Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

Left Behind: Evangelical Gospel Thrillers

I exclude from my study the small number of Gospel Thrillers published by evangelical presses. (One major exception: I do discuss James Hunter's The Mystery of Mar Saba, which has achieved an unexpected place in modern academic discussions of the New Testament and becomes a surprising prototype for much of the post-War novels I analyze, as I discuss in this article). 

I did not exclude these novels because I think they emerge out of a different set of cultural concerns or impulses from the secular Gospel Thrillers; indeed, I think evangelical cultural projects like the Museum of the Bible respond very much to the fear and desire surrounding biblical authority that animate the genre as a whole.

I pass over these novels because they also speak to concerns specific to evangelical Protestant U.S. cultural production in the post-War period, and I didn't feel able to address these concerns adequately in my study. (For excellent studies of evangelical popular literature, check out to Amy Johnson Frykholm's Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America and Amy DeRogatis's Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism; on evangelical book culture specifically, you can now read Daniel Vaca's Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America and Daniel Silliman's Reading Evangelicals: How Christian Fiction Shaped a Culture and a Faith.)

Below you'll find brief descriptions of these novels along with links to discussions or reviews of them where available so those who are interested can read about them (and, perhaps, so I can return to them one day too!). Many of these novels try to domesticate the perceived excesses of historical critical studies of the New Testament and restore faith in the received texts of the gospels, even as they posit discoveries such as Q or a gospel of Mary. You can also find brief discussions of the first three novels in Robert Price's Secret Scrolls: Revelations from the Lost Gospel Novels.

(For brief discussion of other "lost gospel" novels I have not included in this study, go to my overview of the Gospel Thrillers genre.)

Ursula and Terry Loucks' Burning Words aims to square recent biblical critical scholarship (such as the existence of Q) with an authentic, New Age Christian spirituality. The publisher does not seem to be an evangelical press per se, but rather (possibly?) a vanity press (the only other novel I can find out of this press is this right-wing, pro-gun, anti-Clinton apocalyptic novel published the next year). I include it here because of its manifestly "spiritualist" attempt to harness the "lost gospel" genre. The Amazon site for Burning Words has a good number of highly engaged reader reviews. 

The Ephesus Fragment, by Gary Parker, was published by Bethany House, a press devoted to Christian fiction and nonfiction (since purchased by Christian megapress Baker Publishing). Parker is the author of dozens of novels, many of them mysteries and thrillers that dabble in conspiracy theories (such as his later Templar-inflected The Constantine Conspiracy). This novel posits a Gospel of Mary (actually written by John toward the end of Mary's life) and addresses Catholic doctrines of Mary from a decidedly Protestant evangelical perspective. More than one reviewer at Amazon calls the novel out for anti-Catholicism (a theme present in secular Gospel Thrillers as well). 

Q, by Paul Nigro, was published out of (seemingly defunct) River Oaks Publishing, a Christian publishing arm of missionary outfit Cook Ministries (now David C Cook). The novel posits that Q, once discovered, would actually serve as a rebuke to overly secular New Testament higher criticism and affirm the reliability of the canonical gospels. Goodreads reviewers seem to enjoy the plot more than the writing. (Nigro wrote a second novel with River Oaks, Bethesda, about a miraculous pool of water in an inner-city church.)

The Sacred Cipher, by Terry Brennan, is the first in a series of novels ("The Jerusalem Prophecies") written by this former journalist and executive in the Christian non-profit world. The discovery of a mysterious scroll in the basement of the Bowery Mission (where Brennan himself worked) leads a group of "ragtag scientists and historians" to uncover an apocalyptic secret under the Temple Mount. The second and third part of this trilogy follow through on this apocalyptic narrative. Kregel Publications is a midwestern evangelical press (see the Statement of Faith on their website). According to his author site, Brennan's next series will also be published by Kregel. Sacred Cipher is well reviewed on both Goodreads and Amazon and, after Maier's book (below), is probably the best-selling of these evangelical Gospel Thrillers.

The Galilean Secret, by Evan Drake Howard, originated as a successful self-published novel (The Lost Epistle of Jesus) before being republished by Guideposts (an evangelical nonprofit lifestyle and publishing brand). The novel explores interfaith politics and militarism in the first century and the twentieth through a present-day Palestinian man in love with a Jewish woman (who discovered the titular "secret" scroll in a cave near Qumran), a description of Jesus' romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene ultimately deferred (the "secret"), and Jesus' preaching of the dual-sex nature of all humans. Howard's message of Christian love between men and woman seems to resonate with readers (see reviews at Amazon and Goodreads).

Paul Maier is undoubtedly the most successful of these authors. Maier is a historian at Western Michigan University and his novels, released by Bible publisher Tyndale through their fiction arm, have sold in the millions of copies. The Constantine Codex is the third novel featuring the protagonist Jonathan Weber, a biblical studies scholar at Harvard. The first two dealt with the possible discovery of Christ's remains and the possible second coming of Christ in the present day. This third novel treats a discovery of one of the copies of the Bible supposedly commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; this codex contains an extended end to the Gospel of Mark and a third book by Luke ("Second Acts"), which recounts Paul's martyrdom. Much of the book is taken up with interreligious dialogue (between Christians and Muslims) and the possibility of truly ecumenical religious agreement. Reviewers seem to prefer Maier's first book to this third outing (Amazon and Goodreads; for a particularly detailed Goodreads review, click here.)


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