In The First Christmas, Stephen Mitchell brings the Nativity story to vivid life as never before. A narrative that is only sketched out in two Gospels becomes fully realized here with nuanced characters and a setting that reflects the culture of the time. Mitchell has suffused the birth of Jesus with a sense of beauty that will delight and astonish readers.
In this version, we see the world through the eyes of a Whitmanesque ox and a visionary donkey, starry-eyed shepherds and Zen-like wise men, each of them providing a unique perspective on a scene that is, in Western culture, the central symbol for good tidings of great joy. Rather than superimposing later Christian concepts onto the Annunciation and Nativity scenes, he imagines Mary and Joseph experiencing the angelic message as a young Jewish woman and man living in the year 4 bce might have experienced it, with terror, dismay, and ultimate acceptance. In this context, their yes becomes an act of great moral courage.
Don’t read this thinking it’s true to biblical accounts or even historical extrapolations. It isn’t. This is pure fiction. And, while it is imaginative, it takes profound liberties with the Bible and skews it to suit the author’s purpose. If you want to read fiction based on the Bible, don’t read something written by an author whose website says he’s been “de-educated through intensive Zen practice.”
Stephen Mitchell was born in Brooklyn. The First Christmas is his newest book.
(Galley courtesy of St. Martin’s Press in exchange for an honest review.)