Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Last Day

A friend asked me to read the book The Last Day by James Landis and tell her what I think. She sent me an advance copy and I told her I'd post my response. It isn't the kind of book I'd pick up on my own, for two reasons: 1) It's about war; 2) One of the main characters is Jesus. Still, I read it, and it was a very good read. It is very well-written and the soldier's story-- a story of war in Iraq and also a story of his home life, growing up in New Hampshire, making friends and finding family and the circumstances that made both difficult, are very compelling and kept me going through the book. The main character, Warren Peas (I didn't catch on to the Tolstoy novel title pun), gets shortened to "War" by family and friends, which is actually kind of chilling, as he is "war" in their lives, and they have a love/worry relationship with him. He's not an easy guy to love, since he is quite closed down emotionally, but he is very lovable.

Reading this book also gave me a chance to think about books with Jesus as a character. If my life were my own (i.e., if I didn't have a full-time job), I would consider doing a dissertation on the subject. First, I have questions: When did it become OK to have Jesus, in the flesh, as a character in a realistic novel? Does the character of Jesus in fiction change to meet the theology of the times? Does the character change to reflect the ethos of the times? Is Jesus always so, um, contemporary?

The two books I'm thinking of here are The Shack and The Last Day. The former was written for a Christian audience by a Christian and was most concerned, I think, in putting forward theological positions about revenge, forgiveness, love and humanity's relationship with God. The latter is written by a secular Jew and is first and foremost about war and family-- I'm not always sure what Jesus is doing there. It's published by a mainstream press (Steerforth-- yes, it sounds like a Christian press, but it's not!), albeit with hopes of crossover readership among Christian fiction readers.

What struck me about the Jesuses is that they're totally regular guys. They're full of joy, which is good. They delight in the world as it is, and see the enormous beauty in the world. They aren't at all "spiritual" or mystical or anything. They aren't threatening. In fact, the character in The Last Day are way more interested in interacting with each other than with Jesus (except for the father). Jesus is kind of just there to facilitate.

These Jesuses are not very serious. They are laid back. In The Shack, when you need a break from the Father or Holy Ghost (heavy), you go hang out awhile with Jesus. He's still going to blow your mind, but he'll throw in a practical joke about walking on water as well. The Jesus in The Last Day is the same way. It's not actually funny when Jesus wants to drive, or when he gets a speeding ticket. It's not irreverent-- the cop likes him well enough, as does everyone-- but it's just more Jesus than Christ. (Of course, Jesus is going by the name "Ray" in this book, which doesn't quite throw everyone off.)

Jesus, of course, knows what he's doing. And in the end he will shepherd the characters through death, resurrection, reconciliation, letting go, marriage, birth-- many, many large things that take place in the book. Plus, the writing is so much better in this book than in The Shack. No comparison, there. Jesus acts in small ways to make big things happen, like rubbing a driver's license so the date of birth or name changes, again, to facilitate. Making an egg grow into a giant omelet. Nothing with grand fanfare, but what needs to be done to get us through the scene and through the challenge to the characters. Jesus puts his hand on yours and you feel it-- you feel Him--all the way to your bones. You feel the love of God. I like that enormously.

In the end, though, I just don't know about these fictional Jesuses. It takes me back to teaching World Literature at Fullerton College a little more than five years ago. There were a number of Christians in the class, and sabotage of almost any lesson on the New Testament (a selection in our reader) was sure to happen. The first time I taught the class I didn't even include that book, or the Koran, avoiding the tension of literature/holy book entirely. This time, when we got to the New Testament, I said, "I just want to try to get you to see this as literature, to consider what it means outside your context. So what if we look at the 'heroes' we've read about so far." I put up a chart on the board. Gilgamesh: 2/3 god and 1/3 man. Achilles: 1/2 god and 1/2 man. Jesus: 100% god and 100% man. "What can we make of this? And what do we see of this hero's character in the excerpts we've read..."

I still think it's useful to ask this question-- especially when encountering these books with Jesus as a character, "in the flesh" and interacting in the 21st century. These two books focus on the flesh part, the 100% man, more than the god part. Yet they try, through vague appeals to wisdom, to get us to understand that Jesus, by our side, is not just a man with some special "powers." He's our guide, and he knows what he's doing. And he's not really interested in the minutia of life-- if he's there, the issue is big, and he's gonna get us through it in a way that is truly transformative. Once you've met Jesus, you will not be the same.

In that way, it's the most calming book about war and death I've ever read. After all, Jesus is there. How bad can things get? In Iraq, things are as bad as they can be, and the war scenes are a little hard to take. However, they are interspersed with the rest of the story, and so you don't have to "go there" for long stretches.

I'm glad I read it, and I can definitely recommend it. There's a lot of good character and plot in the book, and the New Hampshire setting is great, too. And there's the added bonus of getting to think about things like war, death, and what Jesus is doing in this novel.

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