Book Review: Dinner with a Perfect Stranger

Is this what Jesus would talk about?

It's a devout Christian's dream: the chance to have a heart-to-heart with Jesus Christ himself. What questions might one ask about oneself, life, the universe? What would Jesus think of us? What would he look like?

"Dinner with a Perfect Stranger" uses the premise of a personal encounter with Jesus and quickly makes much less of it than its divine host would suggest. The protagonist is Nick Cominsky, a fairly successful 30-year-old with a not-so-happy marriage and a job that is worrying him. One day, he gets a dinner invitation that lands him across the table at a local restaurant from a man who says he is Jesus of Nazareth.

The dinner setting is quite threadbare. The action consists of the characters picking up food and wine and moving their arms on and off the table. As such, the plot barely disguises the fact that the book is merely a chance for the writer to put his personal opinions into Jesus's mouth. Unfortunately, the Jesus that we meet spends an inordinate amount of time talking about two things: why other religions are no good and the need for all people to have a personal encounter with himself. This "Jesus" has nothing to say about justice, the poor and oppressed, talking truth to power, redemptive suffering, the eucharist or preaching the gospel. He doesn't break the bread in the gospel sense, but cuts it with a knife! He is basically a figment of the religious fantasies of a certain brand of evangelical Christian. "Jesus" confirms the existence of Hell, though he says people choose to go there. Relying on the discredited "argument from design," he dismisses evolutionary theory in a couple of sentences. The supposedly-skeptical Nick swallows every statement along with his tortellini.

Jesus does makes some nice points. His discussion of the impossibility of earning salvation is memorable. And his simplistic explanation of how sin has wrecked the moral fabric of the universe is neat, though it shares more with St. Anselm's 12th century theory of satisfaction than than of anything more recent or more subtle.

For those who feel that all religion is the same, it's a reminder that some faiths have developed understandings of the life and mission of Jesus Christ that are subtle and challenging, unlike the Jesus we meet in this very short book.