The Christus Experiment by Rod Bennett
I picked this one up on my kindle because it received great reviews from Julie Davis of Happy Catholic and Jeff Miller, the Curt Jester, whose taste in books I generally share. Even though I had some initial doubts about the storyline, I was also intrigued to see what kind of novel had generated such praise. I was not disappointed.
Yes, it’s a science fiction novel about building a time machine and using it to kidnap Jesus. That just sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? And yet it managed to avoid all the obvious pitfalls quite well.
I had a few minor quibbles with the ending*, which felt a little too rushed, and I had a hard time keeping some of the characters straight in my head; but on the whole I was quite impressed with the novel’s plotting and character development.
I was especially fond of the treatment of Jesus as a character. He never does anything out of character or theologically unsound. He also does things which surprised me at first but on reflection show the author’s great insight. Also, I liked the various ways that the other characters related to him. They didn’t all immediately believe, as some ham handed novelists would have happen. But the ones who are skeptical remain so. And even the character who experiences a profound conversion upon meeting Jesus, still has a relapse into habitual sinful behavior. Even a face to face encounter with Our Lord doesn’t necessarily dispel a lifetime’s habits and proclivities. And the characters are complicated, they vary in the way they react. none feels pre-programmed. Throughout the novel I had no idea who was going to be converted and who was going to be confirmed in their sin.
I really noticed and loved that the novel was very short of exposition. With a cast of characters that includes a bunch of theologians it would be very tempting to let them get into long theological debates or diatribes. But no. Nothing like that at all. The theology in the novel is implicit in the action and in the characters themselves. Characters don’t have long monologues that lay out their belief systems.
I do like this bit from Bennett’s introduction, it give a little flavor of his approach:
This book is a spiritual and psychological adventure story full of wild and irresponsible religious conjecture, equally indefensible whether taken as theology or speculative fiction.
There’s really no excuse for it at all, unless perhaps it’s the same excuse Chesterton once offered for his own paradoxical religious writing: “There seems to be some sort of idea that you are not treating a subject properly if you eulogize it with fantastic terms or defend it by grotesque examples…I think [on the other hand] that the more serious is the discussion the more grotesque should be the terms…So far from it being irreverent to use silly metaphors on serious questions, it is one’s duty to use silly metaphors on serious questions. It is the test of one’s seriousness…It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.” The Christus Experiment, then, is offered as a serious joke, so to speak, in the Chestertonian vein, with hopes that no one will be tempted to mistake either its “silly metaphors” for actual theology or its serious questions for mere tomfoolery.
*About that ending. It involves major spoilers, but I think I might address my quibble in the comments. You have been warned.