(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The subtitle of The Greatest Story Ever Told is A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived. Such use of superlatives came easily to Fulton Oursler from his years as senior editor of Reader’s Digest. Yet for the most part, his fictional biography of Jesus Christ eschews superlatives and sensationalism, instead building on the narratives found in the Gospels, with the addition of material long sanctioned by tradition (while often admitting to its lack of canonicity), such as Veronica’s wiping the face of Jesus on the way of the cross. The success of Oursler’s book may partly be attributed to this cautious use of imagination, as well as to the general popularity of religious fiction in postwar America. Bestsellers during this time included The Robe (1942) and The Big Fisherman (1948) by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Miracle of the Bells (1946) by Russell Janney, The Bishop’s Mantle (1947) by Agnes Turnbull, and The Cardinal (1950) by Henry Morton Robinson. Oursler’s novel, however, hewed so closely to the Gospel accounts that it was listed in the nonfiction best-seller lists for 1949.

Oursler’s novel follows the broad outlines of the main chronology of Jesus’ life as set out in the Gospels, from Joseph’s courtship of Mary up to the Resurrection. Oursler does not fill in the blanks in Jesus’ life, such as his childhood or the hidden years before his meeting with John the Baptist. The main problem that Oursler faces in his chronology is the exact sequencing of the events in Jesus’ ministry, which are not consistently ordered in the four Gospel accounts. He gets around this by writing extremely short chapters, which has the effect of weakening the temporal links between the incidents.

One reason to turn a biblical story into fiction is so that characters can be...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Allitt, Patrick. “The American Christ.” American Heritage Magazine 39 (November, 1988): 128-41. Traces the particularly American interpretations of the figure of Jesus in fiction: as capitalist, socialist, public relations genius, and therapist.

Detweiler, Robert. “Christ in American Religious Fiction.” Journal of Bible and Religion 32 (1964): 8-14. Judicious overview of Jesus as both literary character and religious figure. Places Oursler’s novel in the context of its genre.

Oursler, Fulton. Behold This Dreamer: An Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. Oursler describes his life and his religious beliefs.

Oursler, Fulton. “The Greatest Thing in My Life.” In The Road to Damascus, edited by John A. O’Brien. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1949. Oursler explains how his conversion to Catholicism arose from his journeys to the Holy Land and resulted in the production of The Greatest Story in the World both as novel and a long-running radio show.