2017-07-12
Canadian novelist Nino Ricci's latest book, Testament," is a retelling of the gospel stories through the eyes of three familiar biblical figures-Judas, Mary Magdalene, and his mother, Mary-and a fictional Syrian shepherd who narrates Jesus' lonely and desperate end in Jerusalem. In Ricci's conception, which owes much to recent historical and textual scholars, Jesus is entirely human. But given the history we know is to come, the book reads almost like a mystery, as Ricci weaves a trail from a mystic Jewish teacher to the traditions of a worldwide religion. We talked with Ricci recently about what he found out while writing "Testament."

Why did you write a novel about Jesus?
It just seemed like a very good book to write. As a young child, I was taken by Jesus as a role model in the way children are. And I had a Catholic education and took to it quite strongly. Although I fell from grace in my teens, I never lost an interest in the subject, and I returned to it. It had that strong sort of inner compulsion.

Your first novel, "Book of Saints," concerns an illegitimate birth and a woman whose life is changed by it. This sounds a bit like Mary in "Testament."
In the novel "Fifth Business," by the Canadian Robertson Davies, the main character is a hagiographer, someone who studies the saints. He points out that saints are rabble-rousers, renegades who took things to extremes. That always stuck with me. The people who became heroes were always troublemakers. That certainly was true of my character Christina, in my first novel. She is an adulterer, and therefore the obvious sinner. But she also exemplified the spirit of sainthood in sticking to her beliefs and behaving how she damn well pleased.

Certainly that's in Jesus. From his mother's point of view, he's a typical delinquent son. He leaves home. He fails to look after her. He seemed to pointlessly defy authority, and he ends up executed as a criminal. To someone who didn't know he was going to become the central figure in a major religion, Jesus would have seemed an abject failure. On the other hand, he sticks by his beliefs no matter what people around him think.

Yet your portrait of Jesus is less political than, say, the Jesus Seminar's.
There were a lot of political movements at the time. You had the collaborationists. You had the Pharisees, who were probably more revolutionary than we give them credit for. There were the Essenes, who believed the way to stay pure was to separate themselves. The Zealots seem closest to today's Islamic sense of jihad. They believed the only political leader was God, and the only way to purify the land was by completely eliminating the foreigner.

Jesus seemed to differ from all those groups in some fundamental way. Whenever the questions were put to him, the famous example of taxation, for instance-"To whom are we supposed to pay our taxes?--he skirts the question, but gives a fantastic response--the coins belong to Caesar, give them back to him. He wasn't saying what the past Jewish leaders--past saviors really--said, which was get together an army and kick the invaders out. There was the pacifist strand that came out of his teaching, and there was his whole notion of the kingdom of God. It's an idea of remaking the world through your vision. You remake the world by how you look at it, by changing how you act locally, as opposed to in a global, political sense.

So though he was living in a very revolutionary way, the Romans were almost beside the point. He was challenging the Jewish authority and the established received wisdom more than the more narrow political authority of the Romans.

Why do you think we're so fascinated with historical recreations of the New Testament?
I suspect it has to do with the historical moment we're in. I doubt there was the same fascination in the Middle Ages. It grew out of the Enlightenment feeling that we could know the truth.

This rationalism is coupled with our deep emotional bond to that myth. If you read the introductions to their books, you'll see the members of the Jesus Seminar have all had some kind of troubled past in Christianity. They were raised with the tradition and rejected it, or found things they couldn't accept. I come at it from the same angle. As a child I was deeply invested in these ideas, and then at a certain point realized they were a kind of hoax that had been perpetrated for 2,000 years.

What drove me forward was that people still find him important. They still try to make sense of him. As a culture, we still haven't accepted the possibility that Jesus was a teacher with interesting things to say, who was human. We're struggling toward that transition and we haven't found the way to do it.

So on the one hand, what does it matter who he was, since we can't really know? In some ways we have a less coherent sense of Jesus's teaching than Socrates, Buddha and so on. But there is something of strength which fundamentally informs our culture. You can't really escape it, so we ought to at lease try to understand it.

You stress Jesus's personal magnetism. If that was a large part of his appeal, how does his movement go forward after he's gone?
As a Jewish cult, Christianity seems to have died out pretty quickly. It was the non-Jewish world that ended up embracing him. In that sense, his light did go out. If not for St. Paul and Constantine, who made Christianity the religion of Rome, who knows if it would have survived the next 1700 years?

Neither of these would have happened, however, if his teaching hadn't filled some kind of a need. I always come back to the kingdom of God, and his inversion of hierarchy. It may be that this was a notion whose time had come. You encounter it in the Cynic philosophers. It was present in Judaism, but it wasn't yet enunciated. Jesus placed even the most minor human being at the center of his value system, That appealed to slaves, the outcast and the poor. It wasn't exploitive. It gave them a humanity that previous value systems hadn't. And that allowed it to hang on.

You say Jesus was a role model for you as a child. What was your picture of Jesus then?
I was a bit ostracized as a child for various reasons, and Jesus was the successful rebel. He had a few tricks by which he overcame his enemies. He was also accepting of outsiders, so an outsider could think, "I've got a friend in Jesus." That combination of compassion and miracle and success in overcoming your enemies was pretty attractive.

Is there not some value in that Jesus?
In the novel, I wanted to avoid stripping him completely of wonder. I hope he's still a potent being, if not a divine one. But to me, he's more potent if he was human, and still had that wisdom and power.

And as much as that hero appeals to the imagination, the movement of the church, in fact, has been to repress imagination. We have to take into account the Freudian repression and the wars and so on. The tradition has been used for evil as much as good.

If my characters are changed by Jesus, it's not the mythical element that changes them, but the wider resonance. Here's someone who has a new way of looking at things. Jesus uses an almost Socratic method of getting the listener to think for themselves. That's what I think gets missed--this sense of questioning, of Jesus saying, "Open your eyes."



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