And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
Oh post-Anglican muddling, somewhere between the unpleasantly excessive certitudes of the God-botherers and the atheists. We have our quietly spiritual moments, and model them in the trappings and half-remembered rituals of the faith we were raised in; one populated by a blond, bearded Jesus and assortment of goodies and baddies, dresssed as for the Nativity play. And somewhere in the background, an urbane God, moving in a mysterious way, but almost certainly On Our Side. Even though we ruefully acknowledge, in quiet moments, that we have left undone that which we ought to have done, and done those things which we ought not to have done. Oh yes.
Reading Richard Beard’s Lazarus Is Dead was like returning to the village I was brought up in, but now being included in the grown-up conversations, and finding that there was much more going on than I’d previously noticed. Lazarus and Jesus are childhood friends; the core narrative of the book describes the last year of Jesus’ life, and the last year of Lazarus’ first life, as it were. It examines the difficulties you face when your best friend turns out to be the son of God, and therefore either less or more than human; and how disruptive it can be to your life when you’re just trying to get on with things and suddenly find yourself part of a divine plan. If that is what it is.
There are layers and layers going on here; the story is true to the biblical narrative, as far as that goes and as far as that is consistent; beyond that, there are historical records, and artistic and literary interpretations of a story that we thought we knew but (in my case at least) turn out not to know that well. And, of course, Richard’s own telling of the story. Romans and Sanhedrin work hard at <span style=”font-style: italic;”>realpolitik</span> to shape events in a manner favourably to them. Points are missed. Wrong is got, in a darkly comical way. Lazarus tries to make sense of it all. Does he succeed? Read the book, and maybe you’ll find out.
The story is vividly told; the past is brought to life. And there’s enough space in this book for any shade of belief or unbelief. I enjoyed it hugely. Go and do likewise.