Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2001) Jonathan Rabb, The Book of Q

The Book of Q is Jonathan Rabb's second novel (his first, The Overseer, also featured an academic hero on the quest for a lost manuscript). The novels interweaves gnosticism, Manicheism, and that old standby "Q," the hypothetical text of Jesus' sayings. The layers of conspiracy run deep in this novel, including a centuries-long underground Manichean effort to take over the church (they almost succeed in this novel).

Manicheism was a purity-based, dualistic offshoot of various monotheistic traditions that seriously competed with Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries: Augustine of Hippo was an adherent for a decade. Originating in Persia and spreading quickly throughout the Mediterranean and eastward to China, Manicheism faded away under Islam. Manicheans believed that the human body was a microcosmic battleground inside of which Light struggled with Darkness. In the 1980s scholars began seriously collating sources on the ancient movement—often extant in obscure languages such as Middle Persian—leading to a renaissance in study of Manicheism. Rabb's novel draws explicitly on those sources. By positing a global, centuries-long conspiracy of Manicheans Rabb also resurrects premodern "conspiracy theories" about "Manichees" hidden among the ranks of the faithful only to be rooted out by forces such as the Inquisition.

Book of Q is not the only Gospel Thriller to combine a heretical conspiracy with a quest for the "lost gospel Q" (Gospel Truths anticipated Rabb by almost a decade). Here, the pieces don't quite fit together so smoothly, not least because the conspiratorial Manicheans don't really seem to know what Q says and, ultimately, it works against them rather than for them. The fact that the two themes don't quite gel is evident in the Spanish-language title: La conspiraciĆ³n de los herejes ("The heretics' conspiracy").

Rabb, who is also a performer (a member of the Whiffenpoofs while an undergraduate at Yale), has gone on to write several more novels and teach writing. Book of Q remains his only Gospel Thriller.

Hero: Fr. Ian Pearse, U.S. academic priest working in the Vatican and lifelong do-gooder (he fathered a child while volunteering years earlier in the Bosnian conflict)
villains: Manicheans embedded deep in the Euro-Catholic hierarchy, led by the Nazi-adjacent Cardinal Erich von Neurath; they assassinate and replace the pope
Gospel: Ancient Manichean hymns and fragments lead Pearse to the "Hagia Hodoporia" (or "Sacred Journey"), authentic "Q," a Cynic diary of Jesus’ last years in which we learn Jesus was a wisdom teacher and not an apocalyptic prophet

A second novel by a little-known author received little national press attention on its release. Regional newspapers described it as "intelligent and provocative" (Raleigh News and Observer) with "lead-footed action scenes" (San Francisco Chronicle). Publisher's Weekly called it "engrossing if long-winded"; Kirkus Reviews agreed that it is "overstuffed." Readers at Goodreads and Amazon seem to concur that the deeply learned exposition weighs down the often improbable and convoluted action.

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