The Gospel According to Reynolds Price

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With his paper coffee cup on the blue tablecloth before him, Reynolds Price reads from his new book. At first it sounds presumptuous:

"Then they led him out to crucify him," he begins. Clearly, the line is not his own.

In "Three Gospels" (Scribner), Price crosses over from his usual place as a fiction writer to translate the Greek New Testament Gospels of Mark and John, with a scholarly critique of both.

The third gospel is his own. He wrote it based on Mark's account. It shows the storyteller spinning his yarn out of fact and imagination to answer some of the questions the sacred texts overlook.

There is the mystery of the birth of Christ, for example. The Bible tells us that Mary conceived a son although she was a virgin promised to marry Joseph the carpenter. He did not understand but in a dream he was asked to trust. Price goes further, imagining Joseph's hidden reaction:

"Through the long wait his pallet lay apart from Mary's by the reach of his arm, and there were days that summer and fall when Joseph pressed iron nails deep into his hands to let out part of the pain he felt but never told."

He expands on another authentic Gospel scene in which Jesus spends 40 days in the desert struggling in all his humanness to grasp God's divine plan for him. Price imagines Jesus assailed by visions of himself as a normal man:

"Another form likewise wore Jesus' face but was old and smiling with sons and daughters that bore his traits and tended his age. A third was all the human beauty he'd known till now, all the hair he'd touched."

No certified Scripture scholar would presume as much. Price is more worried about what his own readers will think. "I would have felt very nervous 30 years ago writing a book like this," he says. "People are likely to look at anything that smells of religion as alarming, or as an amusing and childlike pursuit."

He spent the past three decades writing novels, memoirs, essays, plays and poems, securing honors enough--including a Pulitzer Prize--to afford the risk. In this book he reveals his deeply held religious faith. More than that, he writes his essays about the Bible with the confidence of an expert.

"As an English professor [Price teaches at Duke University in North Carolina] and novelist who says, 'This is the way it is,' I've been waiting for them to come after me," he says of the Bible scholars. "But I haven't run into any S.O.B.s so far."

Instead, America magazine and the Christian Century gave Price's book positive reviews. Three months after it was published in an edition of 21,000, it is now in its fourth printing--32,000 books in all.

Silver-haired, with eyes that convey acceptance, Price seems to be a man who has done a lot of living at an unhurried pace. He was born in Macon, N.C., in 1933. His 10 novels have the feel of autobiography. Over the years he has said that snippets do come from his own story.

His fiction describes troubled lives; there is the girl who survives her parents' violent relationship ("Kate Vaiden," Ballantine, 1986). Price has mentioned his own parents' stormy years together.

There is the son who comes home to die of AIDS-related complications ("The Promise of Rest," Scribner, 1995). Price has talked about nursing his dying friends. Reliably in his stories, he examines hard lives with tenderness and hope.

He has several memoirs to his credit. "Clear Pictures" (Atheneum, 1989) is about growing up with Depression-era parents who were needy themselves, but loved him, and teachers who encouraged his writing talents. In a more recent account, "A Whole New Life" (Scribner, 1994), he describes a fight to the death with cancer, which he won.

That time began 12 years ago when a tumor was found in his spine. Three major surgeries and several years of radiation treatment followed. He lost the use of his legs and now depends on a wheelchair, a housekeeper and a live-in assistant.

None of this caused a religious conversion. Price, raised a Methodist, has always believed in God and read the Bible for the love of it. Still, he says, "I'm not a churchgoer, it's not my way of getting there." His most recent memory of the inside of a church is from April when he watched the pope celebrate Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter's on TV.

At Dutton Books in Brentwood, Price read from his new book to an audience of 30 or so admirers who stood around the room and leaned on the bookshelves as they listened. There, as elsewhere, Price offered scant information about his personal relationships. He has never married, has mentioned lovers in the past but withheld details.

He did once say in an interview that when he was ill he received letters, phone calls and visits from writers as least as famous as he is: William Styron and Eudora Welty, Thomas McGuane, John Updike and Philip Roth.

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In "Three Gospels" he shows a finesse few novelists, let alone Scripture scholars, would dare attempt. "It seems to me," he often writes to introduce one of his theories about the Gospels. From this modest beginning he appeals to his own common sense and what he knows about people to draw conclusions on every debated question concerning dates, authors and the heart of it all: What do we know for certain about the Jesus of history?

Rarely does Price hint that the experts are on fire over these issues. Hardly one of them is now without a book about Jesus, the man. Some have severed the divine from the human aspect and sliced off all possible myth.

In his evaluations, Price moves from the heart more than the head:

"My own sense--from long readings of the Gospels, from the intimacy with their language and strategy which translation requires, from my own experiences as a veteran of an oral culture and as a writer of prose narrative--is that there is a good deal to be said for the claims of tradition," he writes. From this and sophisticated research informally described, he concludes that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest and John was written by one man. Some revisionists now argue that Matthew came first and John is the work of a whole community of writers and editors.

"The depth of ignorance on the subject is astonishing," Price says of the texts that have fascinated him since he was a boy. He is referring to the rest of us, not the scholars.

"Baby boomers have raised a generation of heathens," he says.

In the '60s, he taught the boomers English literature. Now he teaches their children, sometimes offering them a course in the Gospels. "I loved teaching the students of the '60s, but they wanted to sidestep religion," he recalls. Now, "Five of the 15 students in the last Gospel seminar I taught had no knowledge of Scripture."

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Price's own formal study of Scripture includes two semesters of college-level courses at Duke where he was an undergraduate. Later, he taught himself Greek so he could do his own translations for "A Palpable God" (Atheneum, 1978), his only other book on the Bible.

It seems more instructive that his life has resembled a scene from the Gospels, at times.

"In 1984, just before I started radiation therapy, I had what I can only describe as a visionary experience," he recalls. "I was with Jesus in a boat on the sea of Galilee. He poured water over my incision and said, 'Your sins are forgiven.'

"I said, 'But am I healed?' "

"He said, 'That too.'

"I felt I was provided for, after that."

When Price tells most people about this, they ask the same question: What does Jesus look like?

"I say, just like his pictures," he says, smiling.

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