- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

Donald Miller is an evangelical Gen X writer whose 2003 book on his days as a campus minister, “Blue Like Jazz,” was a surprise hit. Because he lives in Portland, Ore., a city I inhabited for more than eight years, I liked his allusions to neighborhoods I once wandered in as well as churches I knew.

However, his latest, To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father (NavPress, $13.99, 192 pages), seemed out of my league because I have a dad. But the deeper I got into it, the more it applied to anyone who’s felt alienated by life and people in general. Which is a lot of us.

What Mr. Miller, whose father abandoned him, manages to convey is what so many of us feel: perpetually on the outside, alone, never belonging, never in the inner ring. Which is endemic among young men without fathers, and why they will do anything to belong even if it means joining the worst street gang. Being without a father, he explains, means there’s a club of men they will never belong to and that knowledge is quite embittering.

Such knowledge turns into rebellion against authority, because the only authority an unfathered man will know is that of people who do not really care for them; who treat them with impersonal indifference. “I think if a person has parents who speak love into their life, they end up with a personality that trusts others more easily, feels more comfortable, gives and takes with authority and so on,” he writes. “There is a good chance you and I didn’t learn that trust.”

That’s for sure. Mr. Miller’s book, which is also quite humorous at points, does point to God as the ultimate father but realistically suggests seeking advice from mentors who, once asked, are more than willing to help. What he suggests should be available in any church; because it’s not, he helps us define this deep sorrow so many of us feel and explains how to start on the road toward healing.

Rarely do Christian fiction writers take on the supernatural “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, much less in the setting of 14th-century Siena, Italy. But Lisa T. Bergren, in The Begotten: A Novel of the Gifted (Berkley Publishing, $23.95, 367 pages), takes on this unusual topic in her narrative of a noblewoman with the gift of healing, a priest with a gift of discernment and a knight with the gift of faith. All three stumble upon a third letter the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

This letter, heretofore hidden for centuries, unveils the place of these powerful spiritual gifts in the future of the church. Unfortunately, our trio only has a portion of this letter, but it’s enough to alert them that something is up supernaturally and they must prepare for greater things.

The narrative gives a pretty good idea of medieval Italy and one’s interest is kept up until the very close when supernatural events aid our heroes in escaping their satanic predators. A few things don’t ring true; sometimes the dialogue is overwrought and the 7-year-old who enters near the end of the narrative sounds more like someone three times her age. Also, the ellipses are cloying.

But it’s not preachy and its Italian locale adds quite a bit of color; the author’s research was evident. It kept my interest quite a bit while traveling around India for three weeks this fall. I only wish the betrayer in the story wasn’t the tongue-speaker; they always get a bad rap, it seems.

This year has been a big one for the gospel conspiracy genre, with books such as “The Gospel of Judas” and others purporting to unveil secrets about Jesus Christ’s life and times. James D. Tabor’s The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, $27, 317 pages), which says Jesus was succeeded by a series of leaders who were his own brothers, is of this type.

The book begins by describing the 2002 discovery of the “James ossuary” — a tomb-like box supposedly containing the bones of the apostle James, Jesus’ brother. Whether this ossuary is what it purports to be is still under debate; but the author uses this as a jumping off point to explain a Jesus who was certain he was the messiah and knew he might not live long enough to see that rule come to pass.

So, Jesus devised a scheme by which his brothers would succeed him, hence a “Jesus dynasty.” The author posits some interesting possibilities: that the disciples Matthew, James, Simon and Jude or Judas were Jesus’ brothers; that after his father, Joseph, died, Mary remarried a man called Clophas, Joseph’s brother (which would explain the mysterious mention of this woman in John 19:25), that James, not John, is the “beloved disciple;” that Jesus died on a Thursday, not a Friday and so on.

More controversial assertions include that the apostle Paul took over New Testament Christianity, effectively killing off the dynasty; that Jesus had a human father and that instead of rising from the dead, Jesus’ body was moved out of Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb and into another tomb near the northern Israeli city of Safed. The author says he even visited the spot, but leaves us dangling as to what he found there.

The premise of the book is fun to play around with if you can accept the author’s explaining away of Jesus’ miracles and discounting the historicity of other key parts of the Gospels. Some of the scholarship is very far-fetched, as his assertion that none of the Gospels were written before AD 73. That would put all the writers into their 70s, which is highly unlikely.

For those of the mystical bent who are into Hebrew calligraphy and numerology, Sounds True, a publisher based in Boulder, Colo., has come up with the beautifully presented Hebrew Illuminations ($29.95, 99 pages) by Adam Rhine. One slowly pages through plate after plate of stunning watercolors of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet as well as theme drawings on topics like love, the eye of God and Hanukkah.

The letters, intended for use as part of a kabbalistic meditation practice, are to be gazed at in order to discern various hidden meanings. The idea is that when God speaks reality into being, even He needs letters to form His words.

The calligraphic letters appear kaleidoscopic; shot through with bright hues and designs. Some readers may just see pretty colors. The artist hopes we see more.

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion writer.

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