by Wilton Barnhardt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Let me begin with the obligatory statement (seriously, check the other reviews) that Dan Brown wakes at night and cries into his pillow because nothing he's written has come even close to being as good as Gospel.
The novel takes place in the 80s and concerns an aging, male academic and a young, floundering, female grad student on the search for The Gospel of Matthias; the modern day search is interspersed with chapters of the gospel they're trying to find and translate. I read this for the first time as a grad student (somewhere between 2001-2003), and it blew me away. I was studying to convert to Catholicsm at the time, and I'd been reading a lot of Elaine Pagels (gnostic gospels) and hagiographies of saints and the history of Christianity and medieval mystics, and this book was just fascinating. It's heavily footnoted (and while the narrative is fictional as well as the gospel itself, the footnoted information is factual according to the author as is all the currents events stuff happening in the novel and much of the theological conversation the characters have). This was the first time I heard of the cult of Mithra or of Catherine of Siena wearing Jesus's foreskin as a magical wedding ring (naturally, it was invisible to everyone but Catherine).
On re-read, my love for this book is only slightly diminished. The Gospel of Matthias is both hilarious (unintentionally so because Matthias does not get what's happening around him half the time; he's constantly misinterpreting events) and ultimately moving because it's the quest of a man who'd been a minor disciple, only in the presence of Jesus a few time and mostly chosen because he's rich and can bankroll the ministry, to recover his lost faith.
Most of the book is the characters having theological arguments, telling theological dirty jokes, and cataloging all the bizarre anecdata of the Catholic Church. Those parts are still fun.
I like that the book turns the usual narrative about an aging male academic and his female grad student groupie on its head. Dr. O'Hanrahan is full of man pain; he's a womanizer and a drinker, and he lost his wife and kid in tragic accidents, and he's angry and disappointed that he never wrote that bestseller or made a huge mark on the academy despite all his promise--and the whole point of the book is that all his existential angst and nearly all of his problems are of his own making and he's reaping the consequences of his choices. Also, he and Lucy never have a romantic relationship (although the book seems to be going there a couple times, and I started to get nervous on this re-read because I couldn't remember that trajectory).
God gets a voice in this book; he speaks in parentheticals which are amusing and beautiful and full of mercy for his creation. I really like that authorial choice.
Having grown up in the community, I appreciate the depiction of Evangelical Christianity in all its tacky glory at the end of the novel. Considering the times we currently live in, that depiction seems eerily prescient.
I have some issues with the way that Lucy is presented: concerned about her weight and her virginity and etc. I also have some issues with the way race is handled at times. On the whole, I think this book does a good job of presenting multiple points of view about religion, however.
Definitely recommend this book, but it's a time investment at over 700 pages (with lots of eensy footnotes).View all my reviews