Book review: Hollywood comes to the Holy Land

Christendom by Neil Cross Jonathan Cape, pounds 10, 311pp
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The Independent Culture
IF NOTHING else, Christendom is a novel of ideas. Set in the near future, after US President Randall Staad has "saved the world" in the name of the Church, it revolves around archaeological, historical and scientific enquiries into the life and nature of Jesus Christ, positing that familiar opposition between the Truth and the Word. Alternating chapters offer the recorded diary of a Staad sidekick-apostate, McCardle, and the embittered account of a deadbeat English ex-soldier, Malachi Thorndyke. He is taken up by a conspiracy of those closest to Staad to reveal the Church's deepest, darkest secret on prime-time global television during the President's retirement address.

Neil Cross takes a roundabout route to the meat of his book. He trots out action/conspiracy movie stuff (at one point, the unarmed Thorndyke bests a sinister government man by biting his testicles) while feeding info-dump about the back-story into the simple narrative chase. The idea of theocratic America is familiar from, say, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and Cross gives little detail beyond noting the Mormon-corporate straightness of the citizenry.

The SF setting is adopted almost casually, to raise the importance of the "secrets" Staad wants to suppress and which Thorndyke's archaeologist friend Ruth wishes to debate. The construction of all this is so rickety that an idea of apocalyptic import - the cloning of Jesus - is almost a throwaway sub-plot, which seems yanked in bizarrely from Garth Ennis's Preacher comic-book series.

When Cross gets to the good stuff, he has Ruth simply sit Thorndyke down and set him straight on the historical (but still divine) Jesus she has intuited from the Gospels, from suppressed texts and (ace in the hole) an actual body in an actual tomb. Cross gives her a persuasive case for such Biblical footnotes as the suggestion that the wedding at Cana was Jesus's own, or that Judas took part in a scripted betrayal.

The book sometimes soars as its prodigious invention sparks, but as a vision of the future it leaves too much unsaid (where's the Pope? What about Israel?). And, as a thriller, it cops too many tricks from too many half-good movies (John Carpenter's They Live, in particular) to be satisfying.