Reading guide for The Jesus Thief by J.R. Lankford

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The Jesus Thief

By J.R. Lankford

The Jesus Thief
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  • Hardcover: Mar 2003,
    287 pages.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

The following are intended to enrich your conversation and help your reading group find new and interesting ways to approach this novel.

  1. In chapter one, we see Dr. Felix Rossi torn by a very personal crisis. At this point in the book, how do you think Felix would define faith? How do you see his understanding of faith change or evolve during the story?

  2. When we meet Maggie, we learn that she reads Vogue, that she's matched her skintone to color swatches, and we know quite a bit about her feelings for her Graham Smith hat. How did you feel about Maggie and her attention to fashion when you first met her? What did you think made her so appearance conscious, given the fact that she doesn't think she's pretty? Besides being a fashion diva, what are some of Maggie's other qualities? What details does Lankford use to clue you into Maggie's personality? Do you find Maggie endearing at the story's beginning? Why or why not? Did Sam's perspective on her (pages 45-48) add anything to your initial thoughts about Maggie? And what do you learn about her that expands or alters your opinion of her as the novel progresses?

  3. The Jesus Thief is peppered with descriptions of sumptuous interiors. What were some of your favorite settings? How did the settings, both interior and exterior, help you to envision the events that happen in them?

  4. "Dramatic irony" happens when the reader knows something that a character doesn't. For example, when Felix was young, he wanted to be a priest, in spite of his father's objections. We learn this from Maggie's memory of the story. She doesn't know that Felix's parents were Jewish, and neither did Felix when he aspired to be a priest. However, you as the reader know the facts about Felix's ethnic heritage, just as his parents did. What other examples of irony did you note in the book, where you were privy to more information than the characters? How did that knowledge keep you reading?

  5. What do Felix's youthful priestly ambitions say about faith versus ethnic identity or faith and ethnic identity? On page 90, Maggie gives Felix her interpretation of race and its influence on identity. Felix's reaction: "He looked at her as if she'd said something indecipherable." Why does Felix look at her that way? What are some implications of Maggie’s views?

  6. Issues of social class show themselves several times in The Jesus Thief. A good example is on pages 65-66 where an argument falls along class lines. Maggie is able to speak her mind to Sam because they're both in the serving class, while Sam is not permitted to tell Felix to watch his tone with Maggie because Felix is their superior. Does this class-based relationship between the "wealthy" and those "of modest means" signify anything in the context of the novel? Do you think that "class is a life sentence?" Does it determines opportunity, education, outlook and "taste" in the United States? How do the relationships between Felix and Maggie, Felix and Sam change, and why? Do you think it's possible for people of such different backgrounds to find common ground and remain loyal to one another in real life?

  7. At the end of the letter that Felix's father wrote, disclosing the Rossi past, his father confides, "The truth is I love all of you more than any religion, any God, more than my own life. For you, I would risk the wrath of heaven and do the same again." How do those two statements encapsulate the theme of "love one another" that runs through The Jesus Thief?

  8. At the beginning of The Jesus Thief, Felix is a pious Roman Catholic, to all appearances. As the story develops, his ambiguous relationship with his faith becomes clearer. What are some examples of Felix's debates with Roman Catholicism and with religion? How do you feel about the way he uses religion, on the one hand, to justify his scientific pursuits (likening himself to Moses, for example), but discounts elements of Catholicism (such as his rejection of the Church's position that pre-embryos) -- all in the name of cloning Jesus?

  9. Should ethical stances and religious beliefs guide scientific inquiry? Or is scientific inquiry necessarily amoral, guided by its own rule of testing informed hypotheses?

  10. The DNA in the Shroud blood is, in fact, too degraded to be used, but we will soon have the technology to clone anyone -- including dead historical figures. Since it's unlikely that all countries will ban human cloning, what challenges does this emerging technology present to the world?

  11. Mr. Brown was driven by fears based on an astrological prediction. In your opinion, why are astrologers still consulted by powerful people (e.g., Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana)?

  12. Do you understand Adeline's reaction to Felix's request? Or should she be prepared to do anything to help the brilliant man she loves, like Frances puts aside her doubts at first to help her beloved brother? Which character's response do you admire more, Adeline's or Frances's, and why?

  13. Why was Felix confused to realize that Adeline had loved him for so long? How would a clinical, monk-like man like Felix fall in love? How would Felix define love? Does his definition change over the course of the story and what makes it change?

  14. What motivates Maggie when she goes to Felix and volunteers to carry the cloned baby? Would you say that her belief system is the same as Felix's? In what similar ways do they arrive at their conclusions? What are the differences between Maggie and Felix?

  15. One of Lankford's main points in The Jesus Thief is that avowing a religious creed can be different from actually loving people, which is what religion asks us to do. In the book, Felix has a reversal during the birth scene, where he chooses Maggie over the baby. This scene is a pivotal turning point for Felix, and after that, he doesn't care if he was born Roman Catholic or Jewish, all he cares about is the welfare of the people he loves. Did you expect Felix to choose Maggie? Was his turning point believable? Do you think Felix and Maggie's relationship supports Lankford's theme of "love one another"?

  16. Sam Duffy isn't as religious as Felix Rossi. How would you compare their behavior in moral terms?

  17. A wide variety of views about sexual intimacy and passion exist side-by-side in this novel. What are some of them, and how do conflicting views of the importance of sex influence the plot?

  18. Coral steps into the story at a crucial moment to warn Sam that Mr. Brown knows everything. Do you think Coral loves Sam? Would she give up the financial perks of her life to be with him?

  19. Sam is not an obvious good guy for the first half of the book. What qualities does he have that prepare you for the way he helps Felix, Maggie and Frances?

  20. Racism affects the plot at different points in the book. Felix protests that Maggie can't carry the clone because her mitochondrial DNA is African, not Semitic. Before that, though, he'd asked Adeline, a woman of Anglo-Saxon descent. In another example, Sam uses Maggie's status as a black maid to keep Jerome Newton's attention from her, with Sam assuming, correctly, that Newton's inherent racism would prevent him from realizing that Maggie was the modern-day Mary. Given these negative examples, how is race a positive influence in the plot? What helpful perspectives does Maggie bring to her ordeal that come from her experience as a black woman?

  21. The characters in The Jesus Thief reach critical moments where they act on their principles, dreams or desires. What are some of these moments? How are some of the characters changed by what they believe and what they do? What actions in life change our being? What internal moments change us?

  22. Another example of Lankford’s "love one another" theme is Felix’s father’s description of how the Italian people saved so many Jews from the Nazis. In WWII Italy, a willingness to love and a distrust of government and rules saved lives, but Italy also has a high mortality rate from traffic accidents because, as Felix’s father mentioned in his letter, "In Italy, a red traffic light is only a suggestion." The Italian distrust of government and rules has both positive and negative effects. Must this always be the case for any trait?

  23. One of Sam’s concerns was the spread of AIDS in Africa. Do you feel the rest of the world has an obligation to help poor countries threatened with major disaster from acts of nature, famine, or disease?

  24. If you could ask the author one question about this novel, what would you ask?

If you use these questions in your book club or to guide your own reading, we'd like to hear from you. Please send your comments and any additional questions you create to us at guide@greatreadsbooks.com

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Great Reads Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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