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The Resurrection of the Body
The Resurrection of the Body
Arcadia Books, 2008
208 pp., 17.99

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Reviewed by LaVonne Neff

Giving Up Certainty for Lent

The aftermath of a Good Friday murder raises disturbing questions for an Anglican vicar who doesn't believe in the physical reality of the Resurrection.

Lent is fast approaching. The trees are still bare, at least here in the Midwest, and the skies are cold and hard. It's almost time to make our winter depression worse: almost time to remember that we are dust, to make the Stations of the Cross, to read daily meditations about suffering and death. Forty days of that, and we will be so ready for Easter.

Or we could read The Resurrection of the Body, at first glance an undemanding mystery by British writer Maggie Hamand, who wrote the first draft in 24 hours in 1994 and won the World One-Day Novel Cup for her efforts. An expanded version was subsequently published in book form in Britain but is only now appearing in the United States.

Here's the situation: Richard Page, vicar of a parish in a seedy part of London, is meditating at a Good Friday service when a young man lurches in, falls on the floor, and dies in a pool of blood. Unidentified, he is carted off to the morgue—but early Sunday morning, his body disappears. Then people start seeing him, or think they do. Trimming roses in a public garden. Eating fish in a restaurant. Doing what one does in a prostitute's flat.

Rev. Page goes nuts. "I, like many other Anglican clergy, do not believe in the physical resurrection," he says, and he is certainly unprepared to accept that this murdered man has come back to life. He is especially disturbed by the obvious parallels to Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. What can possibly be going on?

Readers hoping for a conventional whodunit or thriller will be disappointed as the story unfolds. The mystery here is theological and psychological, not procedural. Although a detective chief inspector plays a minor part, never is all the evidence marshaled in support of a logical conclusion. In good Anglican style, questions pile up, and no answer is ever final. A Lenten book group could have a field day with this.

Most of the book's questions are asked by the well-educated, rational, likable vicar, who cannot reconcile what he sees with what he knows to be true. Given what he believes about theology and Scripture and history, how could he share the naive literalism of "a handful of extreme fundamentalists"?

And yet Easter Sunday is only two days away, and he has a sermon to write. "I believe that the symbolism of resurrection represents a very deep and profound truth," he says, but "have we just invented these myths as a way of making life bearable, of enabling ourselves to live?" Should he even be preaching an Easter sermon, he wonders, "if I didn't believe, if I could talk only vaguely about mysteries and symbolism, trying to justify my own lack of real belief?"

How should he be responding to the bizarre things that his parishioners are reporting about the murdered man—and the inexplicable happenings that he eventually witnesses himself? Is he going mad? Are they all in the grip of a collective hallucination? And if they are, is it possible "that the whole of the Christian story might have been based upon a similar hoax?"

Distressed, he goes to see his bishop, half expecting to be relieved of his duties. He is shocked at the bishop's response:

"He did not think I was going mad; on the contrary, I think he envied me. It seemed he thought there was nothing strange about the idea that a resurrected Christ should suddenly pop up and start walking around the heart of Hackney, made obvious to those who were open to seeing him."

Will the vicar lose his faith in rationalism? "It was as if everything I had based my life on, everything I had taken to be true and solid, had dissolved away before me. It was not as simple as a revelation that there was no God. Perhaps it was a revelation that there was a God, and that he worked in ways I could not imagine."

Then suddenly, before Page entirely abandons his seminary education and his postmodern sensibilities to become a raving evangelical, events take an even more bizarre turn, jolting him back into the late 20th century. Psychiatry to the rescue! "So strong was my inner need for this personal God, the Christ of faith, the worker of miracles," he muses, "that I had created him out of my imagination, and projected him on to this poor young immigrant whose face was sufficiently like that of Jesus to accept him."

The sightings cease, and the case seems to be closed. It is safe now—necessary, even—for the vicar to return to his original, reasonable position. Like Jesus, he believes "that there are spiritual rather than just material values and that if we can live by faith we can make things better. While we throw out all the other beliefs, about heaven and hell, the end of the world and the second coming, the resurrection and eternal life, we can still go on with that."

But can we? Can he? Or are some mysteries too deep to be spiritualized?

If we had lived in Jerusalem in the first century of the common era, would we have believed Mary Magdalene when she said she saw Jesus in the garden? Thomas when he said he saw Jesus' wounds? Peter when he said he had breakfast with him on the beach?

And even though we know those stories well, how do we relate to the tales told by Rev. Page and his parishioners? Has an odd event triggered mass hysteria? Is an overworked pastor losing his grip? Is physical resurrection possible? Is it OK to go to church—to pastor a church, even—when one's faith is shaky? What is faith, anyway?

Such are the mysteries evoked by this strange little story, and to Hamand's credit, she does not neatly solve them. Ask a book group what point this author is trying to make, and you may get three or four mutually exclusive answers. This, I think, is the book's chief charm: it re-creates some of the bewilderment people surely felt in Jerusalem during the weeks following Jesus' crucifixion.

Anyone wishing to experience this bewilderment before Pentecost, however, should order the book immediately. Despite raves in the British press and a starred review in Publishers Weekly, this U.K. import is not available in most U.S. brick-and-mortar stores, and it takes a month or two to arrive from most online sources.

LaVonne Neff is a publishing consultant and aficionada of non-grisly mysteries.

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