Since the publication of Joshua: A Parable for Today (1983) countless millions of readers have been transformed by the way Fr. Joseph F. Girzone presents the good news of Jesus in a simple and compelling manner. The Jesus of this best-seller is a good person, kind beyond all measure and full of true love for everyone he meets. His unconditional compassion is almost too much for some people to handle. (A search of comments about the book on the Web will reveal deep appreciation mixed with some incredible, and generally unfair, criticism of Fr. Girzone and this book.)
But who is Fr. Joseph Francis Girzone?
Until two years ago I knew nothing about the author, except that his books had sold like very few religious books in the last thirty years. One reason, I soon discovered, for the popularity and sale of Girzone’s books is that they are not religious in the normal sense of that word. They are deeply spiritual, but I assure you they are entirely about Jesus! Now there’s a refreshing idea if ever there was one.
I knew very little about the Joshua phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s (a number of other books followed the original one once it sold in large numbers) because I had no interest in fictional books about Jesus. I was anchored in the view that any fiction about Jesus had to be questioned on principle. The idea of writing about Jesus in this way was fraught with serious dangers, or so I thought at the time. I was clearly the product of a rationalistic approach to hermeneutics and this kept me from using my imagination in a deep and growing way. This has all changed now and Joe Girzone has been a dear friend to me in this journey. (But I jump ahead of myself!)
So how did I begin to read and appreciate Joseph F. Girzone? I was browsing “new” book titles in my public library and there was a book by Girzone. It was not fiction so I felt safe to read him and see how he dealt with the life of Christ. The book, Jesus: A New Understanding of God's Son, followed the life of Jesus by telling his story in a simple, but very faithful, human way. For me it really proved to be exactly what the subtitle said, “A new understanding of God’s Son.” I could not put the book down. Girzone followed the life of Jesus from infancy to adulthood, through his life and mission, his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. His treatment of Jesus was orthodox, respectful and biblically sound. (Even in the small areas where Catholics and Protestants disagree about Jesus and his mother Fr. Girzone was very careful and most wise!)
So moving was Girzone’s story of Jesus that I found my heart moved, warmed, filled with fresh excitement. I was falling in love with Jesus all over again. For a few days I felt like I had undergone a new conversion! There was an excitement about knowing Jesus that I had lost in debate and discouragement. The wages of religious warfare had truly drained me down more than I realized at the time. I took the book on a trip to Seattle and Vancouver (BC) and devoured it in a few days. As result I did something I had never previously done. I wrote my first review of a book on Amazon.com. Here is what I posted on November 28, 2009:
Father Joseph Girzone is an incredibly effective writer. He is elegant with words and his style is moving and humane. I had previously read only one of his books, The Trinity. I am now going to go back and read his popular fiction.
This volume is something between a parallel Gospel account and a narrative constructed on such a plan. It is not always the best scholarship on Jesus but it reads so well, and engages the reader in such a profoundly personal way, that it should not be missed by Christians and non-Christians alike. I know of no other book quite like it. The author's purpose is to enter into Jesus' heart and mind as he understands the four different accounts we have from the Four Gospel authors.
These chapters were originally given as oral talks over the course of three and a half years. Girzone's goal is to have readers enter into a deeper understanding of Jesus, not into a highly technical Christological debate. He succeeds marvelously. Non-Catholic readers will disagree at a few points but he treats these matters with grace and care. I found myself loving the mother of our Lord far more after reading Girzone's account of Mary's relationship with Jesus and I am an evangelical Protestant. He may fill in some blanks with a vivid imagination at a few points but I believe he is warranted to make such suggestions based upon the overall account that we do have of the life of Lord.
There is much here that some readers will quibble about but the book is important for one great reason: it introduces ordinary readers, and long time students of the Bible like me, to the human Jesus in a fresh and immensely helpful way. I loved it.
Well, not long after this review was posted I received a biography about Girzone in the mail from the author, Barbara Benjamin. The title was: The Joshua Priest: A Biography of Faith. The book was the story of Fr. Girzone’s life in Christ. It told me about his family and childhood, his time in preparation as a Carmelite, his parish priesthood and the amazing work of the Joshua priest over the last thirty years since he left parish work. I was pleased by this unexpected gift, to say the least. I was even more pleased to read the book in 2010 and begin correspondence with the author. She later sent me a lovely collection of her poems: Face to Face. Through Barbara I got to know Fr. Girzone. I then had the incredible joy of meeting him in June of this year. I spoke to Barbara on the phone but our schedules did not allow us to meet when I was in Westchester County (NY).
Tomorrow: The Story of the Joshua Priest