Regular readers will know that I have long had an interest in fiction that touches on issues of faith and religion. On the other hand, I don’t read a lot of historical fiction; for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into right now.
Traditionally, John the Baptist is seen as little more than an opening act—”the voice crying in the wilderness”—in the great Christian drama. In presenting the epic of John’s life, novelist Brooks Hansen draws on an extraordinary array of inspirations, from the works of Caravaggio, Bach, and Oscar Wilde to the histories of Josephus, the canonical gospels, the Gnostic gospels, and the sacred texts of those followers of John who never accepted Jesus as Messiah: the Mandeans.
Gripping as literary historical fiction, and fascinating as a diligent exploration of ancient and modern sources, this book brings to eye-opening life the richly textured world—populated by the magnificently sordid, calculating, and reckless Herods, their families, and their courts—into which both John and Jesus were born. John the Baptizer is a captivating tapestry of power and dissent, ambition and self-sacrifice, worldly and otherworldly desire, faith, and doubt.
A straightforward historical portrayal of John might be interesting in and of itself, but the unique and creative mix Hansen offered put this one on the top of my reading list.
Most of the time the publishers blurb has an element of hyperbole to it – depending on the quality of the book in question this can be annoying or flat out deceptive – but in my opinion this one really does capture the book.
More on why below.The first paragraph relates to the second. Hansen’s use of a wide variety of sources – and the gnostic Mandeans in particular – are what give the work its unique flavor or perspective. Hansen doesn’t simply bring a historical view to the story. Yes, his skillful writing brings the ancient world to life; to the point you almost feel like you are reading a primary source not a novel. But he weaves into this historical story a mystic, spiritual, almost dream like element.
And on a number of levels it is in contrast that the novel builds its power. There is the dual elements noted above that surround John’s story: the historical and political context of his time and region, and the simple ascetic nature of his life and mission, are contrasted with the mystical and supernatural nature of his life from a birth under a star to his time spent with Nasurai.
In the same way, John’s story and mission is stands in stark contrast with the history of what Kirkus so aptly describes as “the semi-pagan Herod clan. A tempestuous, incestuous convergence of two royal Israelite dynasties produces Herod the Great.”
This altering between a history pregnant with spirituality and a history full of debauchery, between the simple asceticism that emphasizes self-sacrifice and the gaudy, greedy and power hungry trappings of royalty, pushes the novel forward as everyone familiar with story knows that the two will meet in a violent climax.
This mix might not be attractive to everyone, the Kirkus review concludes:
A curious melange of the sacred and profane, but always captivating when the sinners are onstage.
But I think Publishers Weekly has it right:
The juxtaposition of stark realism and religious loftiness has its perplexing moments, but it’s precisely what will keep the pages turning.
To me Hansen balanced these two aspects to incredible effect. The contrast of the sacred and the profane – and how often they mixed in provocative ways in the ancient world – are what drove the story. And it is only by presenting this wider lens on the connection between John and gnosticism, and other by now largely forgotten sects, that Hansen offers more than just a fictionalized history of John; takes it from history to art/literature.
Which is why I found the novel as advertised:
Gripping as literary historical fiction, and fascinating as a diligent exploration of ancient and modern sources … a captivating tapestry of power and dissent, ambition and self-sacrifice, worldly and otherworldly desire, faith, and doubt.
It might seem to odd to describe a literary exploration such as this as gripping but I was pulled into it and wanted to spend all my time reading it; “a captivating tapestry” is a perfect description.
I should note that obviously orthodox Christians will not agree with many of the theological elements found in the story. Classical Christianity did eventually declare gnosticism heresy after all. And some might find the interaction of John and Jesus – or more specifically the disciples of John and Jesus – provocative.
And the supernatural element is clearly not historical in the academic sense.
But to get hung up on these issue is to miss the nature of the work. This is not a thinly disguised catechism, or a loosely fictionalized history, but a work of literature with all the complexity and provocation that can involve.
No matter your faith background, or lack of it, or your knowledge of the Bible, or lack of it, I highly recommend John The Baptizer. Its blends the historical and the literary in ways that defy genre and subject matter to create a powerful story.