Four days before Christmas in 1994, John David Edington, 22, the adopted son of a Presbyterian minister named Howard Edington, was driving home through an Orlando, Fla., downpour when he lost control of his car and ran into a tree. He died instantly. The tragedy was mourned deeply in lofty reaches of the evangelical world because the Rev. Edington is an extremely respected minister and at the time was the personal pastor to Bill Bright, founder of the megaministry Campus Crusade for Christ.
Edington could have retreated into his grief, but instead, he preached three Christmas sermons that week on a topic he had never talked about before: Joseph, the husband of Mary and, as he pointed out, the "adoptive" father of Jesus. But he did not stop there. He began working on a book about Joseph that further delved into the nature of the relationship between the older man and his holy child.
At a certain point, however, Edington ran out of verses for exegesis. Joseph appears in the Nativity story of Matthew and more briefly in that of Luke but is then severely--eventually terminally--marginalized. The Bible never even quotes him directly. Yet with Bright's encouragement, Edington extended his research beyond the New Testament to early nonbiblical sources. In 2000 he published a slim book called The Forgotten Man of Christmas: Joseph's Story, which combined biblical analysis with material suggested by his additional reading, along with brief recollections of his own family's story. The pastor admits that it may have seemed a strange project, especially among Protestants, who don't recognize Joseph's sainthood and whose approach Edington describes as "'We don't know anything about him? Then just leave him there.'" But he concluded that "there is great spiritual value to capture, or recapture in Joseph's story, and if that takes a combination of just good serious Bible study and some recreative imagination, I think it's a valid exercise."
And recently, he has had company in that exercise. Even without that much imagination, a Christian curious about Joseph can take some sturdy, basic inspiration from the carpenter who is, at a minimum, humanity's stand-in, a lunch-pail hero not born to holiness but who, by his hard-won and steadfast belief, finds a role in salvation. This season two big-name writers have taken Joseph's story a step further. He is a major supporting character in erstwhile vampirologist Anne Rice's current best seller, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. And he has a lead role in Holding Heaven, a novella by Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series. An audio version of the new book will air on more than 300 radio stations around Yuletide. "I'm his cheerleader," says Jenkins of Joseph. "He doesn't have to be a saint. He was chosen to be the earthly father, and he was really good at it."