In Arts & Entertainment

Just in Time for Easter: Tucker Malarkey's "Resurrection"

The Sunday school class I teach has been given the honor of presenting the Passion play during my church's Palm Sunday service. It's a fitting end to my Lenten observance -- with all its penance and critical self-examination -- that I've been assigned the task of shepherding a horde of middle schoolers with spring fever into some semblance of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. I must have been especially bad this year.

In preparing for the presentation, my students and I read through the script and I asked for volunteers for the roles. I stressed that anyone could volunteer for any role -- even a girl could play Pilate, or Jesus, or one of the criminals who hung beside him. The students balked and, in spite of my needling, will be presenting a perfectly gender-typical Passion.

With my students' disappointing attachment to tradition as a backdrop, it was a relief to read Tucker Malarkey's new novel, "Resurrection." In it, Malarkey tells the story of the discovery of a set of lost gospels -- gospels of the apostle Thomas and Mary Magdalene among them -- in Egypt at the end of World War II. The novel's heroine, Gemma, is the brilliant and independent daughter of Charles Bastian, a British expatriate archaeologist who dies mysteriously after confirming the gospels' existence. Gemma comes to Egypt from war-torn London to bury him.

Staying in the Cairo home of David Lazar, her father's best friend, as she gets Charles' affairs in order, Gemma begins to uncover the shocking significance of his final work. Charles had been collecting evidence that the lost gospels were suppressed by church leaders through the centuries because, among other revelations, they showed that Jesus considered women equal disciples.

Once on the trail of the lost gospels, Gemma won't let anything scare her off, not the untimely deaths of people who get too close to the texts nor the stonewalling of the many antiquities dealers, museum officials, and intermediaries who seek to profit from their sale. Visits by menacing agents of the church only fuel her determination to fulfill her father's goal to bring the gospels to the public.

As she dodges the other pursuers of the books, Gemma also drifts between Lazar's two sons. One son, Michael, is a war hero, a fighter pilot who lost a leg and suffered disfiguring burns when his plane crashed in France. The other, Anthony, is a reclusive scholar who spends months alone in the desert studying the ruins of ancient hermits. Gemma, a nurse during the war, struggles to open her heart to love after the terrors of the German bombings of London and the pain of the soldiers she was unable to save. Like a war-ravaged country, Gemma is trying to find a way to rebuild herself, and we watch as she tentatively flexes her feelings and toys with the possibilities of faith.

The story is suspenseful and well told, so I found myself wrapped up in the lives of its wounded characters. Still, the novel occasionally lost me in their emotional no-man's-land. It's hard to tell if the coolness of the characters' expression is due to the protective shells they grew during the war (clearly the author's intent), their essential Britishness, or a weakness in the writing.

What Malarkey does brilliantly is bring a range of powerful forces crashing down on her characters and her readers. With her formidable research skills, she has recreated the tempestuous social and political climate of Egypt in 1945, woven in academic knowledge from several disciplines (including linguistics, archaeology, military history, and theology), and animated this background to the story with a keen sense of the personal impact of the period's political and social contexts.

Malarkey has cleverly taken what appears to be a cut-and-dried episode from the ancient past -- the creation and ultimate suppression of a branch of the early church -- and shown it to be part and parcel of our species' long history of fear of change. The post-WWII era was a time of shifting gender roles, of colonial resistance against European imperialism, and of challenges to racial hierarchies. In this context, the revelation that other disciples, some of them women, had perhaps closer and deeper knowledge of Jesus' message threatened another dangerous challenge to the status quo. As one of the church agents said to Gemma, "Do you understand it would be an act of cruelty to shake people's faith at such a time?"

Malarkey does that by giving us a proudly feminist heroine fighting to return the church to wholeness through the acceptance of a broader truth, one that prominently honors women's power and intelligence. In an era when the Christian church is again wrestling with demands by women to lead, "Resurrection" is a timely reminder that these debates are not new but started at the very founding of the religion.

Although the gospels described in the book are real, part of a bigger literary find known as the Nag Hammadi codices, Malarkey has created a highly fictionalized tale of their path to eventual sale to the Egyptian government. Characters, like the Bastians and the Lazars, are entirely fictional, and other characters are based loosely on real players. The true story, and translations of the texts themselves, can be found in The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James M. Robinson.

The history of the Nag Hammadi texts is one of human manipulation of the divine. By bringing us her engrossing version of this important story, Malarkey shows us how the trajectories both of books and of people can get tripped up by war, politics, jealousy and greed.


Talkbacks

persnicady | April 10, 2007 at 4:13 a.m. (report)

Regarding Malarkys Resserrection: A well written article that is, to me not offensive at all, nor surprizing. Christ has always seen women as equals. St. Paul, because of the customs of that day termed women as subserviant, but equal as diaconnesses.

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