Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple. By Bill Williams with Martha Williams. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998. xiii + 327 pp. $19.95 (cloth).
When I answered the phone, a voice came at me without even saying hello. "That book! That book! I can't read it fast enough and I can't read it slow enough and I didn't get to campus until noon today. What are you doing to me? Noon!" Yet another theologian sent an e-mail: "wow. it's opening doors to rooms I didn't know were there." Bill Williams's Naked Before God: The Return of a Broken Disciple is an extraordinarily successful work of true narrative theology. He creates and sustains a fictional reality of uncommon depth and imaginative power even while offering a nuanced Christian apologetic. I have been as deeply moved by this book as by anything I have ever read. If life permits you to buy and to read only one book in a year, or in three years, or seven-let this be the one.
Before getting his M.Div. from The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Williams was a computer-games programmer. So at the first level, Naked Before God represents itself as an apocryphal gospel, but behind that claim is lectio divina taken literally, taken literarily, developed and composed within the literary conventions of science fiction and fantasy that game designers use. It is dazzling, and it is daring, and for very solid reasons of craft it is absolutely convincing. Twentieth century and first century merge and move apart, interweaving with a wit that is both hermeneutically pointed and repeatedly hilarious.
The ostensible narrator is the apostle Nathaniel. The biblical Nathaniel was called to follow Jesus from under a fig tree, that emblem of scriptural scholarship, and so too the narrator struggles to understand and to accept Jesus' teaching despite everything he already knows about contrary claims within scripture. But the scripture he quotes "against" Jesus is almost entirely from the New Testament-with occasional references to later Christian history. Williams sustains this debate in part through creating a few of the apostles as vivid, theologically opinionated characters arguing passionately with Jesus and with each other, generating thereby some of the richest comedy the book has to offer. Williams's dramatic skill convinces us that certain arguments are both ancient and vibrant and yet-when the pain is bad enough-beside the point. There are times when the only important question is "can we survive this? …