(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

There are two obvious ways a reviewer could choose to discuss a first-person novel about Jesus Christ by Norman Mailer. One could discuss it as a late addition to Mailer’s huge, varied, and ambitious body of work. Or one could compare and contrast it to what is known, on one hand, and believed, on the other, about Jesus: that is, one could measure Mailer’s “take” on Jesus against the New Testament, the few known noncanonical accounts of his life, and the accreted traditions of Jesus’ followers over two thousand years. (For an excellent scholarly summary of what is historically known about Jesus, see C. H. Dodd’s The Founder of Christianity [1970].)

Both of the obvious ways to review The Gospel According to the Son are legitimate, to a point, yet neither can do full justice. One senses that it is important to keep both the Bible and the author’s career at arm’s length, in order to respond to this book as nearly as possible on its own extremely ambitious terms.

The very public quality of Mailer’s career, especially during the 1960’s, often has obscured his worth and achievement purely as a writer. Yet he is a writer more than and before he is a public persona, and three of his books—The Naked and the Dead (1948), The Armies of the Night(1968), and The Executioner’s Song (1979)—belong, his persona notwithstanding, on any list of the major achievements of twentieth century American literature. Mailer’s courage as a writer and the sincerity as well as the size of his ambition are such that each of his attempts deserves respect and consideration on its own merits; too many critics too quickly refer to Mailer’s persona. It is not legitimate to complain, as some might be inclined to do, that Mailer is such an egomaniac that now he thinks he is Jesus.

Assessing to what extent Mailer has toed or resisted one or another Christian “party line” is similarly problematic. Mailer is actually quite respectful of the “original” Jesus of both history and belief, and reviewers who are professing Christians, such as Reynolds Price in The New York Times Book Review and John Updike in The New Yorker, have a subtle kind of vested interest in muting the profundity of the mysteries Mailer’s portrayal dares to touch; they are subtly corrupted by attachment to the institutions and history of Christianity, which are fine things in themselves, on the whole, but which are in fact something other and inevitably lesser than what Christ himself was about. Like Graham Greene, Mailer is keenly interested in religion yet distrustful of its institutional forms. As Greene once told the Catholic magazine The Tablet (September 23, 1989), religion to him was “a mystery which can’t be destroyed, not even by the Church.”

Mailer here shrewdly camouflages his trademark ambition as modesty—as indeed Jesus himself did. He remains quite close to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life—the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and one suspects that this choice reflects tactical purpose rather than timidity. By reining in his previously amply displayed tendency to speculate about metaphysical and mystical questions, Mailer gives himself the wiggle room he needs to depict a human Jesus coming to a gradually unfolding awareness of his paradoxically simultaneous identity as the Son of God. He does not attempt to break new scholarly or speculative ground on questions of fact or event, but rather boldly goes where no writer has gone before (only Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, published in translation in 1960, comes to mind): inside the mind of the story’s protagonist.

Inevitably his success is partial, since he portrays Jesus not as a mere prophet or preacher or political dissident, but as the Son of God whom Christians claim him to be. Mailer once wrote that the only mind a novelist cannot understand is that of a novelist superior to himself, and characteristically he here attempts to understand just such a mind. Christians call Jesus “the Author of our salvation” and God “our Creator”; thus can God be understood as the greatest novelist of them all. Greene told The Tablet that “the writer in a sense is a little God working by instinct,” a claim with which Mailer would agree. To what extent can such a...

(The entire section is 1777 words.)