never allowed to drift far from the imperatives of life. This surely holds a resonance to believers and unbelievers alike.

The tale of Jesus Christ has been described as the greatest story ever told. Its best, most spiritual, most provocative chronicler was surely St John whose gospel is one of the wonders of literature. Dudley Edwards has taken John as a central character and has used the gospeller’s term of The Word to denote Jesus.

Through research, travel and intellect, perhaps even driving necessity, he has conjured up a novel that is convincingly true to the lessons and life of Jesus Christ. It is a story, of course, that has a debt to to the tradition of fiction and non-fiction. It resonates, though, with an authenticity that is undeniable.

Saint Johnny: A Study in Historical Imagination by Owen Dudley Edwards; Grace Note Publications, £12

The National 21/12/2015, Review by Hugh MacDonald

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