Spiritual fiction is a type of speculative fiction that has found some acceptance in the church, for good or for ill.
This genre has usually presented angels coming to earth in human form to get involved in human affairs, although angels and demons battling each other has been popular at least since Peretti’s books This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. Other stories explore an alt-world version of Christ, such as Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia stories.
But the late Rev. Joseph F. Girzone took this one step further in his book Joshua: A Parable for Today.
The plot of Joshua
Auburn is a small town, a place where usually not much happens, but of late there’s been a stir. A guy named Joshua has moved to this small town, and outside of living quietly as a woodworker, he’s also doing strange things like talking about God and religion and the church whenever people bring up those topics. Joshua stirs up so much controversy that he’s eventually summoned to Vatican City itself to answer for his statements.
But there’s more to Joshua than first meets the eye. He remembers a previous life, long ago and far away from the U.S., in places with names like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and among people with names like Peter and John. For this Joshua is nothing less than Jesus himself, returned to earth in a quiet and unassuming way.
The good of Joshua
First, one curious bit of inspiration can be taken from this book, applying specifically to writers.
This is not a well-written story. It is filled with repetitions of information, telling instead of showing, and characters who receive little if any real development. But for all of that, it’s still a book that has sold over a million copies, according to The New York Times.1
Anyone who’s tried to get into writing stories has no doubt been hit with all manner of strange rules. They’re told practices to follow and avoid: show don’t tell, definitely don’t use adverbs, don’t use adjectives, don’t write long sentences (like this one), don’t use “was” and “is,” don’t use “said,” don’t use whatever is meant by “the passive voice,” don’t head hop, and, whatever else, don’t use exclamation marks!
So, there is a strange sense of inspiration that comes from reading a book like Joshua, one where the author has broken almost all of the “rules” that are supposed to make for good writing, and yet has had the kind of success that most writers can only dream about.
It’s kinda fascinating, really, to think that the average reader just doesn’t care about all the rules writers think we must follow. They really don’t care about adverb usages and “to be” verbs. It can make us wonder what readers truly want in the stories they read.
The bad of Joshua
But if bad writing can still be popular, being popular still doesn’t mean the story wasn’t written badly.
For one thing, there are the great outrages Joshua causes over his remarks about religion and the church. Keep in mind, Joshua lives in a small town that is located in a country known for such things as freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Even in regards to Christianity, this country has many different denominations, factions within denominations, and cultic offshoots. In the real world, what Joshua says might cause some discussion at the local diner, but even in today’s outrage culture, it would pass under most people’s radars.
It’s understandable that the main characters in a story will give voice and actions to what the author thinks. When, for example, I read a lot of Louis L’amour several years ago, I got a pretty good idea of L’amour’s ideas from what the characters in his books said and what they did. And those things were often stated plainly, not hinted at in subtexts.
Most of the characters in Joshua serve two functions: one is to give the main character Joshua a reason to start talking about his opinions, and the other is to heap unstinting praise on Joshua himself and on every statement he makes.
Very little about this is subtle. After a while, it gets tiresome to read over and over again about how people just uncritically accept and praise every rather trite and simplistic thing Joshua says as if it were the most profound statement anyone had ever made.
In some places, this uncritical acceptance becomes especially unbelievable. For example, one history teacher at a university accepts “Joshua’s intimate knowledge of historical events” and “incorporate[s] many of Joshua’s interpretations of history into his courses.” 2 But the story doesn’t tell us how this teacher verified that Joshua’s knowledge of these events was true. Neither does the author give any examples of Joshua’s great knowledge of what was really happening during these historical events.
Of course, we find a few people disagreeing with Joshua, because every book needs its villains, too.
A few years ago, I read this book and reviewed it on Amazon. In that review, I remarked about my impression that this book made me feel I were reading the author’s idea of what a fan club would be like. It’s as though Joshua, the author, surrounds himself with people who will uncritically accept every thing he says without any serious questions, and will praise to the heavens his every trite and mundane statement.
The ugly of Joshua
What makes this unconditional acceptance most bothersome is that so very much of what Joshua says simply isn’t biblical, and it’s not much at all the types of things Jesus really said and did.
Here is one example from a statement Joshua makes to another character:
“I think, Marcia, that you can best find God is you look within yourself. The most powerful revelation of God’s presence and his love lies within you.”3
We may wonder how frustrating it must be for God, having spent over a thousand years giving the human race a divinely inspired book, one that while very difficult in places to understand is still overall rather clear in its main message, to then have people claim that they can get a better idea of who God is by looking somewhere else, such as inside themselves.
Because the only think you’re going to find inside yourself is more of yourself, because this type of “look within yourself” thinking doesn’t put your eyes and mind on God, but on you and on that most unreliable and subjective part of yourself, your heart, your feelings.
This is Mysticism. This is the rule every authentic Christian ought to fight to the death to break as often as possible. When you are the source, when you are the foundation, when you are the heart of your spirituality, you have fallen prey to Mysticism’s old lie dressed up as the triumph of the individual (and with it the death of the community) in Western civilization. Worse yet, even if you have also found the true God in American mystical Christianity (because His Word is just that cool, working even through the lies we pile on top of it), the emotions that we confuse with God’s presence on a regular basis still always come with a timer. One day, no matter how new the trend is, no matter how clever the next gimmick, you’re going to go to the trough looking for another meal of mystical food and find out that Christianity just isn’t cutting it anymore.4
Here is another example of a type of idea that comes up throughout the book.
Pat also realized that Joshua’s understanding of religion was not blasphemous but, on the contrary, that he saw to the very core of what religion should be, an expression of people’s healthy growth as human beings inspired by a deep love of God and humanity and all of God’s creatures.5
God never intended that religion become what it is today. Jesus came to earth to try to free people from that kind of regimented religion where people are threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals invented by the clergy. Jesus came to teach people that they are God’s children and, as God’s children, they are free, free to grow as human beings, to become beautiful people as God intended.6
The book’s “good” religious ideas are strongly man-centered. They’re are all about what man does and how he grows. But this ideology is putting the cart before the horse.
For example, where does Jesus say that all people are God’s children? I cannot remember any place in the gospels that record him saying that. Where do those same gospels record that Jesus said that people are free to grow and become the beautiful people God intended them to be? Again, I can’t recall such a place, and the author provides no references for his claims.
If anything, Jesus and the New Testament writers had negative views of people. Jesus told some religious rulers that their father was the devil (John 8:44), yet he also had common people turn away from him when he told them they followed him only because he could provide them with free food (John 6:25–27). Jesus even told the disciples, the men closest to him, that they would deny him and that one from among them would betray him. The book of Romans plainly states that none of us are righteous, none of us do good, the whole world stands guilty before God (Romans 3:9–19).
Jesus didn’t die for us because we were such fine folks; Jesus had to die for us because we are such great and terrible sinners. Jesus’ message was not that we can grow to become beautiful people, bur rather that we are enemies of God who can be reconciled to God only through the sacrificial death of God himself.
Somehow this book has become some kind of Christian classic, and the author wrote numerous sequels and even a prequel. For some reason, a movie was made from this book. Looking at it solely as a work of Christian fiction, I have to wonder how this book had any level of success at all, because while there is plenty of talk of God and the church, there is no real Christian content in it.
Joshua is not a book to which I can give any kind of recommendation. Instead, this is a book that should be read with great discernment. Do not let the simplicity and hominess of the style cause you to turn your brains off. And do not let the other characters’ constant praise of Joshua’s ideas cause you to accept them without thought.
- Margalit Fox, “Joseph F. Girzone, Who Created Christlike Figure in ‘Joshua’ Novels, Dies at 85,” The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2015. ↩
- Joshua, pages 156-157. ↩
- Joshua, page 113. ↩
- Fisk, Jonathan M.. Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible (Kindle Locations 566-572). Concordia Publishing House. Kindle Edition. ↩
- Joshua, page 128. ↩
- Joshua, page 73. ↩