'What shall I do then with Jesus?'

Testimonies by four new 'eye-witnesses' about the Galilean rabble-rouser whose teaching shook the world

Nino Ricci is fortunate that Christian leaders aren't currently issuing fatwas, although as Salman Rushdie knows, there's nothing like a blasphemy charge to boost sales. Back before Madonna became a madonna, she profited from fundamentalists hyperventilating over her lyrics, but we haven't really had an energetic heresy debate since Martin Scorsese's "Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988.

On balance, this is a good thing. Fear of censure can smother artistic creativity. And liberal democracies don't function if we have to stop shopping every few days to gather dry sticks. But literature, particularly literature about religious issues, has lost something in this triumph of tolerance: the chance to be taken seriously on religious terms. Between fundamentalists painting their critiques in primary colors and liberal theologians claiming they can't find a brush, we're left talking about signs of Christ in a sexy kung fu movie called "The Matrix."

Nino Ricci's "Testament" deserves a wide audience and should ignite vigorous debate. With a nod - but just a very faint nod - to the structure of the New Testament, this Canadian author has imagined four testimonies by very different people who knew Jesus: Judas, a Jewish rebel who did not betray Jesus; Mary Magdalene, a chaste young woman who jealously defends Jesus; his mother, who was raped by a Roman soldier; and Simon, a pagan shepherd who follows Jesus to Golgotha.

In a brief end note, Ricci states, "This is a work of fiction.... It does not purport to be an accurate historical representation." Jack Miles offered the same perfunctory defense at the end of his "Christ" in 2001: "The interpretation of the New Testament offered in this book is literary, rather than historical or theological."

There's something disingenuous about these disclaimers. They sound like those permission slips that try to absolve school principals of all responsibility in case your child is impaled during a field trip. In fact, when a book portrays the central figure of Christianity as the bastard progeny of rape, shows his cures as exaggerations or lies, and presents the Ascension as a desperate invention, it's making theological claims. And if it weren't for millions of people's faith in a very different kind of portrayal - a faith these authors claim is irrelevant, even while they play off it continually - there would be little interest in their reimaginings.

Ricci is a fantastic storyteller, and the four testimonies he's bound in "Testament" comprise an unsettling book. Judas's narrative draws us into the political tensions smoldering in ancient Palestine. A careful, analytical man, he's a member of one of the many Jewish groups plotting revolt against Rome in a climate so fearful and repressive that they end up striking against one another more than the emperor. He hopes to use his position among the disciples as a cover for rebel recruitment, but soon he feels impelled to protect their enigmatic teacher, even as he's frustrated by Jesus' apparent disregard for danger. In a world obsessed with exclusion and purity, he's particularly awed by Jesus' willingness to embrace lepers, eat with them, and offer recuperative herbal treatments.

Far less intellectual or political, Mary Magdalene's testimony burns with claustrophobic intensity, fueled by romantic attraction she can't even admit to herself. One of several women in Jesus' inner circle, she describes the personal dynamics of this small group, their petty jealousies, shameful plays for favor, and shifting alliances. Her master's insistence on ignoring all the differences she's been taught to respect - clean and unclean, Jew and pagan, man and woman, well and sick - ushers her into a kind of freedom she can barely grasp.

Though they remain in a cold war, competing for Jesus' affection, both Judas and Mary agree that the rumors about his wondrous cures were started by ignorant gossips or spies hoping to overwhelm their teacher with hordes of sick people he couldn't help.

Ricci's creation of Mary the mother of Jesus is his most psychologically sophisticated. What would it really have been like, he asks, for a poor woman to raise a precocious boy in a culture that had no place for bastard children? It's an agonizing, masterly portrayal that roots Jesus' philosophy of inclusion in the tragedy of his own childhood. Jesus and Mary engage in a battle of passive aggression that will seem familiar to many parents, but it's also a daring attempt to trace the doctrine of Christian salvation to the psychological violence of one dysfunctional family.

The final testimony comes from Simon, a happy-go-lucky shepherd who tags along with Jesus to get away from his cruel brother. He seems a rube at first, and his narrative is the only one free of any particularly personal or political agenda. He's also the only one to follow Jesus through his trial and death, and his plainspoken voice eventually provides the most gripping and terrifying story. Like the other three narrators, he never sees Jesus perform any sudden cures or violate any natural laws, but what seems more wondrous to him than any of those distracting "miracle rumors" is Jesus' insistence on forgiveness.

Indeed, "Testament" is an unrelentingly secular picture of Jesus that threatens to reduce Christian spirituality down to a doctrine of being really nice to everybody. Hopeful as that might have been (and continues to be), it's difficult to fathom how such a practice could have shaken the world.

But the novel's most remarkable - or devilish - strategy is the way Ricci creates the ordinary events and statements that were, he implies, twisted for a variety of motives to produce the Gospel anecdotes. The subtle differences between his testimonies from Judas, the two Marys, and Peter force us to consider the opportunities for creative addition, alteration, and interpretation as stories about Jesus were handed through innumerable retellers. Any reader familiar with the New Testament will experience the jarring recognition of sacred statements and stories reconstructed, recombined, or disassembled in ways that make today's Christianity look entirely happenstance - or even ridiculous.

Not surprisingly, Ricci acknowledges his debt to the Jesus Seminar and insists that he "has made every effort to work within the bounds of historical plausibility." This is an entirely reasonable approach, except that history tends to turn on moments of striking implausibility.

The four narrators Ricci creates are exceptionally well drawn and brilliantly infused with the details of their time, but the figure they revolve around remains something of a black hole, observable mostly by his influence on them. When we do glimpse Jesus, he's a provocative, captious man, confusing to his devoted followers. Ricci's fascinating vision presents a challenge to those comfortable with a quaint Christ. But on the other hand, little about Jesus' words or actions as portrayed here seems sufficiently unique or powerful to have sparked the spiritual revolution that began 2,000 years ago.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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