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Joshua in the Holy Land.

Few writers could start a book, "It was a dark and stormy night," and get away with it. I suspect Fr. Joseph F. Girzone could. He hasn't used that line yet, but he's written a few pretty close to it in four best-selling books that probably have been read by people you know (though they may not admit it).

Of course, somewhere out in that dark and stormy night would have to be Joshua, Girzone's 20th century Jesus who returns for the forth time in Joshua in the Holy Land. It's another sequel to Joshua, which continues to sell so well that Macmillan has printed more than 1 million copies.

By now it's no secret that Girzone is not a great writer. But the masses who love Joshua are not the high-powered literary set. They are people like my wife's Aunt Jean, a straight-shooting, working-class Lutheran whose faith is simple, personal and deep. They're like my friend Tom, a young priest who's more than a little fed up with "business as usual" in the Catholic church.

Girzone's premise is that if Jesus came back today, he would upset apple carts everywhere. He would apply the rule of compassion against all the rules that keep people apart and hurting each other.

After showing up in the United States and Northern Ireland in previous novels, it seems inevitable that he would be resurrected to heal divisions between Jews and Arabs. Joshua in the Holy Land starts with Joshua pacing his way "with determination" across the desert. Where he came from and where he disappears to by book's end is left to the imagination of the reader. But just as a hint, he encounters a little lost lamb in the desert, hoists it onto his shoulders and continues on his way.

Through working a healing miracle on the little girl who owns the lamb, Joshua becomes the fast friend of an Arab sheik, no small task for a Jewish man. Then he moves on into Jerusalem, befriending a group of off-duty Israeli soldiers, one of whom is trying to start a peace movement. He befriends almost everyone he meets, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and begins to bring them together in ways that seemed impossible until they met Joshua.

Along the way, Joshua preaches to everyone. These "discourse-opportunities" seem to be the purpose of all the Joshua books. In them, he condemns oppression doled out in the name of religion and encourages people to imagine loving and compassionate ways of relating with each other. Sound familiar? That's why the Joshua books are so popular.

Girzone, a storyteller who explains everything, even explains the "Joshua phenomenon" in this book by comparing Joshua to Jesus: "Our people loved him and followed him everywhere, because he spoke directly to their hearts. It made sense to them, and it makes sense to our people now. People today are no different. They, too, are looking for what Jesus had to give. But they don't want all the baggage and pettiness of a church with its politics and legalism. ... Jesus' philosophy is something we can handle."

In spite of Girzone's elementary school reading-level style, I have to admit being hooked occasionally by Joshua while reading this book. It's somehow satisfying to indulge in a magical Jesus who speaks truth and compassion to the 20th century.

Now, from the literary minor league to the majors. Frederick Buechner wrote a book I couldn't put down about a story I thought I already knew. The Son of Laughter is a retelling of the Book of Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, with character interpretation that goes beyond Genesis.

Buechner, a masterful, vivid storyteller, probes the psychology of his three biblical principals: Jacob, his son Joseph, and his father, Isaac. In the telling comes forth a timeless theme of the energy shared between fathers, sons and brothers and the women in their lives.

Of all the books I've read about male spirituality, this one, which makes no such claim, will remain on my shelf.

What darkness would dwell within you if your father came within a few seconds of slicing you to pieces and roasting you to high heaven? Buechner imagines in this novel what it might have been like to be the son of such a man as Isaac, whose name means "laughter" (Sarah had laughed when told she would bear a child in her old age).

What kind of brother was Esau that he would give away his birthright for a bowl of soup? Buechner puts flesh and bones (and, in Esau's case, lots of hair) onto these characters, making them real and immediate.

Here is how they look from Jacob's point of view: "My brother ate because he was hungry. All his hunting emptied his belly, and he ate to fill it. When it was full, he was content. He went to sleep. Or he found a woman somewhere and then went to sleep. Laughter's emptiness was of another kind. He could no more fill it with food and drink than you can fill a tent with memories of the dead. ... No matter how much he stuffed, he was hungry still, but he loved Esau for trying to fill him anyway. Maybe he believed that someday his emptiness would be filled at last."

Laughter loves Jacob ("heels," because he was said to have grabbed his twin's heels as Esau left the womb before him) in a different way: The mother's favorite son receives from his father a profound sense of insecurity (essential, it turns out, to the birthright). Joseph in the next generation picks up the same curse, visited by the Fear (Yahweh) in a dream only to be sold into slavery by jealous brothers.

HarperSanFrancisco bills Abraham's clan as "the Bible's longest-running dysfunctional family," but that all seems too trite. The Genesis stories are archetypal, and Buechner tells them as such, right down to Jacob's broken hipbone (the sacred wound, inflicted by the Fear himself).

Buechner, like Girzone, has drawn on the Bible for a good story. But Buechner shows rather than tells, allowing this angst-filled myth to convey its own message.

The Son of Laughter is a gritty novel, with all the grease, spittle, peeing camels and dirty children one would expect among a family of herders. Among my several favorite passages is the wrestling match between Jacob and the Fear. The Fear sneaks up on solitary Jacob after dark and lunges into struggle. Throughout the night they wrestle, as we all must: "There were moments when we lay exhausted in each other's arms the way a man and a woman lie exhausted from passion. ... It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy."

Buechner, whom Annie Dillard has called "one of our finest writers," has served up a masterpiece.
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Author:Feister, John Bookser
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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