JOHN THE BAPTIZER

 

a novel

 

by

Brooks Hansen

 

 w.w.norton, 2009

 


 

John the Baptist is traditionally understood to have been the forerunner of Jesus, the “voice in the wilderness” who prepared the way of the Lord by cleansing the repentant in the River Jordan, who inaugurated Jesus’ mission by baptizing him, and whose own life was cut short by Herod’s daughter Salome, when she famously demanded the prophet’s head on a platter at her stepfather’s jubilee. 

Yet as seminal a figure as John is in the Christian drama, his extraordinary story has never been told in full until now.  In drawing upon wildly diverse spiritual tradition and mediums –from the music of Bach to the paintings of Caravaggio, from history and theology to popular legend and Gnostic scriptures, acclaimed novelist Brooks Hansen has finally brought the life and legend of one of history’s most significant, and yet elusive figures. 

 

Weaving together the transcendent spirituality and ascetic purity of John, his teachers, and the seekers who followed him, with the sordid, calculating and reckless infighting of the Herod clan, Hansen presents mesmerizing tapestry of power and dissent, ambition and self-sacrifice, worldly and otherworldly desire, faith and doubt.  But John the Baptizer is a lamp as well, which sheds a new and more penetrating light on the mysterious relationship that existed between John and Jesus, as teacher and pupil, as kin, and as rivals.

The Nazarene replied, “If I prove myself a student of John, his name will

forever be written in my book; if I do not prove myself, then my name will

be blotted from his. 

This is John’s book, and a towering achievement – page turning and meditative, exalted and profane, deeply moving, profoundly unsettling, and sublimely beautiful. 

    

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advance praise for JOHN THE BAPTIZER

 

 

Brooks Hansen’s novel John the Baptizer is an audacious and brilliant work.  Hansen brings to life one of the often-overlooked but essential mythic figures of Western culture.  He vividly recreates the biblical era and offers a radical interpretation of John’s beliefs and his role in Jesus’s life.  John the Baptizer reminds us that Brooks Hansen is the most imaginative and talented novelist of his generation.

 

                                                                                           —Hugh Nissenson, author of The Days of Awe

 

 

I was bowled  over by this novel...Hansen writes with a poet's eye for  image, building a novel as one might build a cathedral, stone by stone, sentence by sentence.  But there is a swift narrative pace here that draws the details of this story into sharp focus, offering what seems impossible:  a fresh take on this subject drawn from a wide array of sources.  Myth and history meet in this vivid story of faith and fury, physical and metaphysical yearning, the search for truth at whatever cost.

 

                                        —Jay Parini, author of Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America

 

REVIEWS:

 

In fictionalizing the life of John the Baptist, Hansen (The Brotherhood of Joseph) reveals the messy humanity behind the saint. Even readers with a passing knowledge of Christianity will find John’s fate laid out on the first page—his head is brought to King Herod upon a platter. Hansen’s meticulously researched narrative sets John’s life in a wide context, omitting little, for better or for worse: from John’s childhood lessons to his emergence as a prophet and his capture and execution, readers find themselves immersed in the biblical world. The visceral descriptions of suffering, such as the death of Herod’s father or the cistern in which John is held captive, bring religious figures into the gritty realm of the grotesque. Yet Hansen still retains a sense of wonder in his subjects: when John’s mother gives birth after a lifetime of barrenness, or when John baptizes his Messiah-cousin, the flesh-and-blood characters step back into their familiar stained-glass poses and become larger than life. The juxtaposition of stark realism and religious loftiness has its perplexing moments, but it’s precisely what will keep the pages turning.

 

                                                                                                                                  Publisher’s Weekly

 

Mr. Hansen’s description of the metaphysical and transcendental is wonderful and flows seamlessly from the narrative...Every bit as vivid as his portrayal of the metaphysical is Mr. Hansen’s contrasting description of the jubilee celebration of Herod Antipas’s birthday, with all of its opulence, extravagance, and excess..It is this kind of juxtaposition of different worlds — the wonder of the mystical and transcendental, and the explicitness of the earthy and earthly — along with elements of faith, doubt, self-sacrifice, lechery, and power, that makes the saga of “John the Baptizer” an engaging and compelling read.

                                                                                                                                   -- Easthampton Star

 

Hansen’s use of a wide variety of sources – and the gnostic Mandeans in particular – are what give the work its unique flavor or perspective.  Hansen doesn’t simply bring a historical view to the story.  Yes, his skillful writing brings the ancient world to life; to the point you almost feel like you are reading a primary source not a novel. But he weaves into this historical story a mystic, spiritual, almost dream like element...And on a number of levels it is in contrast that the novel builds its power...This altering between a history pregnant with spirituality and a history full of debauchery, between the simple asceticism that emphasizes self-sacrifice and the gaudy, greedy and power hungry trappings of royalty, pushes the novel forward as everyone familiar with story knows that the two will meet in a violent climax...To me Hansen balanced these two aspects to incredible effect.  The contrast of the sacred and the profane – and how often they mixed in provocative ways in the ancient world – are what drove the story.  And it is only by presenting this wider lens on the connection between John and gnosticism, and other by now largely forgotten sects, that Hansen offers more than just a fictionalized history of John; takes it from history to art/literature...

 

It might seem to odd to describe a literary exploration such as this as gripping but I was pulled into it and wanted to spend all my time reading it; “a captivating tapestry” is a perfect description....This is not a thinly disguised catechism, or a loosely fictionalized history, but a work of literature with all the complexity and provocation that can involve.

No matter your faith background, or lack of it, or your knowledge of the Bible, or lack of it, I highly recommend John The Baptizer.  Its blends the historical and the literary in ways that defy genre and subject matter to create a powerful story.

                                                                                                   Collected Miscellany (Kevin Holtsberry)

 

Hansen stitches divergent strands into a difficult but satisfying tapestry in “John the Baptizer,’’ ...a tale that by turns is graphically earthy and opaquely mystical, with a stray bit of humor tossed in...Hansen’s masterful run-up to and depiction of the prophet’s death, that “John the Baptizer’’ takes off. From Salome’s famous dance that enchanted Herod into granting her the Baptist’s head to the execution itself, Hansen’s version is tense and artfully conceived. His inclusion of a mystical Mandaean story about John’s end complements rather than contradicts the Biblical account.

                                                                                                        Boston Globe Book Review

 

I'd put it in the company of the finest novels of faith I have read:  The Master and Margarita and Mariette in Ecstasy

                                                                                                         Michael Barnard, Rakestraw Books