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A Surprise Hit for a 'Perfect Stranger'


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

If you read celebrity interviews, you know that when you get to the `If-you-could-have-dinner-with-any-three-people-in-history-who-would-they -be' question, a lot of people answer Jesus. For the Wednesday book report, DAY TO DAY's Karen Grigsby Bates spoke with writer David Gregory, whose "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger" expands on that idea.


David Gregory Smith--who uses his first two names as his pen name--is a former Texas businessman who's now an ordained minister. A couple of years ago, he decided to write a book in which Jesus sits down with a modern man for dinner and a philosophical conversation. "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger" opens when Nick Cominsky, an overworked, stressed-out 30-something Cincinnati businessman, receives an odd letter. David Gregory.

Mr. DAVID GREGORY SMITH (Author, "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger"): And he receives an invitation to dine one night at a nice Italian restaurant. This comes completely out of the blue, anonymously. And he decides that some guys at work are playing a prank, as they are wont to do. And so he decides to go to the restaurant and see what they have up their sleeve. And he is seated with this fellow at the restaurant who, during the course of their dinner, he discovers really is Jesus of Nazareth.

BATES: Now Nick can be forgiven if he's skeptical. This is not the Jesus of flowing robes and saintly speech portrayed here in the 1999 television movie, "Jesus."

(Soundbite of "Jesus")

"JESUS": Do you believe I can help you?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

"JESUS": Rise up and walk.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: No, this is a contemporary Jesus, an olive-skinned, dark-eyed man in a well-cut suit. He appreciates fine wine--he orders it, doesn't change it from the water glass--and knows an awful lot about ancient history because, after all, he was there. Nick finds the mystery guest strangely compelling, and David Gregory says Jesus' pull is consistent with the accounts of the time.

Mr. SMITH: Jesus often comes across as this kind of zombied figure that is humorless and really doesn't interact with people in a real human way. And if you read the Gospel accounts, the exact opposite was the case. Jesus was an incredibly engaging figure that people were very drawn to as a person.

BATES: But most important to Nick, and perhaps to readers who are not devout believers, Jesus presses him to examine why he believes what he believes. Instead of preaching to Nick, Jesus is appealing to Nick's vision of himself as a logical person, and it sometimes goes against the character's politically correct grain.

Mr. SMITH: We live in an increasingly pluralistic society and we are increasingly prone to just accept what other people may believe and say that's OK if it works for them.

BATES: But that's not OK for David Gregory. In what is probably the most controversial aspect of the book, Gregory says only the Judeo-Christian tradition can withstand objective scrutiny, something he says cannot be said of the Buddhist, Hindu or Islamic religions.

Mr. SMITH: When I look at Islam, I simply see considerable historical inconsistencies. For instance, in their claim that Jesus was a prophet and yet what the Hebrew Scriptures and then the New Testament say about the coming Messiah or the New Testament says about Jesus, that we can't rely on those things because the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament have been corrupted. And yet historically, there are no corrupted manuscripts that have ever shown up; there is no historical proof of any kind of corruption to that extent.

BATES: Although couched politely, this is strong stuff, and many non-Christians may find Gregory's assertions offensive. But Waterbrook Press, a division of Random House, is betting that "Dinner with a Perfect Stranger" is small and friendly enough that it will appeal beyond the traditional Christian audience. In fact, they've prepared two different readers' guides: one for readers who identify as Christians, and one for readers Gregory describes as seekers, people interested in considering some of the points the book raises.

"Dinner with a Perfect Stranger's" initial press run is a hefty 175,000, and USA Today has predicted it will be one of the sleeper hits of the summer. For his part, David Gregory will be happy if readers get at least this from his work.

Mr. SMITH: I want them to come away with a better understanding of both the person and the work of Jesus Christ as a historical figure.

BATES: Jesus as a mainstream best-seller. Some publishers would consider that a miracle.

(Soundbite of "Superstar")

Unidentified Chorus: (Signing) Jesus Christ, superstar, do you control what they say you are? Jesus Christ, superstar...

BATES: Helen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: NPR's summer reading series now has some good choices of non-fiction books. Read excerpts along with earlier installments on fiction, children's literature and cookbooks, all at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.