The Joshua Mystique

God never intended that religion become what it is today. Jesus came to earth to try to free people from that kind of regimented religion where people are threatened if they don’t obey rules and rituals invented by the clergy. (Joshua)

Let’s backtrack a bit for the benefit of those unaware of what the Joshua phenomenon is all about. Since 1983, Joseph Girzone, a priest of the Diocese of Albany who retired for health reasons, has been writing books about a character named Joshua. The books are set in the modern world, but Joshua is obviously intended to be Jesus himself, making the books, then, the Gospel According to Girzone.

This particular gospel has its own particular set of twists and biases, which is what one would expect from any single author who attempts to filter the Good News through his or her own perceptions.

Girzone’s angle has its praiseworthy elements: he clearly would like to help people encounter Christ in an personal way, and to bring the Gospel to bear on contemporary life. But unfortunately, since he ignores certain other elements of the Gospel and adds plenty from his own imagination to the mix, the result is similar to what happens when an amateur attempts to prepare a proven recipe using only half of the ingredients: it’s a mess.

Joshua is, of course, a lovely fellow who drifts into communities, charms the multitudes, gently confronts the self-righteous, tells a few stories, brings peace, and drifts back out again — unless he’s killed by a sniper, as he is in Joshua and the Children.

His message his simple: God loves you, God forgives. But in each book, Joshua must battle one particular force that is threatened by this message, and that force isn’t sin afoot in the world in general, it’s not temptation to turn from God, it’s not the brokenness wrought by Original Sin – it’s organized religion.

Girzone persistently presents religion and religious organizations as human constructs, related to the work of God in name only. The bad guys are always the upholders of canon law and diocesan regulations. The good – no – the best guys are those presumed saints who struggle under the condemnation of those same rules.

This, of course, is not completely unrelated to what we find in the Gospels. Jesus was indeed deeply critical of religious leaders of his day, pointing out the undue burdens they placed on believers and how the purpose of the Law had been skewed by an undue emphasis on external observance at the expense of the spirit.

Further, there can be little honest argument with the fact that far too many of those engaged in ministry today do indeed seem to find it easier and even more pleasurable to deal with people through the thick glass of regulations rather than reaching out in love and compassion.

However, Girzone’s take on the matter, which almost amounts to an obsession, is inadequate since he conflates Jesus’ (or Joshua's – they are clearly intended to be synonymous) entire ministry to this issue. The healing Joshua offers is primarily in relation to ecclesiastical wrongdoing, and little to do with temptation, sin, and the more cosmic tragedy of a broken world.

Secondly, his rule-happy villains are almost always clerics and unfailingly “conservative.” This just isn’t so in real life, as anyone who’s encountered an officious Director of Religious Education or parish liturgist can tell you.

Girzone’s latest book, The Parables of Joshua, illustrates these shortcomings in spades.

The first problem is, when you get down to it, the audacity of the entire Joshua project: presenting a fictional character as a Christ-figure, not in the classic critical sense (say in Melville’s Billy Budd), but as an alter-ego for Jesus himself, and the “parables” as somehow flowing from the Gospel:

“As times and circumstances have changed since his original appearance on earth, his stories have also changed as he has tried to clarify issues frequently debated among his followers. Let me tell you some of these parables.”

— (The Parables of Joshua, p. vi)

The parables in the new book touch on the typical Girzone themes in his typical heavy-handed way: Joshua tells a story about a pastor who refuses to baptize the baby of an unmarried woman, but who, upon his death, is revealed to be secretly married. Joshua tells stories of the outwardly virtuous and inwardly wicked, and vice versa. Joshua takes time, after reminding his listeners that marriage is only for members of the opposite sex, to tell a very strange parable about two “holy men” who love each other, and who together create a lovely garden because they “wanted to do something that would not only be an expression of their love for each other, but more important, of their love for God.” All done, you see, because “Though they would never have children, God planned that they would still be able to create.” Well.

It’s clear that several of the stories in the book are offered to answer critics who question Girzone’s orthodoxy: a few emphasize the importance of Church as a guide and the folly of trying to find God on one’s own. One indicates the importance of baptism, another the truth of the Real Presence, and yet another indirectly condemns abortion.

But even with these nods to some elements of sacramental life, Girzone still preaches his gospel in which Church is more often an obstacle to God’s work on earth than a vehicle of it, all written in a style that brings to mind nothing less than anvils dropping from the sky on the manipulated reader’s head.

In short, what happens in Joshua’s world is that the breathtaking, challenging call of Jesus to radical metanoia for all and his reality-revealing life, death and resurrection are diluted down to the simplistic one-note message that sure, conversion is needed – for religious leaders. Everyone else need do nothing more than accept themselves as they are.

It’s too bad, really. Too bad (and rather astonishing) that a surprising number of Catholic schools assign one or more of the Joshua books as required reading for religion classes. Too bad that at a diocesan gathering of Catholic youth ministers, I heard a unified, grateful group sigh follow a speaker’s mention of the Joshua books.

Too bad, in short, that so many readers welcome the opportunity to have their faith filtered through one writer’s agenda, rather than daring to encounter Jesus on their own through the Gospels and the place he promised he’d remain as a living, loving presence — the Church, of course.

(Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.)

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