What would happen if Jesus ran for president? Roland Merullo’s writing explores this provocative question (and others)

A nasty bout of Covid-19 swept through the Merullo household in December 2020, making traditional Christmas celebrations a bit of a problem. The Merullo capofamiglia, the Massachusetts writer Roland Merullo, had some weary words of advice for me. “Don’t get Covid,” Merullo said by way of warning. “My wife and I were down for two full weeks and truly miserable. It’s a beast.”

The experience may have ironically provided a moment of pause and reflection for Merullo before we spoke together over several weeks at the end of 2020 about his long and varied writing life. Since publishing his first work in 1991, Leaving Losapas, Merullo has written nearly two dozen novels, memoirs, travelogues and, not surprisingly, a book of advice for writers. He has sited much of his writing in fiction and memoir in Revere, Mass., a colorful but ragged community just north of Boston. His most recent novel, From These Broken Streets, a story of Italian families coping with the devastation of Naples in the waning days of Mussolini’s fascism, came out in November 2020 through Lake Union Publishing.

While the writer was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family—and counts St. Anthony of Padua parish in his hometown of Revere as a touchstone in his early life—the author has traded his longstanding Catholicism for an exploration of the Buddhist faith tradition. Although Merullo does not define himself as a Buddhist, he is spiritually comfortable with many aspects of it. “Thomas Merton was fascinated by Buddhism and actually gave me ‘permission’ as a practicing Catholic in my mid-20s to explore that and other Eastern teachings, like Hinduism and Sufism,” he told me.

Roland Merullo: “I don’t put any labels on my spiritual life. I have a hybrid faith or practice and it suits me very well.”

Like Merton, Merullo appreciates the similarities between Buddhism and Catholicism. There are some fundamental differences, but also a vast common ground. “I don’t put any labels on my spiritual life. I have a hybrid faith or practice and it suits me very well,” he said.

Merullo’s discernment, both as a writer and as an observer of the human condition, is described almost sentimentally in the protagonist’s first-person disclosure in the 2002 novel In Revere in Those Days:

I have stopped trying to explain to my friends…what a central place St. Anthony’s Church occupied in my childhood years, and occupies still, in my memory…. That brown stone building, for me, is a museum that holds the solids, the vapors, and liquids that make up human existence: the joy of birth and the sudden mysterious disappearance that is death, the wailing of babies, the shrieks and laughter of young children, the love of God and the terrors of hell as described to us by pale nuns in spectacles.

Open-ended paths

Before finding his vocation as a writer, Merullo took several different career paths. He graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1971 and later attended Boston University and Brown University for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Russian language and literature.

As a first step in an open-ended career path, Merullo signed up for Peace Corps service in the Truk (now Chuuk) District of Micronesia. He also did three tours (28 months) of the former Soviet Union with the United States Information Agency, where he set up displays of new American technology and answered questions (in Russian) for curious onlookers.

His adventures in Micronesia and the Soviet Union often show up often in the fiction and memoirs Merullo has penned since turning to full-time writing.

Perhaps because he grew up in a traditional Italian family with dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins, Merullo’s work includes obvious homages to the benefits of faith and community. His own parents and grandparents, thinly disguised as characters in his Revere-based novels, continue to inspire the author as models of faith-filled but imperfect and striving humanity. There is also a strong generosity of spirit among Merullo’s fictionalized characters. Even his villains, like the revenge-obsessed mafioso Eddie Crevine in his 2014 novel, The Return, acknowledge the evil of their ways and hold on to a sliver of redemption as they live out their final moments.

Early in his writing career, Merullo determined that the faith of his youth and young adulthood insisted on too many rules, expectations and restrictions on thought and behavior. In his memoir Revere Beach Elegy (2011), a more world-weary Merullo describes this weakening of traditional belief: “Somewhere in my twenties the list of rules put forth by the Roman Catholic Church became too long for me, the laws too arbitrary, some of the attitudes too narrow, harsh, and un-Christlike. But the power of biblical stories remained, and remains still, and the days leading up to Easter occupy a special place in my spiritual landscape.”

Merullo’s own parents and grandparents continue to inspire the author as models of faith-filled but imperfect and striving humanity.

A Catholic sensibility

Merullo maintains a deep regard for the Catholic faith despite some of its blemishes, a respect that is readily apparent in the artist’s charitable treatment of all his fictional characters. Compulsive gamblers, underworld hitmen, drug abusers and assorted suffering people populate his stories; each of them exhibits traces of goodness within their corrupted souls.

Merullo’s concerns with the institutional church come through vividly in two novels that are certain to disturb the sensitivities of many traditional Catholics. The first of these, American Savior (2008), can be seen as the Way of the Cross for the new millennium. This book’s seemingly preposterous premise jumps out at the reader in the opening sentence: “When Jesus decided to run for president of the United States he began his campaign, sensibly enough, with a miracle.”

The book tells the story of a contemporary, hip Jesus, clad in Armani suits and highly polished loafers, running for president as an independent, unaligned candidate. Merullo walks a tightrope of sensitivities in this work but still manages to present a humorous yet challenging scenario of the Word being made flesh in the 21st century.

In keeping with the real crucifixion story, the novel has a somber but inspiring denouement. “I had a hard time having Jesus do anything, say anything in American Savior,” Merullo told me. “It’s tremendously risky and maybe even conceited, but there was no way to write the book otherwise, and I felt strongly about writing it. I think we all have our own Jesus, all of us, even atheists. We imagine him a certain way, looking a certain way, saying certain things, doing certain things.”

A careful reading of Merullo’s Catholic-themed novels reveals the writer’s wistfulness over his memories of a cherished institution that now has a reduced status.

“I believe that some of what he said and did is accurately reported in the Bible,” Merullo continued. “But a lot has been left out; everything he did between age 13 and 30, for one example. I tried to be respectful—I always do—but I felt I could put my imagined Jesus on the page as long as I was a bit irreverent but not disrespectful.”

Toward the climax of the story, Christ’s incredulous campaign manager, Russ Wilson, reflects on the election experience and, in turn, voices one of Merullo’s emerging beliefs:

It was becoming clear to me that what Jesus wanted from us was not pious obedience to a narrow set of rules, but a smart, limitless open-mindedness that allowed us—in real life, in actual day-to-day modern American life—to treat the other person the way we would want to be treated. Gay people, Jewish people, dumb people, rich people, poor people, women, men, right-wingers, liberals, soldiers, and antiwar protestors, maybe even animals—we were supposed to see through the disguise they were wearing, all the way down to the I AM in them. That was it. That was the big commandment, I was almost sure.

Another provocative effort is Vatican Waltz (2013), Merullo’s crafty attempt to transpose the life of the Virgin Mary into contemporary times. The novel presents a young Boston-area nursing student responding to a persistent inner voice to seek ordination as a priest. Despite opposition from church leaders in her own archdiocese, the heroine, Cynthia Piantedosi, manages to arrange an interview with cardinals at the Vatican, who assess the authenticity of her strange calling.

The story continues with the thwarted heroine discovering that she, like the Blessed Virgin, is pregnant with what could be the son of God.

In Vatican Waltz, Merullo again voices his concerns about the church’s diminishing reputation in contemporary society through Cynthia, an otherwise devoted cradle Catholic, who observes that “the Church I loved and cherished was shrinking down to a place where it would no longer have the power to remind people of that other dimension, and it seemed clear that so much of that shrinkage had to do with the fact that my Church, in clinging to the old ways, had fallen so far behind modern life that for many people—most of my once-Catholic friends—it wasn’t even relevant any longer.”

East meets West

A careful reading of Merullo’s Catholic-themed novels reveals the writer’s wistfulness over his memories of a cherished institution that now has a reduced status. But Merullo’s work is much more than what might be termed church bashing. His tone is respectful throughout, and by introducing elements of Buddhist thinking in his more recent stories, Merullo appears headed toward a synthesis of the best parts of both faiths—perhaps of all faiths.

In the book The Delight of Being Ordinary (2017), for example, Merullo challenges the reader’s credulity as he paints a word portrait of a secret three-day road trip through the Italian countryside by the pope and the Dalai Lama. Enlivened by good humor and a sense of carefree adventure, this book allows the two faith leaders to discourse on how Catholicism and Buddhism can complement each other in the quest for a more universal system of truth. It also gives readers yet another glimpse into Merullo’s part-Catholic, part-Buddhist outlook.

Partway through the road trip, the Dalai Lama argues gently for the contemplative life:

“In the East, we have not so good roads, not so beautiful buildings, not so much medicine like you have.” He paused there, sadly it seemed, but then added, “All those same years we have used power of the mind to go into the deepest parts of meditation, to learn not to be afraid of death and suffering, to learn that we are not really this body, to raise consciousness toward another level of life.”

The character of the pope, unabashedly modeled on Pope Francis, has his say in response about how faith can be nuanced to effect a new understanding:

But there are also times when we must yield, accept the unexpected, the unwanted, even the apparently unbearable. The world is bursting with neurosis, and it seems to me that the source of this neurosis is a lack of appropriate acceptance, an urge to control everything, to resist God’s divine guidance in whatever surprising or difficult form it takes.

Roland Merullo: “Part of our spiritual responsibility is discovering what we are designed to do in this life, and then doing it as well as we can.”

Spiritual responsibility

In reflecting on his extensive body of work over the last 30 years, Merullo stresses that he is not a theologian, and he makes no claims to having special insights into how Christ’s life on Earth should be understood or emulated.

“I want the church to ‘succeed’ because at its best, it does wonderful things in the world and for people,” Merullo said. “It’s not so much that I want to borrow from other faiths—though that would be nice, especially in the contemplative tradition that is emphasized more in Buddhism, and, I feel, less than it should be in Catholicism—but because the strictest rules, such as no women priests, no birth control, attending Mass every Sunday or it’s a mortal sin, are man-made. They put off good people and, in my humble opinion, they have nothing to do with Christ’s teachings.”

What Merullo takes from his reading of the New Testament is that Christ is ultimately about love, not about imposing and following rules. This attitude might have lessons for cynical secularists who dismiss religious faith as superstition, or for religious extremists who are threatened by a loosening of centuries-old doctrines. Ultimately, for Merullo, the key is not what you believe, but how you behave toward those around you.

“I think cynics are afraid to be good, afraid that [Christianity] is false, or it will make them vulnerable or make them appear to be unintelligent,” Merullo said. “And I do think that religious extremists are also operating out of fear. They are too rigid—something Christ definitely was not—and too forceful with the belief systems of others. If you really are at peace with yourself and with God, you don’t need to force your ideas on others.”

As Merullo approaches septuagenarian status, he remains alert to new writing projects. His latest novel, Driving Jesus to Little Rock, was released on Aug. 13. The story features a narrator who picks up a hitchhiker who turns out to be Jesus and drives him all the way from Little Rock, Ark., to western Massachusetts—Merullo’s home locale. “They have all kinds of conversations and adventures,” the writer said. This latest publication will certainly give readers further access to Merullo’s personal exegesis on what potential still exists in religious faith.

“I think we are all given gifts, sometimes subtle ones, sometimes big ones, and our main calling is to figure out what the gift is and use it for our own contentment and for the benefit of the world,” he said. “Part of our spiritual responsibility is discovering what we are designed to do in this life, and then doing it as well as we can.”