Book review: Risen
Over Easter, I listened to the audio-book Risen, a novelisation of the 2016 film of the same name. It shows the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection through the eyes of Clavius, a skeptical Roman tribune assigned to find the missing body. The movie trailer confidently declares it “The most important man-hunt in history”.
It’s an interesting premise, and would be a decent novel if it focused on the story-telling. Unfortunately, though, it makes it quite clear that it’s got an agenda, and it makes far too many assumptions about the historicity of the gospel records.
I got this audio-book when it was ChristianAudio’s free download in July 2017. I did not obtain a free copy in return for a favourable review. This is fortunate, since I do not plan to give a favourable review.
Note that to do this review justice requires spoilers, but I’ll try and give the mostly spoiler-free part first.
The film focuses on the experiences of a Roman tribune named Clavius. The novel has more space, leaving room for a third of the chapters to be told from the view of a Jewish widow named Rachel (though most of the plot-line is still driven by Clavius).
Clavius is dedicated to the cause of Rome, and feels the need to teach the Jews that “Rome is always right”. After subduing Barabbas’s revolt, he sees Yeshua on the cross, assigns guards to the tomb, and then is given the job of finding the missing body. As a good skeptic he knows people don’t rise from the dead, and so leaves no stone unturned to hunt down the disciples and find the body. But he also has a softer side: While he is perceived by others as ambitious and hardened to the death around him, he is actually looking forward to peace and a day without death.
Rachel is a Jewish widow who wants an independent life in Jerusalem. Rejecting a proposed Levirate marriage estranged her from her family and from the Passover Seder. Though she knows the prophecies and follows Jewish customs, she feels cut off from her Jewish heritage, and is deeply ashamed of some of her life choices. She too has met with Yeshua briefly on the road to Golgotha.
sheep potential converts.
Seriously, though, it was an interesting premise, and I liked the two characters. I could see the seeds of a potential happy ending as two sinners from very different walks of life embraced the resurrected Lord, and I wouldn’t have minded that. I don’t need my feel good stories to be true so long as they are entertaining.
But it went downhill from there, so much so that I was well and truly over it before I got half-way through. I can explain why in one word: Apologetics.
The Bible as literal history
In the hands of this author, everything in the scriptural record is historical. That’s right: Every. Single. Scripture. Even poorly sourced and improbable claims like Jesus appearing to 500 at one time or an earthquake leading to the resurrection of believers are just fact. And the competing narratives of the four gospels are harmonised into a single story without a second thought.
This goes beyond the stories of crucifixion and resurrection: Any part of Jesus’ life story is fair game to be included, which also involves dragging in much of the Old Testament. Gospels and letters get their traditional authorship, with John and Peter in particular delivering quotes from their respective epistles and from the gospel of John. The prophecies cited in the New Testament are assumed to be applied accurately, and in many cases it is implied that the Jews were already aware of these alleged prophecies and their significance.
It’s actually quite a clever framing. While most of the real action starts when Clavius arrives at Golgotha with Jesus already dead, his relative ignorance of the situation and Jewish beliefs and customs provides plenty of opportunity for exposition. As the author says in her end note: “Fortunately, both history and scripture provided plenty of characters and situations for Clavius to investigate”.
Herod, Pilate, Pilate’s wife, the disciples, the women, a palm-branch seller, various other minor characters and a few random passers-by: all willingly give their anecdotes of interacting with Jesus, some of which provide severe challenges to Clavius’ skepticism. Jesus’ birth, his teachings, his miracles, his behaviour at the trial and crucifixion, and his predictions of his resurrection - all of it is presented as eye-witness accounts of literal history.
I’m convinced none of this happens by accident. Consider these examples:
- Isaiah 53 just happens to be the passage Rachel’s father taught her to recite to give bread dough the right amount of time to rise.
- Nicodemus specifically emphasises that the fiery serpents in the wilderness were part of Israel’s history. He also uses the historical Abraham to condemn Jewish legalism in the Romans 4 vein.
- Pilate’s wife’s dream references the original Genesis account of the seed of the woman crushing the seed of the serpent.
To be fair, I probably notice more of the references sneaked in than most readers just because I know all the quotes myself. And as a former literalist Christian I would probably have enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out ways to fit in as many stories and references as possible. But even so I’m sure that I wouldn’t have put in nearly as many references, because some of them don’t advance the main story and are just blatant proselytising in a narrative frame.
Oh, and just for the record: In this novel, Pilate is feeling under the pump because Tiberius is due to visit Judea in a few weeks. This impending visit is not historical: As far as we know, Tiberius spent most of his time on the isle of Capri and did not tour the outer provinces. In other circumstances, I could take this as a little historical license. However, it makes it harder to take the novel seriously when it assumes incredible miracles only recorded in one gospel are historical, but gets better documented details of Roman history wrong.
Treating the Bible as literal history in the way the book does is troubling enough, but that’s only a small part of its broader apologetic agenda. Its epigraph is the famous Sherlock Holmes quote:
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
This is a standard apologetic method, and there are parts of this story that are obviously there to plug gaps. There are far too many casual references in the book for me to believe it’s an accident. The clear agenda is to be the fictional equivalent of The Case for Christ and similar apologetics works.
For example, at Jesus’ crucifixion Clavius thinks “If the Nazarene’s disciples had seen what I saw, they would have no doubt of his death” (before he even knows that the priests are worried about the Nazarene’s disciples). Then he personally escorts Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to the tomb (“the men of the Tenth do not give up until the job is done”). Later that day he meets Pilate in the baths and tells him how he had helped roll the stone in place because of its weight. And when he is requested to set a guard on the tomb, he takes a priest with him and makes sure both have checked the body is still there before sealing the tomb.
The next day the tomb is found empty, and Pilate is clear about the importance of finding the body:
Without a corpse to prove the Nazarene dead, we have a potential Messiah on our hands. We must have proof.
Clavius begins a massive body hunt, with no stone to be left unturned. And his investigation includes such “clues” as the stone being blasted out from the inside (not rolled away), and that Jesus’ grave-clothes still have the impression of his face. After examining many other witnesses, he even examines the two guards independently to verify that the “His disciples stole the body” story was something the priests had paid them to tell.
To someone unfamiliar with the apologetics arguments, these might sound like innocent snatches adding a little detective colour to the story. But I can almost hear the authors checking off some of the standard naturalistic explanations as they go:
- Swoon theory - discredited
- Wrong tomb theory - discredited
- Stolen body theory - discredited
The real problem with this is that it is difficult to eliminate all possible alternatives. And by accepting scripture as literal history, they have failed to consider that some (or all) parts of the gospel records could have changed and developed over time.
The lists of naturalistic theories discredited may sound impressive to believers (they did to me), but they are really just straw men. Once you acknowledge the possibility of legendary development, most of those naturalistic explanations become much harder for Christians to refute. There are also new and exciting options, from “The tomb wasn’t found empty” or “Jesus wasn’t even buried in a tomb” to extremes like “Jesus never existed”.
It’s not just the standard resurrection apologetics. Some of the other ones I noticed were Pascal’s Wager, the superiority of the One True God to man-made idols, Proof by Personal Appearance, and the Divine Inscrutability of God.
It’s not hard to see that some of these apologetics are intended more to appeal to the reader than they are intended to advance the narrative. Particularly when it talks approvingly of those who haven’t seen and yet believe (gee, I wonder who that might be?) Or when it gets secondary characters to present apologetic talking points for Clavius to grudgingly approve:
Greek: They are simple people, not looking for fame. Why would they lie?
Clavius: (I silently cursed the Greek’s damnable logic)
We’re intended to unthinkingly accept this message from 2,000 years ago without noticing the sleight of hand going into presenting it. Again, as a believer I would have loved it, but as a skeptic all I can say is “I see what you did there, and I’m not impressed”.
It’s just a story!
The Sherlock Holmes method works better in this fictional world than in traditional apologetics, because the narrative allows the authors to make certain hand-waving apologetic arguments actual in-world facts. But that doesn’t get us anywhere, because we have no good reason to believe this fictional world exists.
In particular, we have no good reason to believe that the Romans were so worried by the Empty Tomb and the threat of the disciples that they organised a massive body hunt. This matters, because, as the story itself points out, it would be quite possible to produce a fake body after a week of rotting. Even if we take Acts as literal history the first outreach effort at Pentecost was seven weeks after Jesus’ death - far too late to just produce the body as evidence.
Seriously, though, this is just a story. We have no more reason to believe the story’s careful filling of the gaps than we do to take the original gospel records as literal history.
Interlude: My take on the resurrection narratives
Last Easter, I wrote extensively about these events. After an initial post on the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to 500 believers, I looked at the stories of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion and his resurrection. I even considered whether time travel could help us verify the story (spoiler: not easily).
The upshot is that I don’t think we have a good reason to believe the gospel stories represent history. They show clear signs of legendary development, and they are difficult to reconcile with each other (in fact, one of my sources was reading an attempted gospel harmony critically).
I’m bored of writing with minimal spoilers, and I want to discuss a few surprise plot twists that show an agenda. So consider yourself warned: Serious spoilers beyond this point.
As already discussed, the story begins with two narrators from very different backgrounds. It wasn’t clear whether they would even interact. This all changes when Rachel reveals that Clavius is actually her lover, contributing to her shame and isolation from mainstream Judaism.
For a Christian work, that surprised me, but I think it works well. It ties the two stories together, and it strengthens the potential redemption arc, particularly for Rachel. It also allows Clavius to be slightly more of a real person rather than the Roman army commander and great detective.
I did notice that this turned off quite a few Christian reviewers, even though the author is fairly careful to avoid anything too explicit. But really, there’s no reason why unbelievers should observe all the rules a True Christian might be expected to follow. They have to have something to repent of.
Neither Clavius nor Rachel expect this relationship to last. She thought he would go to Rome and take her heart with him, while he wrote to his sister that it was unfortunate he couldn’t marry her. But he listens to her as he would listen to few women, and is able to offer the care that her arranged marriage had never had.
It’s not hard to see the happy ending here. They both love each other. It’s a feel-good novel, so surely they must both be on a redemption arc? And if they do both end up Christian, what better opportunity to show the benefits of a shared faith? Christianity could wash away all their past sins and break down the social and religious barriers between Jew and Gentile.
Their relationship also allows one of the best scenes from the interrogation. Unknown to Clavius, Rachel has been arrested as a suspect because she was known to have a secret lover (perhaps a zealot?) With a third person in the room, they need to keep it formal and speak in double meanings. Clavius warns of the danger the relationship poses to her, while she speaks of his coldness and her uncertainty whether he can ever truly love.
It really has a similar narrative effect to the much better known rejection of Mr Darcy’s proposal by Elizabeth Bennett. Clavius is forced to reconsider how he presents himself to the world as a good Roman citizen and soldier dealing in death. Ultimately, he must choose whether to continue to serve Rome, the thing that has given his life purpose, or whether to follow Jesus instead. And, should he choose Jesus’ way of peace and love, we can reasonably assume that he will have the opportunity to redeem himself with Rachel.
Meeting the risen Lord
After a while, Clavius’ investigation doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere, and Pilate decides that the Nazarene was just one false Messiah among many. Soon there will be a new Messiah leading the people astray, but now it’s time to move on. He needs his chief tribune to deal with some trouble in Hebron.
Of course, leaving the case without closure would be a disappointment from both a narrative perspective and an apologetics perspective. But in trying to fix this I think they completely lost the plot. An informant helps Clavius discovers the hiding place of the disciples. He looks into the room and finds the same person he saw dead on a cross now alive and looking directly at him. As it turns out, he has walked in on the scene where Jesus appears to “Doubting” Thomas.
Up until this point, the apologetics has focused on a skeptic logically analysing the evidence, in the same way as we are supposed to be able to do today. But now it has switched to the same skeptic making decisions based on a mystical experience that defies rational analysis. This has certainly not happened to me, so surely I’m at liberty to dismiss this out of hand?
I don’t think the choice of this particular appearance passage is accidental. It contains the famous (or possibly infamous) blessing on those who don’t see Jesus and yet believe in him. But really, how does it advance their agenda? I have no more reason to listen to a story of Clavius meeting Jesus than I have to listen to a story of Mary Magdalene or Peter meeting Jesus.
After seeing the risen Jesus, Clavius writes the following letter to Pilate:
I have seen two things which cannot reconcile: A man dead without question, and that same man alive again. I pursue Him, the Nazarene, to ferret the truth.
Then he follows the disciples toward Galilee. Technically, he is still obeying Pilate’s original order, but Pilate views it as desertion and wants him dead or alive. Lucius, his ambitious underling, meets him at a pass, and Clavius overcomes him in a non-violent manner approved by Yeshua himself. At that point, the danger appeared to be over - but, unknown to me, this was used to set up quite a different happy ending from the one I imagined.
The happy ending?
Once they reach the Sea of Galilee, Yeshua appears to the disciples. Rachel stays back because of her guilt, but he specifically seeks her out and talks to her. He accepts her as a follower, and does not criticise her for her relationship with Clavius (after all, he didn’t come into the world to judge it, but to save it). Rachel is hoping for the time when Clavius can accept the same redemption as she had:
Clavius did not have a life-time of writings and prophecies to bolster his faith in Yeshua, but his quick mind was open and ready to receive the Truth. He had already acknowledged that Yeshua lived, and would soon grasp the complete portrait of redemption.
Then her day-dreams are shattered when she sees Lucius creeping up on Clavius, spear in hand. What if he died without having accepted Yeshua as his saviour?
I could imagine only one way to save his life. I knew I was doing the right thing. Hashem would hear my prayer, and who would know whether this act might be the thing necessary to bring a new life into the world?
Rachel intercepts the spear, dies, and goes to heaven, where she is “finally safe and truly home”.
Where other parts of the book make me frustrated or cynical, this “happy ending” makes me angry. I don’t mind someone giving their life for someone they love. But there is far more at stake here: We are supposed to accept that someone’s supposed eternal security in a promised future life is worth more than their life now.
After the funeral, Yeshua has a long talk with Clavius. Clavius asks why he didn’t save Rachel, and he dismisses it with “My thoughts are not your thoughts”. And then the manipulation games begin:
Clavius, you said you loved her. Rachel’s chief desire was to bring a new life into the world. Would you deny her her dearest wish? It is you, Clavius, you.
His very love for Rachel, killed while the son of God was on leave of absence, is thrown back in his teeth by that same son of God. His grief is used to coerce him into conversion. Yes, he is offered forgiveness and love, but was that the same love that left Rachel to die?
So that’s the happy ending on offer here. Why settle for two lovers being happily married when you can use the death of one as the catalyst for the conversion of the other? They will be re-united in heaven, so who cares about the tiny troubles in this present vale of tears? God’s purpose is being worked out, and any hurdles on the way are just part of the perfect will of God.
Unfortunately, no-one remembered to tell Clavius that the promised kingdom would be a time when people “neither marry nor are given in marriage”. But I guess all that new-found peace and forgiveness he’s got in his life will help him cope with it.
In case it’s not clear, I hate, hate, hate this version of the happy ending.
At the start, Clavius appears confident in his gods: He overcomes a Zealot uprising with the power of Rome, and is confident that this shows the supremacy of Mars over Yahweh (called “the one true God” by the dying Zealot leader). So when he hears news of his twin sister’s impending child-birth, it is natural for him to pray to Mars for her protection. Then he hears that she has died in child-birth, and suddenly realises that worship of the gods is a transactional arrangement where they don’t fulfill their side of the bargain. As a result, he decides that he will rely on his fellow soldiers and the army, since they will not let him down.
Finally, when following Jesus leads him away from the army, he decides to reject the gods and accept the offer of new life:
The gods of Rome were temperamental, unpredictable creatures. I had spent my life offering them wine they never drank, food they never ate, and coins they never spent. As far as I could tell, they had ignored me altogether. But Yeshua - I had been among those who murdered him, and yet he smiled at me, he promised me eternal life and a new way of living on earth, a life for which I could never be worthy.
It troubles me that the authors don’t seem to realise they are unfairly privileging their “true” God over other “false” gods. This isn’t the first Christian novel I’ve noticed this in, either. They seem unaware that many former Christians have had exactly the same complaints about the hiddenness and lack of action of the Christian god.
I guarantee you that no god has eaten the food and drink I’ve given them, nor have they spent my money (though the money I gave was spent by people in the name of God). Christians would not view losing a sister in child-birth valid grounds for rejecting Yahweh - so what makes it valid grounds for rejecting Mars? And how come the claim of an inscrutable higher purpose can explain Yahweh’s apparent inaction, but not that of Mars?
Clavius the skeptic?
The story makes a big deal of Clavius being an unbeliever and a skeptic critically evaluating the evidence. He’s the detective of the story, which is great for matters of fact but doesn’t fit well with the religion being presented. Rachel is frustrated by his “logical Roman mind”, while Peter thinks he just asks too many questions.
The movie trailer confidently invites us to “Experience the event that changed the world through the eyes of a non-believer”. What they have missed is that it’s the religious script-writers who are controlling how skeptical he can be. They have complete control over which things he sees, and how he reacts to them. They wanted a skeptic converted to the cause, and they got one:
Only a few weeks before, I despised the religious zealots who opposed Rome. If Pilate were to see me now, he would count me as one of them.
But they can’t control us in the same way. They can’t make us accept that the gospels are eye-witness accounts of literal history. They can’t force us to personally experience Jesus. They can’t fill our hearts with a secret yearning for a better life, and they certainly can’t convince us that only Jesus can provide that better life.
It is true that Clavius asked some good, skeptical questions. But they weren’t really answered. For example:
Clavius: Let me see if I have this right: Your god sent his son for us to kill, to save you from a Hades he created, to punish you for things he told you not to do, knowing you would still do them. That’s not irony. It’s illogical.
Peter: If it amuses you so, why are you still with us?
Clavius: To understand what I saw, and to see it again.
Clavius isn’t critically evaluating the theology embedded in the text. He is responding to seeing the risen Jesus in the flesh, a fictional experience which I certainly haven’t shared.
Similarly, when Clavius and Peter talk about the difficulty of Jesus being both fully God and man, it’s somehow OK for Peter to shut it down with “The mind cannot fathom certain mysteries”. Why bother with the skeptic asking the difficult questions if they’re happy to proceed without answers? Is that really their ideal world, a world in which the curious are slowly discouraged from asking the wrong questions?
Early authorship by eye-witnesses
One of the more subtle but dangerous points from the narrative was that everything in the gospels was based on eye-witness accounts by those who were there. This significantly reduces the time and potential for legendary development. The reality is that we don’t know exactly how the gospel stories spread and developed (though I think we do have good reasons to be suspicious of the process). And that affects the many assumptions apologists make about who wrote the stories and what their motivations were.
In this novel, Peter and John both speak words from their respective letters. But the one that really stood out for me was after John had preached the Prologue of his gospel (the one that starts with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”):
Peter: That’s good, very good.
John: I may use it again. I ought to write it down.
James (laughing): Shouldn’t you learn how to write first?
John: Maybe I will have it written. A man can speak to only so many people, but a written letter can reach hundreds.
This is maybe a few weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, and the uneducated Galilean John is already composing a complex theological gospel? Even if we take the scriptural record as authoritative the disciples weren’t thinking about systematic outreach that early. Yes, there’s the Great Commission, but before Paul turns up Acts shows God having to prod them a few times before they can move out of their comfort zone and preach the gospel to all creation.
Some other reviews
After finishing the audiobook, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting, so I read a number of reviews of the book and of the film. In particular, reviews by a Christian apologist and a secular reviewer showed I wasn’t alone in seeing the apologetics / religious proselytising.
So firstly, some thoughts from our apologist:
As an apologist who has studied and written much on the Resurrection, including In Defense of Easter, I was very interested to see how the book handled the topic. I was not disappointed, even though I think the apologetics could have been a bit stronger.
However, one of the strong points of the story is that Clavius must investigate the evidence for the Resurrection. He knows Jesus was truly dead (he made sure), and he knows the tomb really was empty. He must come face-to-face with the only conclusion an honest investigation can yield. He cannot simply deny or ignore the issue as so many skeptics do today. They often dismiss the Resurrection as a legend or myth while many critical scholars claim that the Resurrection is based on the hallucination(s) of a grieving disciple. Yet these approaches do not come close to adequately accounting for the tremendous amount of evidence that even the vast majority of critical scholars accept.
Risen is a good introduction to a fair number of apologetic arguments on the Resurrection. As a novel, it could not be the most comprehensive study on the subject without getting bogged down in details and exposition. Unbelievers should not assume that Christianity’s full defense of the Resurrection is on display here.
Honestly, I’m in shock that anyone would think it a good thing to make the apologetics stronger. Without doubt the apologetics already there bogged down the story.
I also noticed the appeal to authority to support a “minimal facts” argument. However, not only do I not accept it, I’m not sure the novelists do. They use the entire gospel record, not just a few conveniently selected minimal facts. And they rely on personal experience to convince Clavius, not “the only conclusion an honest investigation can yield”. The reviewer may want to believe that the “in-story” world matches the real world, but I don’t see any reason to believe that.
The second review came from The Guardian’s film section and was much closer to my viewpoint:
A detective is summoned to his chief’s office, where he’s read the riot act. Get some results and get them fast – the head of the entire department will be here in a matter of days! Lean on your informants if you have to, just solve this case and solve it now! It’s a scene from a thousand different cop movies, only this time the detective is a Roman tribune, his angry boss is Pontius Pilate, the ticking clock is a visit from Emperor Tiberius and the missing person is Jesus of Nazareth, the risen Christ.
It’s not a bad idea, really, to graft the conventions of a police procedural on to a Bible epic, and for about 30 minutes, Risen, from Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds and Sony Pictures’ in-house “faith-based” unit Affirm Films, looks like it’s going to be a winner.
Despite the elevator pitch, Risen isn’t actually interested in being CSI: Jerusalem. Instead, it’s merely a framework for devotional proselytising. Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, St Bartholomew and others all make an appearance in Clavius’s chambers to speak with wide-eyed enthusiasm about the Son of Man. (Bartholomew comes across like a benign California Jesus freak, netting most of the film’s few laughs.) As the clock ticks and facts are compiled, Clavius, like Richard Burton in The Robe or Quinn in Barabbas, finds himself on a road to accepting the Word.
Risen’s disappointment lies in its turning away from the originality of its premise. When it becomes a straight religious picture, it’s a very bad one.
I can’t really recommend this novel. It has an agenda that I can’t support, and it lets that agenda dominate the story.
This isn’t because I’m against Christian fiction generally, just that I think this particular story went the wrong way about it. I’m actually a little sad I can’t recommend it, because I did like the premise and the parts of the story that were story. It could have been so much better.
I haven’t watched the film. Maybe I will one day, maybe I won’t. But I know that some of the scenes I’ve objected to are taken word-for-word from the film, so I suspect it has many of the same flaws.