By Dino Lencioni*
The new edition of this book is entitled The Jerusalem Helix.
Imagine an Atheist, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, and a Buddhist who are all part of the same book club. They are all reading a book that doesn’t shy away from religion—or humor about their religious differences. In fact, it includes one character from each of their religions, as well as an atheist heroine. What if I told you they all love the same book—and none of them feel offended by it? How is that possible, especially in our divisive era?
Because it does something that is all too rare: it respects all of them—while weaving them all into a page-turning story. This very modern and timely novel is written with such sensitivity that most readers—regardless of their beliefs—will fall in love with it.
This is one such book.
It’s a story about tolerance. Our global dialogue about racism is a good start. But practicing tolerance is what we need to create change.
The protagonist in the novel could have just as easily been Nelson Mandela or Gandhi, who were also masters of tolerance. But it brings back a John Lennon-type of character, who resembles the Hippie Jesus of the sixties: he’s all about nonviolence, tolerance, universal love, and helping the poor and the disenfranchised.
In this story, Christ’s DNA is discovered in an ancient relic in Jerusalem. Two doctors—one Italian, the other Texan—secretly use the old DNA to create a clone, essentially a human genetic twin of Jesus. The boy is raised on a secluded ranch in Texas, and taught by teachers of three different faiths. His real adventure begins when he leaves his sheltered childhood and presents himself to 21st century America—and the world—as an eighteen-year-old doppelganger of Christ. Who will this young man be exactly? And how will we react when he meets the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and people from all religions and ethnicities along the way, including a few women who fall in love with him?
The novel has a whiff of such versatile classics as Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, and The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho.
It is quite an accomplishment for a story to appeal to readers of such wildly different backgrounds, especially in the very polarized US. Two atheist readers are early investors in the current movie adaptation and development, as they felt like the book respected their views with the inclusion of a colorful French atheist heroine. Emails and quotes from readers in numerous eclectic book clubs show the surprising universal appeal of this story. A Jewish professor raved about the one sermon in the book, “because it’s the [all-accepting] sermon he’s never heard and never will.” Another reader said, “This book taught me to be more accepting of those who are different.” Yet another reader said, “This is not the Jesus of Scripture—but I like him better.” A pastor in rural Texas used it in her own sermon, which is extraordinary, considering that all major religions and atheism are represented in a positive light.
I asked the author, Sue Stephenson, why she thinks the book has been embraced by such a diverse readership. She credits this to the strong role models of tolerance during her formative years. Sue was born in Africa and raised in Europe and the United States. Her mother and grandmother had different views on religion, yet they let her find her own path. Her grandmother never taught her how to pray—simply because she had never asked. As a teenager, Sue requested an encyclopedia of the nine major religions—with the intent of picking one. Her mother bought it for her, without attempting to persuade or dissuade. Tolerance, she learned, is easily granted by tacit acceptance of a person’s choices.
Sue’s training as a psychologist also helped her create characters who can be loved, understood, and respected by diverse readers. In the process of writing this book, Sue learned that tolerance begins with empathy, that old standby that helps psychologists treat people who think, feel, and behave differently. Although there is drama and conflict galore in the story, by empathizing with every single character, she made sure her readers could sense her inherent acceptance of them all. “By looking through someone else’s prism, we come to understand the logic behind people’s different choices,” she said. Ethnic and religious differences are described—but never judged. No one group comes out looking bad; and each takes turns shining.
Diversity is not a burden, not a box to check off, but an engine that makes the story appeal to a wider swath of people. The star roles are divvied up, such that each cultural/religious group has a hero or heroine with whom they can identify. Nobody is ridiculed for their religion or ethnicity, even if there is ample humor about cultural and religious differences. For instance, two adolescent Jewish sisters are trying to understand who this Jesus-twin teenager is. One says, “Maybe he’s the reincarnation of Jesus?” The other says, “We’re Jewish. We don’t believe in reincarnation or Jesus, so how can we believe in both?”
This Sue said is the other lesson of tolerance: “When we immediately embrace people’s differences without hesitation, they are more inclined to consider our own idiosyncrasies with open-minded curiosity.” If their own beliefs are portrayed with respect, readers are more willing to learn about other people’s belief systems without being defensive.
The end result is something we rarely see today: one and the same story is loved by Atheists, Catholics, Protestants (yes, even evangelicals), Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais, and Sikhs. Surprisingly, this makes the book the perfect gift for any reader who craves a touch of philosophy and ethics—regardless of their beliefs.
It is a fine and at times funny story that allows us to see how our similarities are so much bigger than our differences—which is the underlying theme of the book.
The Secret Jesus—a Modern Novel, by Sue Stephenson, is available in print, ebook, and audiobook worldwide on Amazon, Audible, and Apple Books.
*Dino Lencioni is a writer and editor. He has written and directed several films, including documentaries. He is based in Seattle.