My novel, The Gospel of Simon was published in the US and Canada in the fall of 2016. A global English and Spanish edition was published in January 2017. It’s a faithful yet radical retelling of the day Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to Golgotha. Although thoroughly authentic in its language, The Gospel of Simon is a message for the 21st century, reminding us of Jesus’s gospel of love, compassion, mercy, nonviolence, and peace. The book includes an interview with Canadian writer, W. P. “Bill” Kinsella, whose novel Shoeless Joe was made into the blockbuster motion picture Field of Dreams, which was nominated for three Academy Awards. His story “Lieberman in Love” was the basis for a short film that won an Academy Award for Short Films in 1996. Bill and I have been friends since the mid-1990s. Sadly, Bill passed away a week after the book was published. I offer the entire interview with the addition of several questions that were omitted from the first edition. Learn more about the book at www.thegospelofsimon.com
WPK: You say in the prologue that you were afraid of writing this book. Why?
JS: There was always the persistent question in the back of my mind: Who am I to write this book? This is one of the world’s most sacred topics. No matter how noble my intentions, I knew that there would be people who would disagree with some aspect of my vision. But despite all that, the vision persisted. Simon. Jesus. The Cross. Write me!
WPK: And yet it took you twenty years to write it?
JS: There were always other books for me to write instead, many with the same theme of love and compassion and courage. And so it seemed easy enough to put aside Simon. It’s pretty common for writers to abandon writing projects. But this story kept coming back. I will say that after working on the book for so long, I had a difficult time letting go of it. I kept tinkering with it even after I delivered the manuscript to the publisher.
WPK: What ultimately made you get serious and finish it?
JS: I worry about the future of humanity, about the world my daughters will inherit. There’s too much hate and suffering, much it centered on religious intolerance, despite every religion’s tenets of compassion, mercy, charity, and nonviolence. Too many people use religion to sow divisiveness and prejudice, to foster separation instead of unity, and to build walls between us, both physical and metaphorical. To paraphrase Robert Frost, be careful what you wall in or wall out. There are too many atrocities, large and small, inflicted against humanity every day in the name of religion. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. When it came to violence his response was emphatic: No violence. Yet, it seems to me, his followers all too willingly abandon his directive and follow instead the drums of war. I felt the world needed to be reminded that Jesus’s message was love and peace and mercy. I wanted to accomplish something beautiful and meaningful, something capable of challenging and affecting millions of hearts and minds. Because the desire for love, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and peace is universal, The Gospel of Simon is a book for the world. That’s why I sought help from people from other world religions.
WPK: I’m glad you finished it. It’s a work of extraordinary power and resonance, especially with its timeless and necessary messages of love and compassion. I remember the day you called me in 2007 to tell me how you had died and how the doctors brought you back to life. I know you don’t like to talk about the experience, but do you remember what you told me was your first thought when you came to in the hospital?
JS: Certainly. For years, I had been trying to ignore the insistent “vision” of this book, mostly out of fear and uncertainty. But when I awoke in the hospital bed after surgery, I remember an overwhelming yearning to write this book, as if my life depended on it. One close friend says I was given a second chance if only to write it.
WPK: You once told me that the book had many different beginnings over the years. Can you give an example?
JS: For the longest time, the story began with the old Simon sitting on a stool in the goathouse with his extended family sitting on the dirt floor all around him as he recited the story of what had happened to him and Jesus almost forty years earlier. But I felt that version read like an artifact. I was afraid it wouldn’t resonate with modern readers. I wanted readers to feel that Jesus was speaking directly to them and to our contemporary problems. The issue was resolved by setting the beginning of the story in present day Jerusalem. And without specifying the year, the story should remain fresh and relevant for years to come. It will always be now.
WPK: Jesus talks a good deal in this book, yet tradition seems to suggest that he spoke in short maxims like, “Blessed are the poor” and “Who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” and such. How do you reconcile the difference?
JS: Jesus was a preacher. He talked. Sometimes he talked a great deal, such as during the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus spoke to an audience of five thousand for three days. He spoke for so long that the listeners ran out of food and became hungry so that Jesus had to perform the miracle of feeding 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. The notion of Jesus uttering only terse sayings of wisdom is erroneous. What has survived in the gospels is likely a fraction of what he actually said—only those things that early followers remembered and found relevant to the growing religion around Jesus. Certainly he must have awoke some mornings, looked out the window and said, “Looks like it’s going to rain today” or “Pass the beans” or “This is good soup” during a meal. Lastly, this is a novel. The fictional conversation between Simon and Jesus occurs during the ambiguous dream sequence. As such, a little poetic license should be permitted for the author to get his message across.
WPK: What would you say to readers who question if it’s acceptable to write a book recasting a biblical story, especially one about Jesus?
JS: I would tell them it does not betray or subvert your faith to imagine what a conversation with Jesus might look like or to contemplate his humanity.
WPK: Would you say you grew spiritually from the experience of writing this book?
JS: More than I ever could have imagined in the beginning. Although the general idea of the story came to me in a flash, my insecurities forced me to do a ton of research. It is no exaggeration to say I read more than one hundred fifty books on religion while writing Simon, as well as having countless conversations with religious clerics. I also enrolled in graduate courses in world religions at Harvard. In the process, I grew to respect and to appreciate the similarities and the differences between religions. Peace and understanding begins with listening.
WPK: You’re clearly spiritual. Have you ever considered a life in the clergy?
JS: When I was a young man, I considered a vocation as an Army chaplain, but I felt like my true calling and true gift was to be a writer.
WPK: Were you surprised by anything while writing the book or while peddling it to publishers?
JS: My agent sent the synopsis of this book to the biggest Christian publishers in America. He included a dozen pages as a sample. No one even wanted to read the manuscript. Several publishers replied that no one would be interested in reading a book about Jesus’s message of love and compassion and peace. I sure hope they were wrong. I was also astounded by the number of Christian friends who said they’d never read this book because it is the praised by folks from other religious traditions. Their closed-mindedness saddens me. How can there be religious tolerance and religious nonviolence if people are unwilling to listen to each other respectfully? (Photo: Author John Smelcer being interviewed on NPR)
WPK: My last question is the most personal. What question does The Gospel of Simon answer in your heart of hearts?
JS: I yearn for a world where the messages that Jesus carried to us are ingrained in the fabric of our existence. Sometimes I weep for it. We pay lip service to them, but we don’t live by them. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the news and to the inflammatory speeches of politicians who, proclaiming their Christian-ness, incite hatred, divisiveness, oppression, prejudice, intolerance, and violence, despite Jesus’s decree on the Mount that “blessed are they who are kind-hearted, who show mercy, compassion, and sympathy, and who aspire to peace in all things” (Matthew 5:1-16). I think it’s too easy to say, “I am saved simply because I believe in Jesus and God.” I would think they want more from our faith than just our words. Faith demands actions of love. Jesus said as much. I long for a world full of joy and kindness and love and peace and healing and wholeness, a world where compassion and mercy is given to those who need it. Our mercy. Our compassion. To me, that is what Jesus meant when he said the Kingdom of Heaven was already at hand, right here, today, if only we would realize it. How bright the world would be if we were all ablaze by what St. John of the Cross called “the kindled flame of love.” By writing The Gospel of Simon, I hope to share my vision of that glorious and sacred place, a world alight with the transforming power of mercy, where suffering is diminished, and where we love and care for one another to the fullest of human capacity. Your praise on the cover says this book is capable of changing the world. I hope you’re right. But it can’t do it alone. It needs the help of readers around the world who share the dream—one kindled heart at a time.