life and legacy of the apostle Thomas were a shimmer of
myth and fact that sent Tom Bissell across oceans and
down alleys; he scribbled notes with a high fever and
cried with dysentery and diarrhea in a church bathroom
on a mountaintop in India.
researching his new book, "Apostle," Bissell,
a writer of wanderlust and obsessed curiosity, spent
years hunting the supposed tombs of disciples who for
centuries have been gauzed in ecclesiastical mist,
including Thomas the doubter, whose bones and relics
have been scattered from Rome to Kerala, India.
is a ride-along through unanswerable questions about 12
imperfect men who set out in the first century to spread
the word of Jesus Christ. The book is a trip into faith,
history and skepticism. The story glows with enchanting
asides and stitches together how Jesus’ life and
meaning were edited and refined through the ages from
contradictory accounts and incongruous translations.
Christianity promises, I do not understand,"
Bissell writes. "What its god could possibly want,
I have never been able to imagine, not even when I was a
was a fitting undertaking for a fallen altar boy,
beleaguered Peace Corps volunteer, adventure journalist
and writer whose short fiction delights in the mishaps
of expat Americans navigating foreign lands. When
discussing the book the other day, Bissell, veering from
biblical legends to primal urges, smiled like a man who
had overheard an indiscreet whisper.
settled back — quoted Longfellow and Monty Python —
and sipped a beer outside his Nichols Canyon home. It
was, appropriately or not, Good Friday. Black birds
circled treetops, the skeleton of an unfinished house
shone below and drawings by his soon-to-be-2-year-old
daughter bloomed in pastel smudges on the porch. The air
was cool, dusk not far off.
started as a critique of what Bissell regarded as
nonsensical beliefs predicated on apocryphal yarns that
included talking animals and necrophilia. Early
Christian stories written before the New Testament, he
said, were the "first fan fiction." Deciding,
however, that ridicule might not make a good thesis,
Bissell amassed thousands of pages of text and visited
nine countries in a study that blends travelogue with a
vivid mosaic of emperors, evangelists and schisms that
bent the course of history.
book is about not only Christian storytelling but
storytelling in general and the meaning we arrive at
through characters we create and then send hurtling
through time whether they’re fiction characters in a
novel or Christian characters of legend," said
Bissell, who has written for the New Yorker and other
magazines. "The weirdness of Christianity felt like
an important thing to communicate."
genesis of "Apostle" began when Bissell was a
high school junior writing a report on Jesus that led to
his realization that a true understanding of God seemed
impossible. He left the Catholic Church, but
Christianity continued to resonate. In his 20s he toyed
with a doomed novel about the apostle John; later he
found wonder in religious archaeological sites even as
Christianity’s central tenant remained as
insubstantial as a dream.
Christianity promises is eternal life. That I get,"
he said. "But you get there through a very winding,
complicated path, and to me the path is so complicated
and so winding that the eventual destination of eternal
life seems pretty dubious. … It’s like a gift shop
at the end of a really interesting museum
could sense a pastor wincing at the metaphor. A few
coils of gray in his beard, Bissell, 42, could be a
stand-in for an apostle at a community theater
production of the Passion. He writes and speaks with
fierce honesty and is fascinated by the crooked road and
unknotting life’s inconsistencies, an inclination that
can lead to splendid and scary places. Like the
disciples he chronicled, he has endured troubles,
including a cocaine addiction that fueled video-game
games and cocaine feed on my impulsiveness, reinforce my
solitude and make me feel good and bad in equal
measure," he wrote in his 2010 book, "Extra
Lives: Why Video Games Matter." "The crucial
difference is that I believe in what video games want to
give me, while the bequest of cocaine is one I
bird cawed and soared on a wind current; small feet
pattered across the floor behind the window.
haven’t done drugs in five years," he said.
"I just stopped at a certain point. I realized it
was always the same story over and over again." He
was living in Portland when his "cocaine guy"
came to tell him that he was moving away but would
provide the name of another dealer. "I stopped him.
I said, ‘Hey, you know what, don’t give me that
has remained devoted to video games. Much of his income
these days is derived from scripts he spins out for
"Gears of War" and other franchises.
"They take me out of myself," he said, noting
the miraculous conspiring of technology, programmers,
designers and composers to create layered worlds of
frenetic imagery that afford repose.
elaborating on whether a script should call for bringing
down a helicopter by a missile or colliding it with
crane, he admitted that "it’s not the work that I
hope I’m judged by when I go to literary heaven."
is a writer of magpie instincts, a man seeking
enlightenment amid strangers in distant geographies. His
entourage of translators, drivers, a monk, an
archaeologist and assorted pilgrims are, like the
apostles, colloquial and universal, restless and
oblivious souls that are at once amusing and profound.
His short-story collection "God Lives in St.
Petersburg and Other Stories" is map of such
characters, and his memoir, "The Father of All
Things: A Marine, His Son and the Legacy of
Vietnam" is a study of personal sacrifice and
follows the vein of how a contentious religious past
resounds in the present. Bissell examines John’s
legend in Turkey, traverses Kyrgyzstan looking for the
ruins of an Armenian monastery devoted to Matthew and
walks 500 miles across Spain where he writes with a
degree of skepticism that James’ tomb was
"rediscovered in the ninth century." In
Israel, Bissell looks for the place where Judas
committed suicide after betraying Jesus, wondering why
an omniscient God would turn the apostle into a pawn who
would endure endless scorn.
book recounts early Christian debates over the divinity
of Jesus and the concept of the Holy Trinity. It clamors
with voices and agendas; the discarding of some gospels
and the inclusion of others until the Church — like a
good Netflix series — had distilled its narrative.
Bissell is enamored with Paul, an apostle but not one of
the original 12, whose eloquent preaching and letters
set the church’s painful evolution away from its
Jewish roots to a Gentile Christianity.
had inexplicable confidence," he said.
of the great mysteries of early Christianity is Paul’s
ability to virtually look the original follows of Jesus
in the eye and say ‘wrong.’ And not only that but to
win the argument."
dusk crept closer to his back porch and shadows reached
deeper into the canyon, Bissell’s summation of the
gospel writers had the ring of a book critic: "Mark
is pretty much an idiot. … Matthew was a much more
capable storyteller. … Luke knew how the Greco-Roman
world worked. He’s the only proper gentleman scholar
of the gospel writers. … John seems to have come from
another planet altogether. His is the purest writer’s
gospel, it’s also the most symbolic."
what writer wouldn’t forsake all he owned to have his
work read 2,000 years after his death? All about a
sandaled preacher who roamed hillsides, performed
miracles, was arrested, beaten and crucified, and
ascended into heaven. Bissell questions the truth and
veracity of most of it but, with his daughter forming
words inside and quiet falling over the treetops, he
concedes it is a pretty story.
Jesus out of the compelling matrix of the narrative and
he’s just another rabble-rousing, wanna-be
prophet," he said. "There’s something to be
said for the power of the gospel writers and how they
fashioned something that ignited their world."