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Good for context, not for fiction
on October 27, 2010
When judged by the standards of general fiction, this book isn't very good. Better than most non-Lewis Christian fiction, sure, but that bar is so low that the comparison means nothing. A reader interested in this work should approach it as a more engaging way for an historian to flesh out the cultural context of the early church in the Roman Empire, and it succeeds at that task. The structure of this book is certainly intriguing, as Longenecker writes a series of fictional letters that chronicle a nobleman of Pergamum as he begins a friendship with Luke (author of Luke and Acts, from the Bible) and seriously examines the question of who Jesus is. The letter-writers in this book deal with problems of the exclusivity of Christ, as well as church/state issues and basic questions about the divinity of Jesus and the literal nature of the Gospel of Luke. The story builds to a foregone conclusion (I have seen other reviews that treat the ending as a big spoiler, which I think misses the point, since the introductory pages give the one Bible verse mentioning Antipas, in the context of where his story ends, but I will respect other reviewers by adopting a similar stance to spoiling the ending).
My main problem with this book is that the first two-thirds (if not more) are so exposition-heavy that they completely lack a believable voice. The letters, rather than being real conversations, are along the lines of, "Perhaps you don't know what a gladiator contest is like. Let me explain it in detail." "Thank you, perhaps you don't know anything about your emperor, let me explain him for you." "Thank you, perhaps you don't understand our polytheistic system or how honor functions within it, let me explain it for you." It goes so far that Luke writes letters that are the equivalent of, "I know that you're an employee of the Democratic Party, and we don't know each other, so let me begin our relationship with multiple insults about President Obama" - not believable in the slightest. Part of this quality makes sense, as two strangers will likely write about less personal matters in the early days of their friendship, but mostly it feels like Longenecker just wants readers to learn. For that reason, I think this book works best as a supplement to a study of Luke, Acts, or Revelation. On its own, it's not good enough for a casual read by someone interested in fiction.