MORE THAN A SKELETON
Paul L. Maier
Paul L. Maier's A SKELETON IN GOD'S CLOSET found theologian Dr. Jonathan Weber involved in an archaeological dig; such a dig opens his latest novel, MORE THAN A SKELETON (with its tag line of "It was one man against the world.") Here, a small but significant find at that dig draws Weber over to Israel and finds him interested in a young man who has begun to captivate the world beyond Jerusalem: Joshua Ben-Yosef, whose personal traits, curriculum vitae and Apostles-like band of followers have already convinced many people that he is The Christ.
Maier, a specialist in ancient Rome, is a personally conservative but intellectually liberal academic who has clearly modeled his protagonist on himself: when fundamentalist preacher and television personality Dr. Melvin Merton begins to espouse Ben-Yosef as Christ in his Second Coming, Jon Weber's well-credentialed hackles rise almost instantly. If this really is Jesus, where are His miracles? Where is His death and resurrection? While Shannon Weber seems to fall under Ben-Yosef's spell as her husband doesn't (causing inevitable conflict in their sunny-side-up marriage), Jon waits for Proof.
He doesn't have to wait long, since Ben-Yosef starts evincing not just run-of-the-mill miracles, but miracles that nearly replicate those in The Gospels. Water into wine, becalmed seas, and a blind man seeing are all not just run-of-the-mill miracles, but so close to The Gospels that they confirm Ben-Yosef's status for so many people that the world media begins to pay attention --- very, very close attention --- to the man who would be the Messiah. Soon, as his research attempts into Ben-Yosef's past point again and again to the probability of his telling the truth, Weber himself begins to believe.
Maier has a brilliant premise for a plot, but his academic execution of pacing, dialogue and setting mean that some readers will drop off before the going gets interesting. Professor Maier has clearly modeled his protagonist on himself, and perhaps his well-credentialed self was well-intentioned --- but Jon Weber speaks stiffly and unnaturally both when he's whispering sweet nothings into Shannon's slightly-too-perfect ear and when he's chatting heartily with his colleagues. On the other hand, sometimes Maier is dead-on accurate and even funny, as when Weber's father tells him that his mother is at a Lutheran ladies' get-together: "I hope the coffee, cookies, and green Jell-O are good!"
The plot has its problems, too: it's very hard to believe that in the post-millennium "global village," Ben-Yosef and his merry men would be able to hide out so effectively and so often --- even if he is the real thing, surely Christ walked more often among the people. And unless Maier meant to tip his hand, the interaction between Ben-Yosef and Shannon seems wrong.
Nonetheless, MORE THAN A SKELETON is entertaining, informative and refreshing, about as different from the Left Behind series as you can get while still staying within the realm of Christianity and Christian questions. Perhaps Maier will write more thrillers and gain more authority with the elements of suspense writing so that his smart, thoughtful stories will be supported by tight, fresh writing.
--- Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick
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