Monday, March 12, 2007

Why I Wrote Simon Peter

This is a rough draft of an essay that might end up as a epilogue to Simon Peter explaining a bit why I'd choose to write the book as I have. Y'know. Deeply blasphemous.




Why I'm Writing Simon Peter

Does the world need a book where Jesus is viciously raped, the our erstwhile hero is a violent, sexist, racist multiple murderer? Why would anyone feel the urge to devote the huge time and energy it takes to write a novel into writing this novel?

The book is directed, generally, at two groups of people. The first group is Christians and, more generally, anyone who is religious. I think everyone gets that. The second group of people I'm addressing is more subtle. It's atheists.

It is obvious I'm attacking Christians. There is a purpose to the attack, however. What I am trying to emphasize in Simon Peter is that to call oneself a Messiah really puts a person out there on a limb in the sanity department. Christians, of course, believe that Jesus was the Son of God and, therefore, things that would be crazy out of another person are perfectly sane coming from Jesus – because he's the Son of God. But what if he wasn't? Sure, Christians aren't supposed to think that way. There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

So I ran with that. I said to myself that let us assume that Jesus is akin to other self-proclaimed messiahs. In addition to studying material about the Bible, I also studied self-proclaimed messiahs – L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, David Koresh and Jim Jones. I overwhelmingly preferred messiahs who existed entirely in history and those who lived fairly recently. In other contexts I've done study of Mohammad and Simon bar Kokhba, but with pre-modern messianic figures the texts are both sketchy and highly colored. The newer the research, the more likely the researchers were to try to learn about family details and be able to write about them in an open and honest fashion.

What I found was that, even in the case of Hubbard, money and power don't seem to be the real motivations. The messiah might get rich but that's almost secondary to what they actually seek. What they seek are followers, people who listen to them, who believe them and who love them.

Insofar as I can tell – and it is hard to learn even with these figures in many cases – they share certain childhood traits. All or almost all of them were abused as children or suffered difficult childhoods. At least two of them I mentioned (Jim Jones and David Koresh) were known to be sexually abused. All of them would later display behavior that I believe suggests deep childhood trauma concerning sex.

Indeed, more than any one thing, sex unites this group. All of them used their position to get sex. Hubbard not only used his position to seduce the wives of his followers, he eventually created a staff of preteen girls who would sleep with him (without sex, we are told) in order to replenish his energies. Smith and Young used their position to accumulate many wives, sometimes resorting to harsh means to separate a desired woman from another man (such as forcing the a couple to divorce or break off engagements). David Koresh eventually demanded that married couples don't have sex with each other, but that Koresh would have unlimited access to sex all the Branch Davidians. Jim Jones also used his position to coerce sex from his followers and used some of them as prostitutes to seduce government officials in Guyana. Each and every one of them had sexual habits that radically deviated from the norm that they used their religion to justify.

All of them also engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior. Smith and Young routinely flouted the authority of the US government and several times brought the wrath of the state down on their church, almost destroying it repeatedly. Jim Jones eventually lead his church into mass suicide and murder. David Koresh provoked the federal government into actions that lead to the destruction of his church and followers, as well. Hubbard was also expert at provoking governments and fled several countries and was chased out of several ports of call. Here is where Jesus fits the pattern more clearly. (It is easy to see Jesus as being kin to these other messiahs, because the Bible talks about Jesus' provocation of the authorities that leads to his destruction. It's one of the main themes of the Gospels.)

But very few novels or stories explore the idea that Jesus was a figure not too different than David Koresh or L. Ron Hubbard. They are either written with Jesus either divine or divinely inspired, or they are written with Jesus being a social revolutionary. To me, the first is impossible because I don't believe in any god at all and the second isn't well supported by the Gospels. Jesus doesn't do anything revolutionary except claim to be a messiah. In our day and age, someone who claims messiahdom is regarded as a liar, mad or both. Reading about messiahs I came to the conclusion that a historical Jesus either did not claim to be a messiah or he did and was a liar, mad or both. In terms of making the story more interesting, it is easy to see why I chose to make Jesus a madman and charlatan.

Then, making him a madman and charlatan, like so-called messiahs seem to be, when constructing Jesus' life I was guided by the messiahs I'd read about. Therefore, he had to have a difficult childhood full of abuse and neglect to justify his later grandiose delusions. He had to enact his childhood trauma in the present with bizarre sexual activity and self-destructive behavior. The character, ultimately, wrote himself and I just had to fit him into the narrative structure of the Gospels (which which I obviously took considerably liberty).

Even if Jesus was as mentally ill, a liar and self-destructive, he would be completely whitewashed by his followers. Of course, as failed messiahs neither Koresh nor Jones have many (if any) followers left to whitewash their names; thus the unusually good quality of information about them. However, Smith, Young and Hubbard all have official biographies that are promoted by their religions, and these official records read radically different than biographies written by people outside their faith. The only records we really have about Jesus that claim to be first-hand accounts are the Gospels, and they're so biased and it is so common for religions to whitewash their leaders that it is impossible to know the truth of any historical Jesus. It'd be like trusting Scientology to give an unbiased record of L. Ron Hubbard's life. I think that my version of events is far closer to the truth than the Gospels – even if you took the miracles and resurrection out of the Gospels, I suspect my story is closer to the truth.

My wild hope with the Christian audience is that they will start to view Jesus as a person, not as this idealized superbeing. I know that's fairly daft of me. Writing a book that has Jesus as a mad charlatan and Peter as a murderer isn't designed to win many Christians over. I can live with that, particularly because there is a second group to whom this is addressed: atheists.

In my experience, most atheists treat the figure of Jesus with fairly elaborate praise. Take Friedrich Nietzsche. Yeah. That Nietzsche. In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche glorifies Jesus as being this joyous person who fully lived his life and gloriously accepted his death. It goes on for eight pages – this despite Nietzsche's legendary hatred of all things Christian. Except, apparently, Jesus.

That sort of behavior is commonplace. When humanists and atheists write or speak publicly about Jesus, it's always with intense deference to Jesus as a person. So, while a given atheist might condemn Christianity they almost never seriously attack Jesus. Mostly, in my experience, they frame Jesus as this valid social revolutionary trying to transform society, struggling valiantly against the corrupt Jewish collaborators that ran Jerusalem and/or the Roman Empire.

This seriously undermines the atheist stance against Christians, particularly to outsiders of both atheism and Christianity. The Christians say, “Love Jesus! Join us!” And the atheists too often say, “Religion sucks! But, y'know, that Jesus guy is okay.”

Except that we don't know he was okay. At best, he's repeating things said better by other people, such as Hillel the Elder, and cribbing notes from Hellenic mystery cults and Mithraism. So, then, why do we go to Jesus as this important source of ideas that he didn't come up with? Especially in light of the behavior of real people who declare themselves to be messiahs? As I said, the odds are my depiction of Jesus is more accurate than religious accounts. It is also probably more accurate than secular accounts which always have Jesus being this intellectual revolutionary, a serious man about serious business, who was merely speaking in the language of his time. But there is no reason at all to think that way. If a person reads the Bible to find the “historical Jesus” what one comes up with is a simple preacher with an uncontroversial message and delusions of grandeur. But rather than taking the historical Jesus on those grounds, Jesus has become a vessel into which many, many atheists have continued to pour their hopes and dreams into even though they have rejected Christianity.

I think this needs to stop. We're atheists, fer crying out loud! At the best we should be saying that Jesus was a uncontroversial preacher with a god complex. More generally, I think we should say that Jesus was probably of a piece with other self-proclaimed messiahs. That he was as nutty as Joe Smith or Jim Jones. And in any event atheists should stop treating the person of Jesus like he is someone we're obligated to respect. We're not! He's not worthy of our respect, in any case.

By writing about Jesus as I have, I hope to undermine the respect that atheists have for Jesus, and allow atheists to re-examine how they feel about Jesus and why we far too often accord him elaborate respect.

I, of course, think that this reasoning can also be applied to any self-proclaimed messiahs of any religion. Rather than trying to think about them “seriously” as serious people struggling against oppression or whatever, try thinking of them as self-proclaimed messiahs are: very strange, abusive and usually terribly abused people who are constructing elaborate, self-serving fantasies to address the trauma of their lives even as they spread that trauma to their followers. I want to spread the knowledge that insanity and charlatanry is the normal method for all so-called messiahs and, thus, I hope, help stop people from regarding them as holy or even serious. As a group, they're damaged goods, playing out their madness on emotionally vulnerable people – and this is true even of the successful ones.

There are other reasons why I am writing this as I am. Certainly part of it is I like books with sex, violence and intrigue in them. I'm a sucker for the sort of drama that making Jesus a psychologically damaged false messiah and Peter a violent thug create. I am also experimenting, to a lesser extent but with fullness of what I am doing, with trying to write a book that has characters who are sexists and racist but that is not, in itself, a sexist and racist book by presenting the sexism and racism as absurd and ugly – though I am unsure that I don't step, occasionally, into glorification of the things I despise I still feel compelled to try. Some of this is, undeniably, a catharsis. I have complex feelings about religion and it occupies a complex place in my life, as it does for many atheists who were raised religious. While I've worked out my own personal feelings towards religion, the multi-faceted way that religion is important to our society presents an atheist with a constant supply of social and political challenges that must also be addressed. Lastly, I write anything I write because I love the art and craft of it.

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8 Comments:

Krystalline Apostate said...

Well, I'm a jaysus-myther, so I disrespect the man on a regular basis.
Sex & religion? Throw in a helping of politics, & your book'll never get discussed at the dinner table. ;)

March 12, 2007 1:18 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

Why do you think I linked your blog! I like folks who disrespect Jesus regularly. ;)

There's politics in it, but not too much connection with our current political structure. Tho' I put a lot of that in the other novel I'm trying to get published, Condotierri. ;)

March 12, 2007 1:22 PM  
Shane said...

After reading this I'm more excited about Simon Peter than I was originally! Usually if I like a book, then I very much like the personal message from the author to audience as well. Using that as a gauge, yeah, I'm pretty excited.

March 12, 2007 3:27 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

Shane,

Good! I'm glad.

I forgot who it was that said I might want to write a personal note about my motivations for writing this. I had resisted doing that, before, because I feel that a book shouldn't need explanation and because, really, the author's explanation isn't the only legitimate or even interesting one. I like to give the audience a lot of chance to figure things out for themselves, and dislike sounding pedagogic or preachy. (I have ruthlessly tried to weed this out of my fiction writing. It lingers, yet, in my non-fiction stuff.)

But I'm reasonably pleased at the essay, myself. Thanks!

March 12, 2007 3:33 PM  
divabeq said...

I told you earlier, but comments are always a good thing... I love the essay. I found it to be informative, while remaining interesting enough to avoid a feeling of pedantry.

Plus, I like the book so far, so you already had me won over.

March 12, 2007 4:33 PM  
Brian Dunbar said...

There are hints of it in the Gospels, themselves, such as Jesus' doubts in Gethsemane and his cry on the cross that God had forsaken him – brief glimpses which suggest that maybe Jesus was a mortal man and in his last hours he doubted his divinity and, as he came to die, believed himself to be forsaken entirely.

The faith I grew up in taught that this was correct.

What I don't understand is the urge to attack Christians. But then I'm from a get-along-go-along background - it's the kind of guy I am.

March 13, 2007 3:28 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

In brief, why I attack Christianity: Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter.

Christians aren't cleaning their own house, I feel. Liberal and moderate Christians do very little to counter these racist, sexist, war-mongering, homophobic members of their own religion. Indeed, by supporting their individual churches which are often part of the broader social network that supports and promotes fundamentalist beliefs, they actually assist people like Pat Robertson and Coulter.

March 13, 2007 3:37 PM  
Anonymous said...

Coulter's a Christian I just thought she was a rightwing nut job, and Pat Robertson is just an idiot. All belief structures have them.

March 15, 2007 6:20 AM  

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