A Skeleton in God's Closetby Paul L. Maier
Length: Approximately 10 hours. To read (336 pages)
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A Skeleton in God’s Closet uses narrative to underscore the importance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection. In witty prose, Maier creates an archaeological dig where Jesus’s bones have been unearthed. The ensuing chaos, doubt, and danger offer a meaningful, if slightly predictable portrait of a Christianity with a dead Christ.
Who should read this?
This fictional narrative is light reading, but some content may make it more appropriate for high school and adult readers.
Maier’s neat, witty prose style has impressed me over and over. Many fiction books lean heavily on the plot to engage readers, since they have a relatively weak sentence structure and descriptive technique. Maier is a refreshing exception. His similes and metaphors are striking—no clichés or trite comparisons here. Coupled with these descriptions, Maier’s dry humor is sprinkled throughout the narrative. It frequently brought a smile to my face, and made me want to keep reading, even when the plot itself was, well, a bit cliché.
The engaging dialogue also makes this book enjoyable. Each of Maier’s characters has a distinct voice because the author has intentionally tailored vocabulary and sentence structure to reflect age, nationality, and education level. Furthermore, Maier has a unique sense of natural dialogue. The conversation he constructs seems quite natural, hardly ever stilted or unrealistic.
The only major weakness in this book is the plot itself. Billed as a “fast-paced thriller” on the back cover, it only evoked a jump from me (an easily scared reader—no Stephen King for me) once. The book also includes what seems like an obligatory romance, which seemed to make A Skeleton in God’s Closet triter than it could have been otherwise.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:17-19, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (NKJV). Many theological books take on this theme in the abstract, hypothesizing about the implications of the resurrection, the ways that it impacts the Christian life, and its centrality to our faith. However, Maier’s story explores the nightmarish “What if…” scenario in a way that a theological treatise never could.
In the author’s own words, “The plot in this novel has been crying for publication for the last nineteen centuries.” This story serves as an interesting parable to illustrate the Apostle Paul’s message.
While a theological work can only speculate on the appearance of the world without a risen Christ, Maier shows it to his readers in vivid detail, as the bones of Jesus are supposedly unearthed at an archaeological dig in Israel. When the findings are accidentally made public, despair, depression, and disillusionment reign in a world where the hope of the resurrection seems to have breathed its last before the church was even born. Some Christians in Maier’s tale give up, unable to continue serving a Savior who has apparently been dead for two centuries.
Others turn to bribery, murder, and cover-up plots to try to conceal the evidence that has been unearthed. Both groups vividly manifest Paul’s observation that “If Christ is not risen…you are still in your sins!” Without a risen Savior, we have no goodness, no hope, and no future. The portrait of a Christ-less church is perhaps the most disturbing part of Maier’s “thriller.”
The story follows globally respected biblical scholar Dr. Jonathan Weber, who is both celebrating the success of his latest book and mourning the recent death of his young wife. He goes on a sabbatical to Israel, where he goes to work with a former professor who claims to have made a great discovery.
The tomb is indeed a huge find—evidence suggests that it is the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Soon, though, Dr. Weber’s careful eye leads him to a greater find. The discovery of this skeleton, though, is terrifying rather than exciting. The skeleton has markings consistent with crucifixion, and a letter from Nicodemus to Joseph of Arimathea is in a clay jar nearby, explaining that the body of Jesus was indeed stolen on Easter morning, and the resurrection never occurred.
I should mention that as the archaeological drama unfolds, Dr. Weber makes another fascinating discovery: Shannon, the daughter of the dig’s head archaeologist. Their love story is woven throughout the rest of the narrative.
The rest of the book chronicles Dr. Weber’s search for any evidence that might suggest a hoax and save the hope of billions of Christians around the world. As he searches, Christian groups from around the world paint him as the enemy of the faith, plead with him to invent an error to console despairing Christians, and try to destroy the evidence themselves. In short, chaos ensues.
I will not spoil any of the surprises of Maier’s narrative by giving more detail. In the end however, archaeological evidence confirms that Jesus is risen (bodily) from the dead. That does not count as a spoiler.
I truly enjoyed Maier’s book because it fed my need for pleasure reading while challenging my mind and spirit. Instead of mere mind candy, Maier provides a narrative with an engaging premise and thought-provoking depth. The backdrop to the narrative is well-researched; I learned quite a bit about archaeology, dating, and historiography from the book. Maier is a thorough author, taking painstaking care to research the subject he writes about. The detail lends credibility and interest to the tale.
Only occasionally does Maier lapse into the pitfalls of trite Christian fiction. One noticeable instance is the romance between the Dr. Weber and Shannon, which I found to be a rather predictable and gratuitous addition to the novel. Although that is surely a petty flaw in an otherwise intriguing novel, it did detract from my personal enjoyment.
A Modern-Day Parable – A Skeleton in God’s Closet serves a necessary and neglected area of Christian fiction—illustrating the truths of Scripture. Like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which touchingly illustrates the compassion of God, novels like this one offer a vehicle for meditation on the truths of the Bible. Readers can see an author’s imagination of what the world would be like without the resurrection and more deeply appreciate its spiritual implications.
I found myself vicariously considering the impossible dilemma—if Jesus’s bones were found, would I try to deny what appeared to be the truth, clinging blindly to my faith despite the evidence to the contrary? Would I despair, since without a risen Christ my hope of resurrection would disappear? Furthermore, do I value the resurrection and understand its centrality to my own faith? It’s a fitting topic to ponder in the weeks leading up to Resurrection Sunday.
A Well-Written Tale – As I’ve already stated, Maier has a refreshingly mature writing style, with none of the awkward phrases and wordiness that plague plenty of popular fiction. His work is engaging and distinctive, set apart by thorough research, realistic dialogue and believable character development.
Triteness – In some types of fiction, like fairy tales and epics, authors must follow a certain set of guidelines to adhere to the traditional structure. Outside of those narrative structures, too much predictability mars the plot. From page six, where Dr. Weber first winces at his late wife’s memory, the reader braces for the cute girl to enter from the wings. The stage cue comes by page twenty-three, and from then on, the reader knows precisely who the love interest will be, and presumably, how it will work out (this is, after all, Christian fiction).
Maier has certainly achieved his stated goal—to address through fiction the necessity of the Resurrection. The book grabbed and held my interest until the last page. The premise was intriguing, the research convincing, and the tone consistently amusing. Even several weeks after finishing the book, I find myself returning to the glory of the risen Christ, a shining joy against the bleak backdrop of a world without Him. The story reminded me of an old hymn:
“If I gained the world, but lost the Savior,
Who endured the cross and died for me,
Could then all the world afford a refuge,
Whither, in my anguish, I might flee?
O what emptiness! —without the Savior
’Mid the sins and sorrows here below!
And eternity, how dark without Him!
Only night and tears and endless woe!
What, though I might live without the Savior,
When I come to die, how would it be?
O to face the valley’s gloom without Him!
And without Him all eternity!”
Truly, if Christ is not risen, we are of all men most pitiable. But, to the eternal praise of God, the apostle Paul concludes, as Maier’s tale does, that “Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20, NKJV). Perhaps this work of Christian fiction may help you to appreciate that truth in a new way as we look forward to celebrating the Resurrection next month.