Saying that the penultimate volume in Brian Godawa’s Chronicles of the Nephilim series bites off more than it can chew paints a rather inadequate picture.
To do justice to Jesus Triumphant, the metaphor requires extension. It’s more like the novel chomps down on the leg of a live lion, hangs gamely on for a bit whilst being whipped through the air, then gets flung off into a nearby bog, where it slowly sinks to its doom amidst the skeletons of extinct cliches.
An overly harsh assessment? Well, that depends. If you enjoy watching characters laugh for pages at their own unfunny jokes, if you think it’s even faintly realistic for archangels to bicker like incessantly petulant children, if you think it’s high time someone unveiled the nephilim behind every demon behind every bush, or if you’ve always wished that the gospel story climaxed not with Jesus’ resurrection, but with an underground melee between pagan gods and resurrected patriarchs, then this is the book for you.
Normally I wouldn’t judge a novel for featuring speculative elements. I love fantasy, after all. But when a secret-history story uses the life of Christ as fodder for its fancy, and especially when it follows that up with an appendix purporting to portray its plausibility, I have a bone to pick.
I might as well start with the substantial stuff. Spoilers, obviously, are about to abound. One of the central conceits of the story is that Jesus’ earthly ministry was largely preoccupied with “dispossessing” the “gods of the land” — the fallen Watchers of the Heavenly Council, among whom Satan is a mere peer. This milieu should be familiar to readers of previous novels in the series. What disturbs me this time around is the manner in which this speculative narrative — derived from the apocryphal Book of Enoch — becomes an interpretive lens by which the entire gospel is distorted.
I didn’t react this way when Godawa reconstituted the Old Testament. Perhaps that’s because I feel less of a personal connection to Enoch and King David, or perhaps it’s because their stories don’t carry the vast spiritual implications borne by the story of Christ. Either way, the Jesus of Jesus Triumphant does strange things, and he does them for strange reasons. Though Ephesians 6:12 tells us that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places, the premise of Jesus Triumphant is that this verse is true only because Jesus, along with a team of special-forces angels, spent his time on earth literally wrestling the “heavenly flesh” of the gods so we wouldn’t have to.
When Jesus goes to Tyre, it’s to imprison the goddess Asherah. When he goes to Caesarea Philippi, it’s to defeat the Greek god Pan. When he goes to Jerusalem, it’s to throw down the “mole-god” Moloch. Oddly, though, Jesus has his angelic bodyguard perform nearly all of the dirty work — he leads them to the lair, then stands around looking all mysterious while they break and enter. The utility of his presence is unclear at best, and if, as he claims, he’s “binding the strong man” of Mark 3:27, he certainly seems to delight in delegating the sweaty stuff. Oh sure, he does call down fire from heaven to torch an enemy stronghold. But that’s after he’s already sent in the ground troops. Sooo … even worse.
I was prepared to like this book going in, because I thought it capable of turning the corner from the brute-force tactical heroism featured in its predecessor, David Ascendant, to the strategic subversion pulled off by Christ on the cross. I thought the reader might’ve be treated to a clever misdirection: “You expected a conquering king? Say hello to the suffering servant.” But it was not to be. In the “biblical cosmic war of the seed,” there’s nothing quite so clear as the fact that it was Jesus’ ultimate humiliation which precipitated and enabled his total victory. In this novel, however, Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection seem almost incidental when compared to his skills with a whip-sword, or his ability to ride Leviathan in a Galilean storm (yeah, you guessed it: he wasn’t really walking on water … isn’t this version cooler?!).
That’s not to say the spiritual mechanics of propitiation are neglected. No, they’re there alright — described in excruciating detail by Simon the Zealot, depicted as a former initiate of the Essene community at Qumran. Whatever sense of mystery and wonder might’ve attached itself to Jesus’ actions is regularly deflated by Simon, who regales a dewy-eyed Mary Magdalene with partial-preterist polemics in response to even the tiniest plot developments. Mary herself — having recently renounced the fully-nude-temptress business after Jesus expended a troubling amount of effort exorcising seven demons from her — provides the perfect foil for Simon’s erudite extemporizations. She’s smarter than him (even Jesus says so!), yet still demure, simpering affectionately at the disciple’s attentions. Their dynamic might’ve been cute, if it didn’t totally ignore the psychological trauma one assumes she must’ve endured as a pagan priestess in the cavern of Pan. Oh well! Off with the old, on with the new! That’s par for the course in this story: internal human sin takes a backseat to external demonic influence.
And, speaking of demons, you may be surprised to learn there’s really no such thing. What there are, according to Godawa, are the disembodied spirits of deceased nephilim. What’s that you say? You saw this coming ten miles away? Yeah … me too. Moving right along.
So Jesus dies on the cross, right? And then he descends into Hades, right? Stop me if you’ve heard this one. So then Jesus journeys across the Ancient Near East through a subterranean netherworld reminiscent of a level in Super Mario Bros, right? Oh, you have heard this one before? So you know that after he passes the hordes of zombies and parts the river of fire, he shows up at Abraham’s Bosom to conscript every single hero featured previously in The Chronicles of the Nephilim for his upcoming battle with the assembled pantheons of Greece, Egypt, India, and the Northlands? It’s the Great Patriarch Reunion, the most cringeworthy curtain-call of all time!
Oh, sorry — that was the punchline. You mean you really hadn’t heard that one before?
In case you’re still wondering what’s not to like about this Hollywoodization of the gospel, I must appeal to the effects of emphasis. The irony of making Jesus’ first coming largely about physical conquest is that it effectively diminishes Christ’s power. If the devil wasn’t rendered impotent the instant Jesus rose — if in order to complete his unfinished redemptive work Jesus then had to beat Belial in hand-to-hand combat — his titular triumph is demoted from an issue of right, of authority, to a mere matter of muscle.
Of course, this is all delivered to us through a partial-preterist paradigm, so we’re supposed to believe that Jesus’ post-resurrection detainment of Satan was the fulfillment of Revelation 12, and that the remainder of John’s prophecies were fulfilled by A.D. 70. This lends events a kind of sense, but also demonstrates why I, personally, harbor distaste for preterism: it reduces what’s most vast and epic about New Testament eschatology to a handful of relatively small-scale, localized, clandestine affairs observed and remembered by few. That’s my bias speaking, admittedly, but I think this matters beyond my mind. It’s flat-out weird for the savior of mankind to spend his last days on earth conducting a secret raid on a hidden bunker full of drunken deities. All other interpretive traditions also believe that Jesus will eventually pummel Satan into submission, of course, but the way in which Jesus Triumphant bundles that event with Christ’s resurrection blurs the eschatological lines, making it impossible to tell which action had what spiritual effect.
Another consequence of the novel’s emphasis on angelic warfare is the way in which actual human beings seem to fade into the stonework. When so much of the emphasis gets placed on gods and monsters, ordinary people and the sin that plagues them begin to feel relatively inconsequential. What’s ironic about this is that the actual incarnation of Christ had the opposite effect: when God took on flesh he elevated, dignified, honored, and ennobled the entire human race just by association. But in a world where the “gods” have been taking on flesh since before the Flood, somehow the physical presence of Jesus just doesn’t seem all that special, especially when he spends most of his time bagging them like trophies.
So that was the substantial stuff. Onward, to style!
I’ve not much to say here, honestly. This novel features, as per usual, an overabundance of modifiers clogging the drain of its narrative flow, as well as an inexplicable fixation on the words “serpentine” and “preternatural.” There’s scant immediacy of description; the action, consequently, feels rote and contrived. And, as long as we’re on the subject of description, the tonal depictions of good and evil are about as subtle as anything in an animated Disney flick. Stereotypes abound. Ba’al, Asherah, and Moloch, our favorite fallen gods, get their by-now-requisite scene of mutual ogling — as stale as the laundry-list of dishes at any Redwall feast. I get that evil’s being portrayed as childish, but the presentation’s garnished with such unselfconscious solemnity that I end up gagging at the story itself instead of the characters in it. It’s unclear to me why Belial isn’t described as mustachioed, since he’s certainly twirling something throughout his introductory “temptation” of Jesus:
Make-up accented serpentine eyes that melded beauty and malevolence. This being was confusion and chaos incarnate. It stared down at [Jesus] with cool contempt.
As I recall, “temptation” is supposed to mean “a thing or course of action that attracts or tempts someone.” If a thing inspires only revulsion, it can’t, by definition, be tempting. But “serpentine,” apparently, is the most seductive word in the English language. In Jesus Triumphant, evil always feels suuuper evil, and good … well, as exemplified by our favorite archangels, good just seems stupid, and childish, too. Example:
“He could get hurt,” said Mikael.
“Not if you do your job,” said Jesus. “Uriel, why don’t you watch over him for me.”
“Jeeeesuuuus,” whined Uriel. “Why always me?”
Gabriel teased, “Because you’re small enough not to intimidate a human.”
Uriel was the smallest angel of the lot, a full foot smaller than most. But he made up for it with his wits and will power. No one could match his double swords in speed or technique or his mighty tongue. “But Gabriel, you are more homely and plain looking, so you won’t scare him either.”
Jesus said, “Uriel, stop whining. Did I not have you watch over Noah?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“Was he not the first of my chosen line to protect?”
“Yes.” Uriel felt like a scolded teenager. “But he was a grump at first. You have to admit.”
Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be your servant.”
Gabriel added, “Unless you become like a little child—with the emphasis on little—and child.”
Jesus said, “Shut up, Gabriel.”
Anyway, enough about that. Let’s talk humor! Boy, is there a lot of it.
“So there I was, staring up at this big oaf, with his long Anakim neck swaggering about like a taunting cobra.” Caleb swayed his neck to show them. It was a bit funny, so the men around the fire laughed.
“We will find Simon for you,” said Demas. “But first, we need to bathe. We stink like excrement.” The men around laughed.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
Methuselah changed the subject, shouting out, “I don’t know about the rest of you warriors, but this resurrection evidently didn’t take away my earthly hunger. I’m famished, let us eat!”
The men and women laughed and made their way back to camp.
Whoo-whee! Them there’s some real knee-slappers! It’s too bad we have to move on.
Fortunately, I get to conclude with what I liked about this novel: mainly the manner in which the cast at the foot of Christ’s cross — the Roman centurion who confesses Christ’s deity, the criminals crucified on his right and on his left — are introduced early and separately as the story’s most distinctive and multifaceted characters. Theirs is a subplot I don’t want to spoil, so I beg leave to omit even their names. Suffice it to say that through the experiences of these three we explore loss, fealty, hope, justice, deception, betrayal, despair, and redemption. Though it’s narratively necessary for their tales to intertwine with that of Jesus, I wish they hadn’t. That’s a terrible thing to say on multiple levels, but it’s true. No characters with the potential they exhibited deserve to be subsumed by the weirdness that is Jesus Triumphant.