Following on the heels of my post the other day about new writing projects, I did a reading last night where someone asked me where I started with By the Rivers of Brooklyn — what was the idea or image that got me going on the project. I said at once: “Characters” because I’m a very character-driven writer. But I could be more specific and say “Questions about characters.” The one thing that really gets me inspired, even driven, to pick up a writing project, is a character — real life or fictional — about whom I have unanswered questions. Writing is the process of figuring out those answers.
I really didn’t plan to write any more Biblical novels after Lydia. I have gotten to be known at least within a certain small circle as a writer who writes about “women of the Bible,” and after Esther, Deborah, and the women of Philippi, I couldn’t really think of any other Bible women who tickled my curiousity, who hadn’t already been brilliantly fictionalized by other, sometimes better, writers. I didn’t rule out the possibility, but I certainly didn’t have any ideas for a new book.
Then I got working on Yosef’s Story, the first in a series of Christmas gift books. In writing that, I followed the familiar (though by no means certain) church tradition that Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage before he married Mary and became the earthly father of Jesus. So as I wrote, one of the characters that emerged was Joseph’s oldest son, James. Suddenly I was intrigued, not by a woman of the Bible, but by a man of the Bible.
Apart from a huge kerfuffle a few years ago when it briefly seemed that a box containing his bones had been found, we don’t hear much about James, the brother of Jesus. He’s completely absent from the gospel record during the years of Jesus’ ministry. He’s mentioned in a list of Jesus’ brothers in Matthew 13, and in Mark 3 we get a tiny incident where Jesus’ “mother and brothers” arrive to come take Him home because He’s clearly gone nuts, and Jesus disses them and says His real family are those who follow Him. Harsh, Dude.
There’s no mention of James, or any of Jesus’ family other than His mother, in the accounts of His crucifixion and resurrection. Yet in the book of Acts it become clear early on that James has emerged as a leader in the Christian church; he writes an epistle that makes it into the New Testament; and Paul specifically mentions in 1 Corinthians 15 that the risen Jesus appeared to His brother James.
What happened to turn James from someone who was indifferent, perhaps even hostile, towards his Brother’s ministry, into someone who was a leader among Jesus’ followers. Was it that resurrection appearance, which is not recorded in any of the Gospels? Or was it something else?
How did James really feel about Jesus? Was he in awe of Him? Embarrassed by Him? Was Jesus, perhaps, the world’s most insufferable little Brother ever? When Jesus told the story of the prodigal son with his judgemental, self-righteous older brother, was He perhaps thinking of His own judgemental, self-righteous older brother?
And on this Good Friday I think — where was James as Jesus hung dying on the cross? Not at the foot of the cross, as far as we know. His mother, or stepmother, Mary was there, but it was one of Jesus’ disciples, John, who accompanied and cared for her. Not James. Was James standing at a distance, shaking his head at how the family’s Black Sheep had finally disgraced them once and for all? Was he hiding somewhere, hoping no-one would remember his family connections and link him with the criminal Who’d just been executed on a Roman cross?
Sometimes we like to think about “heroes of the Bible,” but I like the anti-heroes of the Bible, too. If James was as I imagine him — smug and comfortable in his own goodness, troubled and embarrassed by a Jesus Who loved too much, demanded too much, and refused to be respectable — then James is someone I can relate to. Someone maybe a lot of us can relate to. And someone — here’s the good part — capable of transformation, just as much as any prodigal.
And all of that is why … I think I might be writing a book about James. As always, watch this space.