“The Breath of God”
By Jeffrey Small. West Hills Press, 402 pages.
Author appearances: Jeffrey Small will discuss his novel at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, at Barnes & Noble Buckhead, 2900 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-261-7747. He will also present a lecture on world religions at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, at The Cathedral of St. Philip, 2744 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. For more information about that event, call 404-365-1067 or email email@example.com
“The Da Vinci Code” made religion an unexpected hot topic for thrillers, and Atlanta writer Jeffrey Small follows in Dan Brown’s footsteps with his debut novel, “The Breath of God,” though he sets his story in Asia and his chase scenes at the Taj Mahal.
Is it possible that Jesus went to India as a young man and developed his spiritual ideas there? Small’s protagonist is an Emory University graduate student, Grant Matthews, who sets out to redeem his sullied scholarly reputation by hunting for an ancient document in the Himalayas that might prove the legend true. As zealots from an Alabama church make it their mission to thwart him, Matthews is tested physically and spiritually, weaving his way across the Indian subcontinent in a desperate search for the manuscript that might tie Eastern and Western religions together.
Several years ago, after watching a Discovery Channel show about the speculation that Jesus traveled to India, Small became intrigued. As a high school student at Atlanta’s Westminster Schools in the 1980s, when a fundamentalist zeal swept the campus, he had enjoyed pointing out the logical inconsistencies in his religion teacher’s efforts to teach the Bible as historical fact. If Noah’s Ark was real, why didn’t the tigers eat the sheep? It was only later, after he studied Hinduism and Buddhism, that Small found a new appreciation for biblical stories as metaphor and myth rather than the literal fact he had rejected as an adolescent.
Below is an edited excerpt from my recent conversation with the author about his novel and his research into world religions. (Full disclosure: I provided a blurb for “The Breath of God,” so I’m not reviewing it here.) We met at Small’s secluded north Atlanta home, discreetly appointed with antique religious manuscripts and artifacts from Egypt, Israel and other parts of the ancient world, evidence of Small’s appreciation for the rich material culture inspired by religion.
Parul Kapur Hinzen: Your novel concerns the enigma of Christ’s early life. What was it about the speculations over these “missing years” that inspired you to write a thriller?
Jeffrey Small: We know very little about the life of Jesus, who some consider one of the greatest religious figures of all time. His ministry lasts about a year, and that’s all we know about him. In the Gospel of Luke, we do have a brief appearance at the temple when [Jesus] is 12 years old. He’s speaking and he impresses the elders with how knowledgeable he is. Then he begins his ministry sometime around the age of 29 or 30. There’s nothing in the Bible about the supposed “missing years” of his life. The only mention we have of him during this period, after the temple appearance, is one line in Luke: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
We know how he grew in stature — he got older and bigger. But how did he grow in wisdom? What influences might have played on him that affected his later teachings? The whole question of what turned Jesus into the person that he became was a fascinating one for me. When I learned about the legend that the book is centered around, that Jesus was possibly influenced by other religions, I was even more intrigued.
Hinzen: Grant Matthews, your protagonist, is an adventurous but very rationalistic religious scholar at Emory who travels to India in search of an ancient text that he believes will change the way the world views Christianity. You set your novel partly in Atlanta, but mostly in far-away India and Bhutan. Had you ever been to these countries before you began writing “The Breath of God”? What was your research experience there like?
Small: I spent about a month traveling in India and Bhutan. I’ve been fortunate — I’ve traveled all over the world, but had never been to those countries. They were so different from anything I’ve encountered in Africa or South America. India, in particular, is such a country of contrasts. You have the most beautiful architecture — the most beautiful temples — that I’ve seen anywhere and an energy to the people and a color to the landscape. But on the flip side, you have some of the most heartbreaking poverty I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The sense of mystery and mysticism seems to be infused throughout the whole country as well.
Bhutan was like stepping back in time 50 years to this tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas. It’s just a very peaceful, serene existence. Many of the young men are living in Buddhist monasteries.
Hinzen: Did you specifically visit religious sites? Had people there heard about the speculations that Jesus had visited their land?
Small: Well, it’s interesting. The main premise of the novel, about the “missing years” of Jesus, is based on an ancient legend that Jesus, during his teens and 20s, connected with a merchant caravan and traveled along the Spice Route. The Spice Route took him through India, and in the 15 years or so that he spent there, he studied Hinduism and Buddhism, the two dominant religions of the country in his day.
This is not a legend that’s well known in the West. But when I traveled through India, surprisingly, I found many people who had not only heard of the legend but could tell me very specific details of where they thought Jesus had traveled — what cities he had been in. I heard stories about him teaching the lowest castes, which at that time would have been taboo. He was trying to teach religion to the untouchables and got into trouble for doing so. The stories intrigued me because they paralleled the man we know from the New Testament, who was all about connecting with the disenfranchised and the poor, and seemed to always be in battle with the elites.
Hinzen: After undergoing many ordeals in his quest for the missing manuscript, Grant Matthews comes to this conviction: “Religion was not about belief in certain historical facts; it was about experience.” But usually when people discuss religion — argue about it — it’s not about the intimate experience of spiritual feelings, it’s about history, values and who’s morally superior. Is there any resolution to this war of righteousness?
Small: So much of the religious conflict we see comes from that debate about religious doctrine. It comes down to whether certain historical facts happened in one religion versus another — who is saved and who is not saved? Who are a favored people?
What I found fascinating in my study of religion was that in every single religious tradition, you have a mystical tradition. Certain branches and religious figures across all religions are searching for a personal connection to the divine. When you read the writings of these mystics, it’s interesting how similar they start sounding. Even though the underlying doctrine in which they practice and believe can be completely contradictory to another religion, those who have truly experienced that connection with the divine have a much more universal view of the world, of religion, than those who just philosophize about it. That’s part of an interesting dialogue that we can start to have.
If we look at some of the founders of the great religions — Jesus, the Buddha and Muhammad — each of them had very similar spiritual, mystical experiences before they began their ministries. Jesus, right after he is baptized by John, goes into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting, praying and meditating. Throughout his ministry, he would retire at certain times alone. Even though he was Jewish like his followers, there was something different about his spiritual practice. His disciples would ask, “Why are you always gone alone? Why are you praying for so long?” He had this contemplative practice that we associate more with the East.
The Buddha had a long period of similar ascetic practices before he became enlightened. And what a lot of people don’t realize about the prophet Muhammad is that in his 30s he would go to a cave in Mount Hera, near Mecca, and spend all night in prayer and meditation. He did this for weeks and weeks, and then began to have the visions that became the Koran. It’s interesting to me that the founders of all three of these religions had spiritual practices that connected them to something larger than themselves and that led to their own teachings. Maybe if we focused on some of these practices, rather than debating doctrine, we might find more common ground among religions.
Hinzen: You did a degree in political science at Yale, graduated from Harvard Law School, and then became a commercial real estate developer in Atlanta. How did you jump from being a businessman to writing fiction?
Small: I was fortunate to achieve a lot of professional success at a young age — in my mid-30s. The more successful I became, the more I started asking the question, “Is this my purpose in life?” I started to realize that there was a difference between success and significance. To me, success is more internally focused: how much can I accomplish? Significance is more about how can I connect with other people.
I’d always had a secret desire to write a novel, as I think many people do. And there would be days when I’d be uninspired at work, and I would take out a notebook and start jotting down story ideas. For me it was always, “Well, one day, when I’m successful enough, I will take time out and write a book.”
Then I realized that there was no such thing as having enough success and that “one day” is always in the future, it is never now. And if I only planned on writing, I would never actually write a book. It was literally on one day that I had this epiphany, and I started the novel then. I started to research that day.
I’d always been interested in the philosophy of religion. The more I delved into the research, the more I realized I wanted to study religion academically. So that led me, in my middle-aged years, to move my family to England so I could get a master’s in religion from Oxford University.
Hinzen: And you wrote the book in a coffee shop much the way that J.K. Rowling scribbled the first “Harry Potter”?
Small: I still write in coffee shops. I usually take my daughter to school in the morning and then go to a coffee shop and write for an hour or two before I go to the office. I find if I’m alone in my office at home or at work, it’s easier to get distracted — surfing the Internet, researching or looking for stuff to buy. In a public space, I find the white noise of talk going on around me soothing, and it actually allows me to focus more. [Small is currently at work on a novel that looks at fundamentalism and brain science.]
About five days a week I try to write. When you step back and think of writing a 400-page novel with a beginning, middle and end, and all sorts of twists and turns, it’s very intimidating. I had to break things down into baby steps. Instead of [thinking about] writing 400 pages, it became, “Can I write three pages at a time?” And really those three pages have to begin with one page. So that’s been my writing strategy — kind of borrowing from the 12-step program. Instead of one day at a time, I think of it as one page at a time.