Interview with John Kolchak, Author of Next Year in Jerusalem

Yesterday I posted my review of John Kolchak’s novel Next Year in Jerusalem. John kindly agreed to a short interview answering some of the questions I had after reading his novel.

Tell me about what inspired the novel. Was there a particular character, plot point or theme that inspired you?

This book was equally inspired by global terrorism and the rise of ISIS as by the tragic story of Jesus. Much of what makes the Gospel story so compelling is the tragedy, almost as much as the hope vis-a-vis the Resurrection. There is a reason the critical/literary term “Christ Figure” exists and continues to be so popular in art and culture whether one is even aware of it or not. For us humans, where our very lives are a death sentence, we are drawn to the poignancy of death and suffering while we also yearn for some type of hope and salvation. That is about the religious and spiritual aspect of the book. The second inspiration was the contradictions in Jesus’ character throughout the New Testament. Like the contradictions in Islam which George W Bush called “the religion of peace” and how some of its followers have been interpreting the Quran to very much the opposite of harmony. These inconsistencies and mysteries led me on a path of Biblical research and Christology since they parallel the gross discrepancy between intent and practice, as evidenced by religious violence in the Middle East today. One of the uncanny aspects I tried to present is that it is precisely in the same part of the world where this discord has been occurring for millennia. On a more human level, I have always been drawn to the story of Christ and decided to write my own version and make Him as flawed as all of us are if we accept the dual nature of the Son of God and the Son of Man.  I am not a Christian and I’m not an atheist either. I don’t know what I am.

Did you write this novel for a particular reader or audience, or with an experience you wanted the reader to have, in mind?

Part of the problem with writing a novel about Jesus is that it is a story that almost everyone on the planet already knows all too well. I tried to humanize Him as much as possible, to show Him more as a Son of Man, warts and all; a deeply flawed person. That is just one of the many contradictions in the New Testament: that there are hints at his flaws and yet at the same time we are supposed to assume that He was also infallible. I did not write it for any target audience. Far from it. I hope this book deserves a wide readership, because the travails, joys and sufferings of all the characters is universal. The fact that the Jesus story continues to hold and fascinate means that there is something gripping about it, whether one is a believer or not. As far as the other players go, some readers who are suffering from a mid-life crisis like myself may find commonality with my portrayal of Pilate. I confess that I did channel plenty of my own anxieties and fears in his character.

Another problem with writing a novel about Jesus is that it will offend some people where it departs from orthodoxy. What has the response to the novel been like?

I’ve seen people write that this book should be burned (along with the author) which is fine by me. No such thing as negative publicity. As I might have written above, my intentions were neither to offend or provoke. If there is a provocation inside, it’s related to the parallels I make between the Jewish Wars in the 1st Century and the endless fighting in Israel and Palestine today. But that too is not meant as a provocation but more as a plea for sanity, so to speak.

Even if it wasn’t my intention to offend, I don’t care if people are offended or not. I think in current times, people should be offended and challenged as much as possible.

You mentioned the research you have done. I imagine this is a double-edged sword; on one hand it adds considerable colour and detail to a story but, on the other hand, you don’t want the history to get in the way of the story you want to tell. How did you manage the balance?

I did not see it as a problem or a double-edged sword whatsoever. This is a work of fiction and the story of Jesus is in the public domain to be interpreted as one sees fit. It was my decision as an author to put Yeshua’s story within the framework of the Gospel According to St Matthew. Pasolini did the same thing in his eponymous film and he put Christ in a distinctively Marxist “liberation theology” paradigm. But Pasolini’s film is one of my favourite motion pictures not for the relatively subtle polemics but for the beauty of the operatic sense of the story. My book is not meant for scholars but for any reader, and as one of my favourite authors Iris Murdoch said, to paraphrase, “I believe everyone loves a good yarn”.  I can’t see how history would get in the way of a good yarn. People familiar with New Testament scholarship, as I may have mentioned above, may recognize certain historical theories. My take on the Virgin Birth for instance, is not unusual and was popular among both Jewish critics of the new religion of Christianity and offshoots and sects of the nascent faith – but only a tiny percentage of my wished-for readership will recognize these radical stories as something that has been around since at least the 2nd Century AD.

There is nothing wrong with pulling something entirely out of your arse and making it pure fantasy. I have never read The Da Vinci Code and I probably never will because from the few excerpts I read it looked annoyingly poorly executed. But that’s his choice and there’s nothing wrong with it. My choice was to work from some existing theories and texts. I did not seek out to do so to receive any type of confirmation. Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was considered shocking for the sake of being shocking, as was Chris Ofili’s portrait of Mary which incorporated elephant dung on the canvas. I like both Serrano’s photograph and Ofili’s painting and find both of them extremely beautiful. Both artists used the New Testament characters and used some artistic ways to humanize them. In Serrano’s case, the crucifix submerged in a huge container of urine to me speaks of the dichotomy between the Son of Man and the Son of God. We imagine angels and diving beings as beyond having bodily functions, just farting rainbows. But if Jesus’ other half, the Son of Man, then he too would have eaten, pissed and shit like the rest of us and I believe that Serrano was trying to humanize him in a similar fashion that I did.

In Ofili’s case it’s not even that provocative. I have many friends from Africa and elephant dung is found everywhere. I did not find his painting disrespectful at all.

Back to the original question, apologies for the diversion, I never thought about trying to strike a balance. The only balance I did try to strike is to make the story engaging, regardless of my research.

You mentioned ISIS and the novel references a war on terror. Since 9-11, an unresolved question in the West is whether there is a link between religion and terrorism. If I may generalise, the political Right are convinced there is a link, but only for one religion, while the Left is equally convinced there is no such link. These are not the only possible views, but they do dominate the others. Is that fair to say that the novel does not take either of these views?

The novel does not take either view. This is actually related to your earlier question about my own research. Much like the question of Mary’s rape may raise eyebrows and ruffle feathers, positing Jews as the insurgents/terrorists may seem like the novel takes place in a “bizarro” alternate universe. In both cases however, this will be familiar to students of early Christianity and Roman history. Reza Aslan popularized the idea of Jesus as belonging to the Zealot cult, which in my book I call by their Latin moniker “Sicarii”. What Reza did was make these theories popular to a wider audience but they have been studied for some time. In one sense what I did was a type of role-reversal, with Bar-Abbas the Jew portrayed as a type of Bin Laden character. But I did not pull it out of thin air either.

God forbid that my book can be seen as polemical in favour of one viewpoint or another. Granted, Islam being the newest of the Abrahamic faiths has a lot of growing up to do. Judaism, through its profoundly long history has for the most part become a secular, cultural creed. Christianity has gone through reformations and in much of Europe and the European abroad (North America, Oceania, etc) has largely either atrophied or has become utterly irrelevant. In the Muslim world there are certainly countries where Islam too has become more cultural than religious, Turkey, European Russia, Bosnia, Albania… These examples may be due to forced secularization under Ataturk or the Communist regimes respectively.

However, is there a connection between religion and violence? Without a doubt. I do not take sides in the book but there is another argument in the media that is worth addressing: the argument that ISIS etc are not “true Muslims”, but ISIS and their ilk accuse other Muslims of not being true Muslims in their own turn. Characters in my book accuse each other of not being “true Jews” either. In the end, one should consider another argument in the media: that ISIS is not only un-Islamic (if we choose to agree with that statement) but utterly cynical and that the lust for power is the primary motive. I tried to insert that into Bar-Abbas’ character who ends up adopting the mythology surrounding Yeshua for his own personal gain.

Thanks John, I appreciate how frank you’ve been, I think it will give readers a lot to ponder.

You are very welcome and the best of thanks to you in turn!

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