Louis N. Gruber,
Jay: A Spiritual Fantasy
(1stbooks, 2003)

One of the age-old hypothetical questions that Christians ask themselves is "If Jesus returned today, would we recognize him?" The common fantasy is that he would return as a homeless man and everybody would treat him like dirt, and nobody would know the difference. Or maybe he would be put in an asylum with all the other people who have claimed to be Jesus, along with Napoleon and Hamlet. Usually it stops there, with an admonition to treat the less fortunate than us better than we do, since they could very well be the return of the Messiah.

Jay: A Spiritual Fantasy by Louis Gruber doesn't go in that direction, though some of Jay's naysayers do think he's insane. The book begins with advertisements left on the car windshields of various religious figures: an Episcopalian reverend, a Catholic priest, a Unitarian minister and so on. The messages, along the lines of "Come follow me" and "Come when I call you," are followed by detailed instructions of where to meet. A man who introduces himself as Jay slowly convinces them all that he is the coming of Christ and that they should follow him. They are full of doubt at first, but one by one he heals them of various ailments, speaks what's in their minds and shows them how to pray effectively. They form a following, one that starts to expand as time goes on and word gets out. The press starts printing stories that take everything he says out of context to paint him as an occult figure or a loon. Jay's time with his flock is limited, however, and he has to teach them as much as he can before that time is up. He stresses that following him will be fatal to some of them, but that if they love him, they must persevere.

Jay is a parable of sorts, a comment on how humanity has spent too much time on the trappings of religion and ignored the substance of it. Jay mentions many times in the book how he doesn't want people to classify themselves, but instead to be as one with all. People worship objects that are said to represent him but instead have lost contact with him. His following starts asking him questions about Jay's previous visit, asking him about hell, if he really performed miracles, etc. He continues to avoid their questions by saying that the answers don't matter. That only he matters. "But you see, they do not worship me. They worship their thoughts of me." The representation of Jesus in this book is amazing. He's always laughing, with the ghost of a smile on his face even when he's being serious. He finds himself a slave to the power of ice cream, and they are always meeting at Zippy's to have a bowl of ice cream while they talk.

Being a parable, there really isn't much characterization in the book. I had a bit of trouble keeping the characters and their vocations separate in my mind, with only one character (Angie DeWayne) standing out, mainly because she's not a member of the clergy.

Jay is a force more than a character, and we rarely see anything from his point of view. Instead, we get the other characters' reactions to him. Given the type of story this is, however, that's OK. The story uses the characters to emphasize its points and it's all the better for it. Each character plays his/her role in the story and we don't need to know more than that. There is also a Mary Magdalene character of sorts (conveniently named Mary) who wants to experience Jay in the flesh, but she is quickly rebuffed.

The one thing I was mildly disappointed with is the fact that the story is not well-grounded in place or time. It takes place in the South, but in an undetermined location. We get no sense of the world around what's happening, other than the ice-cream vendor wondering if this meeting of people, one of whom looks vaguely Middle Eastern, might be a terrorist plot. Instead, the setting is almost surreal and self-contained. The only references to the press or the outside world are in how they see this "Laughing Jesus." This does manage to keep the story focused and perhaps more powerful, so I'm sure it was intentional on Gruber's part. It's not really that big of a fault, and is more of a personal preference than a knock against the story.

Otherwise, Jay is amazing. Whether you are religious or not, this story will affect you, with only the most jaded cynics able to ignore it. No matter what denomination you are, it will make you think about the way you worship, and wonder if you are placing too much emphasis on thoughts and beliefs and not enough on what those beliefs are supposed to represent. If you have no denomination, it may just get you to think about how you treat people, or how you are treated. Either way, this is a valuable book to read.

- Rambles
written by David Roy
published 21 February 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.