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Novel ideas

Paul Vallely

Is it possible to portray Jesus in fiction? The obvious answer is Yes, because we've all read books and seen films in which Jesus is a character. But setting aside the schoolboy gags of Life of Brian and Bruce Almighty, can Christ be represented in a way which is meaningful?

This was the question that Rowan Williams sought to address in his inaugural lecture at the University of Chester where he has recently taken a visiting chair in literature and theology. The central problem, the former Archbishop of Canterbury said, is the one set out by the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that the idea of God becoming a human being is so outside the normal scheme of human comprehension that it is impossible to make judgements about how credible the idea is. There can be no analogy or precedent for such a preposterous incarnation. It is a good job, says Wittgenstein, that the gospels are such poor literature. They do not attempt to offer psychological insights about Christ but rather a series of theological templates. Religion is not at the end of a chain of reasoning. At the end of the gospels the reader is left only with the imperative: believe!

Dr Williams disputed the idea that the gospels are poor literature, but left that argument for another day. He accepted Wittgenstein's central thesis however and suggested there is a fundamental incompatibility between it and the whole business of what fiction is about - the bestowing of psychological plausibility on its protagonists so that the reader learns something new and deep.

Some apocryphal gospel narratives attempted this. There is an early infancy Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus makes his uncongenial schoolteacher drop dead and, slightly more engagingly, fashions sparrows from clay, clapping his hands to make them come alive. This Jesus is, according to Dr Williams, a kind of divine super-brat. But the problem that embodies is in essence the same one which bedevils more sophisticated fictions of the life of Jesus. There are three ways in which writers have tackled the idea of portraying Christ. In the end, according to Dr Williams, they all have serious shortcomings. The first way is to attempt to depict someone who is almost like Jesus but not quite. The apotheosis of this is Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Prince Myshkin is a wholly good man. Yet to make him so, the great Russian novelist discovers in the process of writing, he must become epileptic, confused and profoundly immature. It is an imitation of Christ which ends inmadness as well as death.

What Dostoevsky discovered in his creative process, Dr Williams suggests, is Wittgenstein's truth that the gospel story is unrepeatable. The American novelists Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers discover the same thing in their own way. It is the literary equivalent of the via negativa of apophatic theology which speaks of God only in terms of what may not be said about perfect goodness. It says about Christ only: Not this.

In Dr Williams' second category he placed Robert Graves' King Jesus and Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. What such books do, he said, is deal with Christ not in a secular context but by creating a counter-mythology. They set up a cosmic background against which to offer, not a rational human explanation of Christ, but another theology. Such attempts may be interesting but they are self-referential. They tell us more about the authors than they do about their subject.

The third category seems the most fruitful. These novels have an elusive parabolic challenging quality in which Jesus is seen like a character glimpsed, as it were, around a corner. Mikhail Bulgakov's Russian classic The Master and Margarita was Dr Williams' first example. Set in Stalin's Russia in the 1930s God is dead but the devil reappears. The devil is, as usual, an attractive character. The Master is a novelist writing a novel about Holy Week; Margarita is his beautiful lover. Jesus appears as a peripheral figure, confused, nervous and inarticulate. The centrality of his role becomes apparent only late on and through the agency and responses of other characters of the main characters.

Even more sideways is the eponymous protagonist of The Man on a Donkey in the novel by HFM Prescott set in Swaledale at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace. This shadowy figure acts as the catalyst for change of a depth which can only arise from an encounter between a person and God. The third way of portraying Jesus offers glimpses of a human figure affecting a new perception of the human and the divine. Jesus, said Dr Williams, is a figure in which we recognise that we are recognised.

What the former Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to be saying was that portraits of Jesus are inauthentic and unhelpful when writers see Christ as a solution to some perceived problem or condition - or a blank sheet onto which they can project their desires, fantasies and anxieties. Turning up the emotional register does not counter Wittgenstein's central assertion that we can't get behind the narrated image; it is just there, demanding a different kind of response, the response of faith not that of psychological sensibility. The authentic Christ in literature, as in life, is one who unsettles. The acuity of his portrayal must be judged by the depth of all the unsettlement he creates.