In a bold move that an English student like myself can always support, when Martin Van Es noticed the crises that our planet is facing – be they political or environmental – he turned to literature as a means of reflection and amelioration. As a part of the Joe Project, which challenges world leaders to face up to global crises and truly plan for the future, Van Es teamed up with Andrew Crofts to write Call Me Joe; an intriguing exploration of how Christianity can relieve the issues of the modern world. The aim of Call Me Joe is to force us to reflect and become more responsible, as it follows the impact of Jesus’ second arrival on planet Earth.
The story of the novel essentially tracks Joe (the artist formerly known as Jesus) on his journey to save humanity in the present day. It mostly echoes Jesus’ life as we know it in the Bible, with some obvious amendments due to context, as we see his rise to celebrity whilst gathering millions of devoted followers. The story is pitched slightly differently, as there is a much heavier focus on international politics, highlighted through interactions between unnamed global leaders, as well as the growing environment crisis, embodied through the climate activist Yung Zhang. Joe’s journey sees the reframing of the 10 commandments into more general and relevant ‘guidelines’, and his relationship with Sophie is meant to render Jesus more human than we might consider him otherwise – but in my opinion, it does the opposite. Sophie is an intensely human character, and as we follow her heartbreak from Joe’s unashamedly unrequited love, we begin to see how he simply doesn’t understand human emotion and experience. The novel attempts to bring Jesus into focus as a socially relevant idol to look to for inspiration, but instead renders him a naïve celebrity who lacks human empathy.
The writing itself is top-notch. Andrew Crofts is a prolific ghost-writer, and from this credited novel, you can see why. I found the prose silky smooth, and incredibly enjoyable to read, which was one of the real great points of the novel. We jump from following one character to another between chapters, which is sometimes confusing, but despite this and the story’s slight misguidedness, I must say that I really did enjoy reading the book, and I would attribute this to the undeniably interesting concept combined with excellent writing. In this sense, Crofts and Van Es make a dream team! The main disappointment is not the concept itself, but where it is taken, as it feels like it falls short of sparking an epiphany.
In fairness to the novel, I hasten to add that my atheism makes me a somewhat complex reader. I do not believe in religion, or specifically Christianity and Jesus, whatsoever, so as much as the concept of a second-coming was interesting, I couldn’t quite sink my teeth into it. I am hugely interested in and passionate about political, humanitarian, and environmental crises that face us as a planet, so a novel tackling these in an introspective, epiphanic way was hugely attractive to me. However, in framing these issues in religion, and by positing that the world’s ills can be solved by the word of a man I do not believe in at all, I was underwhelmed. This is due to my personal beliefs, as I think for somebody more religiously inclined, Call Me Joe would make a fascinating and insightful read. Thus, I would recommend the novel more highly to those who believe in Jesus than those who don’t.
Call Me Joe deals with some pretty heavyweight conversations. At its heart it has a positive message, by highlighting the accountability that we each must take for the world’s problems, whilst also placing a considerable heap of responsibility on the shoulders of world leaders like Presidents and religious leaders. I admire what it is trying to do, as it is clear that it aims to inspire humanity to be better one person at a time, but I can’t help but feel that it falls short. This is mainly due to the fact that the narrative of accountability is rendered religious rather than secular. The message Martin Van Es aimed to convey is strong and admirable, but the message absolutely found itself warped by the inherent nature of religion. They found themselves sidestepping certain sticky points, such as Joe’s declaration that homosexual love is fine in the eyes of God; I appreciate what they were trying to do, but I felt that complex realities of religion in the modern world were brushed under the rug, and this tainted the strength of Van Es’ message.
On the whole, I did really enjoy Call Me Joe. It was not only well written and entertaining, but it was complexly conceptual and somewhat insightful. The biggest short-falling, in my opinion, was the overt focus on religion, which made the novel feel exclusive to those who believe in Jesus. I feel that if Van Es had found a different, secular focus point for his narrative of reflection and change, I would have enjoyed the story much more, and possibly got more out of it philosophically. If you believe in Jesus, you will almost certainly find Call Me Joe entertaining and philosophically inspirational. If you don’t, it is still worth a read.