Dinner with a Perfect Stranger caught my eye as I was browsing in a local bookstore. I shouldn’t really go near the bookstore these days (I need more books like I need it to be a few degrees hotter), but like an alcoholic just happening to walk by his old watering hole I wandered into the bookstore one lunch hour. I rationalized that at least it was a slim book I would be able to finish and one that had spiritual content.
So what exactly is Dinner with a Perfect Stranger (DWAPS)? Well, it is a novella length parable of sorts; or maybe it is better described as a fictionalization of a modern day dinner conversation with Jesus Christ. Here is the teaser:
What Would You Discuss. . . Over Dinner with Jesus?
That’s the dilemma facing cynical but successful businessman Nick Cominsky when he accepts an invitation to join Jesus of Nazareth for dinner at a local restaurant. Nick is convinced that his friends at work are pulling a prank. But the man sitting across from him appears to be quite serious, introducing Himself as “Jesus. My family called me Yeshua.”
Nick accepts his dinner companion’s suggestion to suspend his disbelief and “proceed as if I am Jesus.” What follows is a fascinating conversation that covers family relationships, world religions, and the afterlife, among other topics. Along the way, Nick confronts his own unfulfilled longings, spiritual uncertainties, and anger with God and he begins to wonder if the man across from him holds the answers to his deepest questions.
I won’t go into greater detail than that as the book is only 100 pages! The question is did Gregory pull it off – does he create an artful and thought provoking conversation?
As with so many things these days, I am of two minds about the book.
On the one hand, it really is an approachable and readable synopsis of what it means to be a Christian (if by Christian you mean modern, evangelical, non-fundamentalist, etc.). The emphasis is on God’s grace and forgiveness but also on his interest in “restoring relationships,” of coming to indwell each individual thereby giving them the strength to love others unconditionally.
It isn’t exactly apologetics, but it does touch on the worldviews of the other major religions, and on things like the “problem of evil” and the literal creation of the world in seven days. It may have an emphasis on forgiveness but it touches on the existence of hell and why people can end up there.
None of the above issues are handled in a particularly comprehensive way and I am sure non-Christians might complain the way other religions are handled. But to be fair the book is only 100 pages long and isn’t really meant to supply definitive answers. There is something to be said for the conversational approach and the boiled down nature of the answers. This can provide an introduction for those looking to know more and a reminder to believers about the essence of their faith.
The set up as a conversation can seem a little forced at times (do we really care what they are eating?) but is does provide a setting and context for a conversational approach to the issues raised. It makes the book approachable in ways that a traditional apologetics book is not.
And yet, the cynical part of me wonders just how effective this sort of set up can be. I have a hard time judging the line between approachable and cheesy; between creative and overly-simplistic; between definitions 2 and 3 of didactic. Ironically, Nick mocks cheesy church out-reach programs at the beginning of the book while wondered whether the book was one.
I also have a hard time seeing this work reach anyone with deeper philosophical or personal questions; or a more sophisticated view of literature. The character Nick indicates who this might be aimed at. He is a middle-class, Midwestern, married man with a young daughter. He grew up going to Sunday school and has been exposed to the Gospel throughout his life. Nick has grown away from spiritual things mostly because he is to busy and because he has a lot of misconceptions about the Christian faith. This might be considered the low hanging fruit of evangelism.
So that is my dilemma. It played itself out on the book’s Amazon page. Here is the conclusion of the Amazon review by Ed Dobeas:
In the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis touched on some of the core questions of religion, from the Christian viewpoint (is there a hell? What is heaven like, really? How can other religions be wrong, and just one be right?) Taking his cue from Lewis, Gregory does the same, realizing that questions like these come alive when they’re in the context of a story, and we can be the third party, watching with interest while they are put on the table and considered. In the end, Gregory’s book succeeds because of his willingness to approach interesting, hard questions like these. He is always, undoubtedly, aiming for the heart, but he realizes that to win the heart one must never forget that the mind has to come along for the ride.
In contrast here is the, more cynical, Publishers Weekly conclusion:
In his quest to prove why Christianity is superior to other religions, Gregory has Jesus make misleading statements about Hinduism, Buddhism and particularly Islam. These unfair caricatures add to the book’s heavy-handed feel, as do straw-man arguments for the veracity of the Bible and the resurrection. What’s appealing about this book is that its Jesus is refreshingly down-to-earth; he digs good food, draws theological illustrations from Star Trek, and quietly chafes at wearing a necktie. But that can’t disguise the fact that Gregory has not written a story so much as a dressed-up and controversial sermon.
My initial reaction was with PW. Here is the Amazon review I posted:
I have to agree with the Publishers Weekly review above. This short work is really just a sermon dressed up as a novella. The gospel is presented in a conversational and approachable way much as one might hear in a seeker church or outreach ministry. The plot is thin, however, as the story is just Nick and Jesus talking at an Italian restaurant. Ironically, Christians might be more likely to be inspired by the pared down version of faith while there is little here to convince or interest those skeptical of the Christian faith. In a further irony the lead character seems to mock church outreach gimmicks and yet this book has just that feel. This book seems best suited to Christians who have lost their focus or non-Christians who have grown up in stagnant Churches but are nevertheless sympathetic to the gospel. It is awkwardly stuck between seeker sermon and modern parable. With more imagination it might have become the later, but as it is it really is just a thinly disguised version of the former.
But in thinking about writing this review I wondered if I wasn’t being a bit harsh. So I re-read the book. After having done that I think I lean a little closer to Dobeas. While I certainly don’t think this book is likely to win over the cynics and die hard agnostics, I have come to realize that it isn’t aimed at them either. It really is aimed at, to use a loaded term, seekers; those with a negative view church or who have misconceptions about what Christianity is really all about and what it might mean for their life. As I noted in my Amazon review, it can also serve to refocus believing Christians on the core truths of their faith.
Part of my cynicism is a lack of faith; an over-intellectualization – a sort of false sophistication – that prevents me from appreciating the simple ideas behind my faith. Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, for all its faults, is an honest and sincere attempt to share that faith. I believe only good can come from that.