Book Review published in The Living Pulpit: The Breath of God, by Jeffrey Small
Why would a scholar from Harvard, Yale and Oxford choose the literary form of a novel to write about serious complex issues relating Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, rather than grounding his work in traditional academic discourse?
To become rich and famous?
To avoid the rigorous demands of a doctoral dissertation?
To bypass the constrictions of the right brain’s conception of truth?
How, in any case, can a novel be taken seriously in the intense and complex conversations among the major world religions?
The Breath of God, by Jeffrey Small, is a contemporary novel version of a historical fact: in 1887, a Russian journalist named Nicholas Notovitch claimed that he had found manuscripts in the Tibetan monasteries of the Himalayas that told the story of the “Life of Issa.” The stories say Issa came from Galilee nearly 2000 years ago to study Buddhism, then returned to his native land after about 18 years, where he taught and inspired the birth of Christianity.
According to Notovitch, by linking together “Issa” with the Arabic name Isa (عيسى), the Koran’s name for Jesus, and the Sanskrit “īśa”, meaning Lord, these manuscripts filled in the blank of the missing years of Jesus’ life. The silence of the New Testament on what Jesus did between the age of 12, when he appeared in front of the rabbis in the temple, and 30, when he was baptized by John, is thus accounted for: Jesus was in India studying Hinduism and Buddhism. Nicholas Notovitch published his findings in 1894, for which he was eventually publicly condemned and silenced for heresy.
In Jeffrey Small’s novel, Grant Matthews, an all-but-dissertation doctoral student at Emory University, is determined to recover the manuscripts that Notovich found, because it would confirm a direct historical link between Christianity and Buddhism, and answer the question Biblical scholars have been hard-pressed to confirm regarding the missing years of Jesus’ life. Matthews’ journey ends in near disaster when he breaks his leg in a kayaking accident and is rescued by Tibetan monks from the monastery of Hemis, Matthews’ intended destination, where he is taken care of. As he heals, he befriends one of the lead monks who shows Matthews the extant manuscripts. A beautiful female journalist with a camera, Kristin, who appeared in the mountains at just the right time, takes pictures of the manuscripts so that Matthews can return to tell the world of his find.
The romance/murder mystery then really takes off when a somewhat deranged but military-trained fanatic, a follower of a famous mega-church preacher, steals the picture copies in order to preserve the fundamentalist version of Christian faith. The drama unfolds as a conflict between the fundamentalists and the scholarly Matthews, giving a forum for a dramatic exposition of both points of view, complete with the egocentric drive for money and glory of both the mega-church pastor and the elite scholar. The author thus manages to convey the shadow sides of all the players in the drama to make the deeper spiritual point that spiritual truth is not the monopoly of any single religious perspective and is only learned in any tradition through humbling and transformative experiences.
By this plot device, the novel relays numerous similarities between Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Taoism.
“In the beginning was the Tao,” from the Tao Te Ching, 6th century B.C.E. parallels the famous prolegomena from the Gospel of John, 1st century, C.E., “In the beginning was the Word.”
According to Small, the central metaphor for God that is found in ancient Hebrew, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity is “the breath of God.”
Similar to viewing Jesus as the incarnation of God, the Bhagavad-Gita, which literally means “Song of the Lord,” relates the story of Lord Vishnu manifesting himself as a man, as God incarnate.
Between murders, as Grant Matthews slowly comes to understand the lessons of the “Life of Issa,” he realizes that Jesus/Issa took what he learned about God from Hinduism and Buddhism and translated it into the Hebrew language and culture from which he came, to which he returned to preach and heal, for which he was crucified.
What all religions have in common, Matthews concludes, is that the form of the religion is neither the point nor the stopping place, but each religion points beyond itself, beyond its texts, concepts, symbols and rituals, to a reality beyond what is written, seen, heard or made.
“(Grant recalled the Chinese proverb): ‘The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself.’ Couldn’t that same expression be applied to each of the prophets of old? he wondered. Neither Muhammad, nor the Buddha, nor Padmasambhava, nor even Jesus was the moon itself. But each was a finger pointing to the moon—to the light in the darkness….these narrow books also are just another finger pointing to the moon.” (p. 355)
Near the end of the novel, the larger question of the relevance of historical fact to faith is posed: since there is so much that we do not know as certain in religious history and scholarship, does actual historical truth matter? Does it matter where Jesus learned about God, learned to live in God and to let God live in him?
Without revealing the carefully, sensitively crafted answer that Jeffrey Small’s characters give, is it not more important to feel the poignancy and possibilities of the question for each reader to wrestle with? Have not these questions been at the heart of the history of the church even before the Council of Nicea as people in different times and places ask who Jesus was as a way to answer who He is?
Nicholas Notovich’s trip to the monastery at Hemis was evidently confirmed as fact, but he was treated for a bad tooth, not a broken leg. Claims for and against the existence of the purported “Life of Issa,” continue, as do books asserting Jesus’ lengthy stay in the land of Hinduism and Buddhism. Holger Kersten’s Jesus Lived in India (Brave Heart Books, Joshua Tree, Ca. 2001) is one of the more recent.
Should this book be read as a novel/thriller, following in line with Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code? Should it be taken seriously for its well-researched and knowledgeable presentations of similarities among several world religions?
Readers should know that Mr. Small has previously published an excellent small book that engages on an academic level the issues his novel deals with.
God as the Ground of Being: Tillich and Buddhism in Dialogue: The impact of Paul Tillich’s theology on a Christian – Buddhist dialogue, Lambert Academic Publishing, 2009. This volume is an adaptation of his Master’s in the Study of Religions, which he wrote in 2008-2009 at Oriel College, Oxford. His website, www.jeffreysmall.com, notes that he is an active member of his local Episcopalian Church in Atlanta, as well as being a board member of General Theological Seminary in New York City. He has also studied Yoga in India and meditation in Bhutan. These biographical facts support a reading of his book as having a more serious intention than a mere thriller. Added to this is the fact that the book takes a definite point of view on the connections of the various religions to each other and is direct in asserting the existential responsibility of each individual to discern and experience the truth of ultimate reality for oneself, but the point is so beautifully integrated into the novel’s structure that it never becomes sermonic. In fact, this seriousness of purpose may prevent it from rivaling The DaVinci Code, because its primary purpose is not to entertain (though it does that well), but to engage the reader in the “ultimate concern” of his/her own heart.
The author’s motivation in choosing the novel form in which to express his own ultimate concerns may perhaps be answered. Whether he aspires to be rich and famous or to bypass the demands of a doctoral dissertation is not the deepest level of his purpose. I think it is more clearly about his desire to convey, in a way that appreciates the deeply human and fallible propensities of all humanity, the dynamics and many dimensions of all lived religions and to celebrate the joy and wonder, as well as the limitations and pitfalls, of all spiritual paths?