A debut philosophical novel tells the story of a modern-day prophet.
An unnamed narrator’s car breaks down on the side of the road. A bus pulls over containing a group of people, and one of them—a man in his 30s named Billy—approaches the narrator and offers him a lift. While the narrator is initially apprehensive, he quickly becomes enamored with the leader of the travelers, Jos. A philosopher and teacher, Jos uses the daily experiences of the band as a way to discuss life’s major questions: equality, morality, fate, the law, etc. He knows a lot about Christianity, but he isn’t exactly a Christian. His worldview is more expansive and inclusive than that. The group arrives in a rundown section of a large city and founds the Church of Understanding, dedicated to aiding its neighbors and improving the area. “It is where people will learn…everything,” preaches Jos. “That is how you praise God; that is how you really worship God. It is to learn. It is to praise and worship other living things.” The church’s good work changes lives for the better, but Jos’ unorthodox views on other religions are controversial. As it turns out, prophets who challenge the status quo are no more welcome in the modern world than they were in the ancient one. Bell writes in a simple prose that deftly shifts between the sparse account of the narrator and the essayistic soliloquies of Jos. The narrator is not quite as self-assured as the authors of the Gospels, but his lucid accounts slowly create a reverential aura around Jos: “Mostly, I thought about Jos. How he saw the world. Then wondered just how he did see the world. For such an apparently simple man, he was very complex.” The sections in Jos’ own words, which make up a considerable portion of the book, are mostly disconnected from the narrative. The narrative sections mirror the life of Jesus a bit too closely to be captivating, and Jos’ message of compassionate humanism isn’t terribly original. While the premise is intriguing, Bell never takes the novel into surprising territory, which will likely leave readers less than inspired.
A predictable tale that advances the teachings of a contemporary, post-Christian prophet.