Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Oursler was born a Protestant, became an agnostic, and converted to Catholicism. The 1949 edition of The Greatest Story Ever Told carries both a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, which represent the Catholic hierarchy’s seal of doctrinal approval. The life of Jesus that Oursler presents is strictly orthodox, although a few extremely conservative critics called it heretical. For Oursler, Jesus is primarily the Son of God, although he reveals his divinity to his followers gradually, so that they will not be shocked. The social aspect of Jesus’ message is emphasized at times, that Jesus is bringing “a social and moral revolution,” particularly in the attitudes of the Jewish clerical hierarchy against him. However, in keeping with his title, Oursler declares that Jesus was “the greatest teller of good stories” who ever lived, “good stories” being a version of the root meaning of the word “gospel.” Thus Jesus’ teaching mission is highlighted as well as his ability to couch his message in terms that transcend place and time.

The particularly Catholic slant to the biography emerges in the treatment of sexuality. Even before he is engaged to Mary, Joseph is criticized by his friend Samuel for his chaste habits. When Joseph learns the precise nature of Mary’s pregnancy, he decides, on his own and to himself, that he will lead a celibate life with her after her child is born, even though they are “profoundly in love.” More important, Joseph gets into an argument with Samuel about Mary’s purification after the birth of Jesus. Samuel asks why Mary, if she is sinless, needs purification. This is an argument not about Jewish rituals but about the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic doctrine that Mary was born without the taint of Original Sin. Joseph gives the somewhat lame answer that they will follow the law.

However, Oursler’s attempt to make Jesus all things—teacher, Son of God, Messiah, social revolutionist—has the effect of not only lessening his impact as a literary character but also diluting his religious dimensions. In addition, Oursler’s tendency to present certain key scenes secondhand has the effect of distancing their significance, leading to a curiously muted ending of the “greatest story,” where one might have expected notes of renewed certitude, vindication, and triumph.