It is experience that qualifies one to write a novel, not abstract theory. How then do we translate historical facts into a living story? How, especially, do we translate dogmatic theology into recognizable experiences from everyday life? This is the challenge of a historical novel such as mine, which wants to contribute to today’s theological dialogue.
Did I take a time travel machine back to the first century? No, but I sometimes felt as if I had. Writing the novel required a complete imaginative immersion in the time and place of its setting. The level of concentration needed was indeed a challenge.
The initial research was important. It was like feeding facts into a hopper (my consciousness). But the translation of these facts so that they become the lives of realistic characters is the bigger challenge.
We are fortunate to live in a time when the historical records and writings from the past are more available perhaps than ever before. Scholarship has accumulated and made accessible more information on the first century than any one person living during that time could have had at their fingertips.
This cache of information provides background material, but it is still enclosed in a box called History. It is little heeded by our present day culture that rushes headlong into the future. We think of the past as over and done, interesting to study from a distance, but not having immediate relevance to our needs today. We have progressed far beyond it. Or have we? The moral questions faced in that first century are, I believe, very relevant today. I tried to get outside all the boxes created by History and Theology and look at things with fresh eyes, as if I were there.
I wanted to overcome this prejudice towards the past that makes it seem irrelevant. To show the relevance of these early Christian missionaries to the quandaries we face today required portraying them in a living story, with experiences we can recognize. My mantra was: “This is not dead. It can come to life again and has much to tell us that we need to hear!”
I brought my characters into the very center of a Rome that was in moral crisis, where coercive power had grown into a monster degrading humanity. If you stop and consider, I think you will see both similarities and differences between their world and ours, and some thoughts that can help us set our own world on a better track.