What would happen if Jesus came to 21st century America, performed a couple of low-key miracles just to get folks talking, then announced he was running for president of the United States?

That is the story line in Roland Merullo’s new book, American Savior: A Novel of Divine Politics. You may know Merullo for his earlier works Breakfast with Buddha and Golfing with God.

In American Savior Merullo uses his substantial gifts of story telling, humor and spiritual insight to weave a tale of redemption and hope. He takes on the cynicism of our current political climate and offers in its place an opportunity to actually believe people can change things for the better.

The characters he brings to life are terrific.

Jesus is portrayed as never having a hair out of place. He wears expensive suits and works the system like a pro. However, Merullo creates an interesting biography for the 21st century Jesus that makes contact with the Jesus of the New Testament.

The people Jesus “calls” to help him in his bid for president are as unlikely a group as the original disciples were: a television anchorman and his parents, a counselor, a motorcycle thug and his wife, a broadcast executive and his wife–clearly not your traditional apostles. However, together they take on two seasoned candidates, challenging them for the highest office in the land.

It is an outrageous concept, but for some reason it works. Maybe it’s because our actual presidential campaign has gone on for so long now, it seems stale. Merullo’s over-the-top storyline with its upbeat humor and characters you really want to care about feels fresh, hopeful.

Not that the story is without its hard edges. With a nod towards Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” there is a scene where Jesus and his entourage are driven from a church, barely escaping with their lives. In fact, that is sub-plot to the whole story. For the most part, Jesus is dismissed by the very ones who worship in his name.

Of course, who could blame them? Jesus the presidential candidate seems to have access to an unlimited supply of cash. He moves his campaign team around in limos and private jets. No donkeys and palm branches this round. Everything is first class.

But it’s first class in service to the least of these. There is a poignant scene between Jesus and his most trusted advisor, Russ Thomas (who, like his name sake, is constantly besieged by doubt). Jesus tells his friend that he wants to do things differently this time. He believes his followers from the first visit didn’t get what he was trying to accomplish. Maybe that’s why they don’t recognize him the second time.

Merullo also has lots of fun with the mainstream media. The book is almost worth reading simply to notice all the creative and humorous name changes assigned to well known media figures. Like Bluf Spitzer, just to name one.

But there is another hard edge here as well. You get the feeling that Merullo is disappointed that media stars are so cynical and jaded by the politics they cover. Merullo leaves us wishing that we were able to get more real news and less “gotcha” journalism.

This story is not partisan–he skewers Republicans and Democrats alike. He is not trying to get anyone, including Jesus, elected. He merely re-tells the Jesus story with a twist that amazingly helps illuminate the original story.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.

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