A JOURNAL FOR PRIESTS
REVIEWS MY NOVEL
Here’s a thumbs-up review of MY BROTHER’S KEEPER, which has appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, a leading journal for clergy…
My Brother’s Keeper is an inspirational novel of a type that used to be broadly popular: a Bible-based narrative that expands on the Gospels to tell an engaging story about a character whose life is touched by Christ. Classics such as Ben Hur and The Robe are examples of this genre of religious storytelling that was once at the heart of the literary mainstream.
In our cynical, materialist age, such works have largely fallen out of fashion. Even the Christian publishing houses tend to shy away from Bible fiction, preferring instead to offer contemporary or historical tales that center on moral conflicts, along with those innumerable series of so-called “Christian romances.” And when secular publishers touch on the Bible these days, we’re mainly treated to gnostic conspiracies or wild speculations about Jesus’ “secret wife.”
Catholic author Bill Kassel is attempting to swim against the fashionable tide with a tale that’s remarkably orthodox but that offers an unconventional perspective on Jesus and his family. He accomplishes this through a deft blending of canonical and non-canonical elements, spiced with historical research, and a good deal of imaginative supposition.
His story is premised on two ancient pious traditions: (1) that Joseph was a widower with children when he married a much younger Mary, and (2) that Mary herself had been raised in the Temple at Jerusalem as a sort of Jewish proto-“nun.” These ideas are not Kassel’s inventions, but rather are rooted in the Apocryphal Gospels (such as the Protoevangelium of James), early Christian writings that are largely overlooked in the Western Church today.
The plot of My Brother’s Keeper gets nudged into motion when Joseph is asked to take a teenage Mary as his wife because she is approaching her “impurity” (the onset of menstruation), which will require her to leave the Temple. Mary’s mother, Anna, is dead, and her father, Joachim, is nearing death himself, so the girl needs a home and husbandly protection. The twist is that this arrangement must allow Mary to preserve the celibacy she has chosen for herself.
Thus, Kassel both sets the stage for all kinds of domestic complications within Joseph’s extended household, and advances a neat rationale for the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity which even Protestants might accept. Through such clever literary contrivances, My Brother’s Keeper tries to fill many of the gaps in the Gospels, and answer questions that have challenged the Christian imagination over millennia.
The book’s anchor is James, described in the Bible as “the brother of the Lord,” and in Kassel’s telling the youngest of Joseph’s children. James dreams of becoming a Doctor of the Law. He pursues his goal under the tutelage of Hillel, the most renowned sage of First-Century Judaism, and Gamaliel, Hillel’s grandson (who is recognized as an important leader of the Sanhedrin in The Acts of the Apostles).
As James rises to scholarly prominence, Joseph, on his deathbed, exacts a promise from him to protect Jesus, whom Joseph believes to be the Messiah. James doesn’t share his father’s certainty about Jesus and his spiritual pedigree, but he nevertheless agrees to do what he can—in essence becoming his brother’s keeper. Later in the book, when Jesus’ ministry has begun stirring controversy, James cultivates a friendship with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, in an effort to make good on the promise to his late father, and assure that Jesus isn’t railroaded by corrupt religious authorities.
Pilate is only one of the Biblical figures who show up in this book, and are revealed in unexpected ways. Joseph of Arimathea and Saul of Tarsus are two others who play surprising roles in James’ life, and add density to the plot. Numerous made-up characters enrich the story as well. In fact, one of the book’s strengths is the variety of perspectives on Jesus, illustrated as people grapple with their questions about this strange prophet from Nazareth.
Looking back 2,000 years, and knowing how things turned out, we sometimes wonder why anyone, at the time, would have missed Jesus’ true nature. But it wasn’t necessarily clear, then, who Jesus was, or what he was up to. The book captures those ambiguous circumstances, maintaining an appropriate atmosphere of tension and uncertainty throughout, until Christ’s post-resurrection appearance to James (mentioned in the Bible) near the end of the story.
Kassel demonstrates a deep appreciation for the Jewishness of Jesus, and for the Old Testament roots of Christianity, evident in his research into the laws and customs of Judaism. His command of the period’s history, the local geography, and especially the political conflicts of Roman-occupied Palestine, make this work instructive as well as entertaining. And it allows the author to avoid either over-romanticizing life in Jesus’ day, or blaming the Jews, as a people, for Christ’s death.
My Brother’s Keeper can be viewed as part of a literary genre concerning Jesus that goes back to at least the second century A.D. But it achieves a contemporary plausibility, to which modern readers can relate, by emphasizing the human dimension of the story over its miraculous aspects. This is a highly engaging work of fiction that can be readily employed in religious education programs for both adults and teenagers—though some care should be taken with young people. Kassel doesn’t soft-pedal the violence of the period. His portrayal of crucifixion is particularly vivid. It makes one appreciate what Christ suffered, but it could be a bit unsettling.
Perhaps if My Brother’s Keeper gains a sufficient following, it might help to bring quality religious novels back into popularity among the general readership. My one concern is that 1,000 years from now, when it’s discovered in cyber-space, it may attain the notoriety of the ancient Apocryphal Gospels, and engender a sequel to The DaVinci Code.
(The eBook edition of My Brother’s Keeper is available in all digital reader formats from Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other online eBook retailers. Printed books can be obtained through Ave Maria Radio’s online store at: www.AveMariaRadio.net.)
A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. His writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. You can read his reflection on my novel in Homiletic & Pastoral Review. It’s the second item in the book review column (just scroll down)…