Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception is a short story (of 4461 words) written in the style of my current novel project, Simon Peter. It is meant to be a teaser for the novel, itself, showing the take I'm using for telling the story of Jesus, St. Peter and the origins of Christianity as being started by the same sorts of people that start cults in modern history: a group of religious fanatics, madmen, charlatans surrounded by a storm of sexual depravity, physical and psychological abuse.

"Immaculate Conception" is a story about the conception and birth of Jesus. The story contains nothing mystical, but offers a purely physical story about how it could happen. I am not saying it did happen this way. The birth of Jesus, even from Biblical sources, is confused. In one place Jesus is born in a house attended by kings, in another place he is born in a stable and attended by shepherds. I'm not sure I believe in the physical reality of Jesus at all. But in "Immaculate Conception", as in Simon Peter, I want to open a discussion about the nature of messiahdom, itself, and dispel the idea that Jesus as a historical person needs to be taken seriously as a social reformer, or rebel against Roman conquest or Jewish corruption. Most messiahs are charlatans, insane, or both. Most people who claim supernatural powers, in my readings, have backgrounds of neglect and abuse. For this story, and Simon Peter, I posit that Jesus came from such a family, and in "Immaculate Conception" I have written about his family as being typical of messiahs, born in pain and horror, leading to charlatanry and madness.

Warning: This story does have sex and violence. If you're offended by sex and violence, I advise either not reading it, or get prepared to be offended.

I am also thinking about putting a commercial for "Immaculate Conception" on YouTube and GodTube. See what that nets me. ;)

Now with video!

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Friday Writin' Update

The writing this week started well and ended with difficulty. Soon, I will probably be posting a short story written in the style I'm using for Simon Peter. Right now, it's called "Immaculate Conception" and it retells the story of Jesus' conception and birth. It probably won't be next week, but the week after that. But it is only 4200 words long, which means I did not spend all my week writing it (an average week for me is about 8000 words, in case you wanted to know).

I started part 3 of Simon Peter, which will cover the time period of Jesus' ministry. Part 2 was 51,000 words and I can't imagine part 3 being shorter because I have established a heavy presence of Peter's family and social dealings and I'll want to keep that, as well as work on all the things I want to say about the nature of apocalyptic messianic cults. I will need to do this within the rough narrative framework of Jesus' ministry.

Not that the Gospels provide a very good framework for that. Ignoring the variances between the Gospels to being with, the Gospels describe Jesus' ministry as little more than him going from miracle to miracle with a few parables thrown in, until the last week of his life where it does pick up a little bit, narratively speaking. Which is, I suspect, part of my trouble -- the Gospels, like most of the Bible, is simply very, very dull. The story drags in all ways. It has lifeless characters, pompous diction, dismal dialog and it is clear the author is trying to get across a "message" but lacks the narrative skill to do this with authority. But it is the task I have set out for myself, and I believe the task is worthwhile, so I'll stick to it.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ha, I Say, HA!

Part two of Simon Peter is done. It was about 25% longer than I'd planned for it to be -- around 51,000 words -- but I feel good about it.

Part three will be, I expect at this point, to be the longest of part, because it will contain the bulk of Jesus' ministry as well as his death. I'm half thinking of rather than diving straight into part three that I'll write a short story in the style I've adopted for Simon Peter and post it here when I'm done with it -- probably a week or so from when I begin -- and I'm curious if y'all out there have any thoughts on the subject. I know that most of you are here because I cut up about religion, not necessarily because I'm writing a book on Biblical characters, but most of you also seem to be pretty hip into reading, which pleases me immensely.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt

Reading Anne Rice's Christ the Lord Out of Egypt proved, at a glance, that I must hate myself on some profound level. All through reading this book I would come across something particularly bad and ask Adrienne, “Why am I reading this?” She would say, “So you can make fun of it with a clean conscience.” She knows me well.

For some background, when I'm writing a long project like Simon Peter, I try not to clutter my brain with too much outside literature. I generally read a lot less, and it tends to be about whatever it is I'm writing, if only tangentially. This helps me stay focused on a big project. The last thing I want is to get a really great idea in the middle of writing something that distracts me from what I'm doing. So, right now, I tend to read a books about various 1st century CE subjects, especially if they're dealing with Judaism, Roman Palestine and, of course, Biblical figures. Rice's book is very much the sort of thing that I read.

I've also planned on reading it for a while. I am not an admirer of Rice's work, but she's important to Simon Peter. After learning that Anne Rice had written a novel about Jesus it really dawned on me anyone could do it – and I fancy myself a much better writer than Anne Rice. So I started looking into it and, behold, I'm doing it.

As you can probably guess, I think the book is bad. The rest of this post is about how bad, and the forms this badness takes, and it'll probably be pretty long. It's the worst book I've actually finished in a longish time.

Also, for the record, I hold no particular hostility towards religious fiction. I am, after all, doing it, myself. I like a fair number of Jesus-fic novels such as Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist and Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff by Christopher Moore. Others, such as The Last Temptation of Christ I might not have liked, but I can see the craft and art that went into writing them. To me, a well written book about Biblical characters is akin to interesting fantasy, and I hold neither the books nor the writers in any sort of contempt. I say this because I didn't go into this hating it. While I'm not a fan of Rice's works, I did enjoy Interview with the Vampire, so I further know she's capable of writing things I like.

But Out of Egypt is just a bad book. It's so bad I am struggling with where to begin. So, after Carroll, I shall being at the beginning.

The book takes place when Jesus is seven or eight years of age. It takes place in the first person, as if Jesus is narrating things as an adult. The plot revolves around Jesus learning he is the son of Jehovah, immediately after the death of Herod the Great and the riots surrounding Herod's death.

The first problem is the narration, itself. Jesus is narrating the book as if he was an adult looking back, but the book totally lacks mature insights into the youthful Jesus' problems, personality or social interactions. Particularly lacking is mature insight into Jesus' social interactions, which I very much would have liked to see. But the narration, despite technically being recorded by an adult Jesus, comes off as being narrated by the child Jesus.

The book begins with Jesus striking another child dead while he lives in Alexandria. It was inspired by a scene out of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (Out of Egypt also mentions Jesus turning clay pigeons into real birds, also from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.) The inclusion of the striking dead scene is problematic and, I suspect, the reason it never even got seriously considered for Biblical canon. After all, murder is a sin, and Jesus is said to have lived a sinless life. Though, in Out of Egypt and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus undoes these acts, having done them, he had sinned. Just because you give back the money you've stolen doesn't mean you're not a thief – you're just a penitent thief, right? The first thing that Rice has Jesus do is sin.

Now, if it had been a book written in that fashion, I probably would have been pleased. A Jesus that went around withering people and striking them blind – based on various legendary sources – would have been a hoot. Heck, if I wasn't deep into Simon Peter I might have done it that way, myself. However, Rice intends to confirm the divinity of Jesus – which is not well served by having Jesus kill someone, even if he does repent of it. God is above that sort of thing, right? At least, that's the standard Christian doctrine – that Jesus is perfect. So the book starts out with a serious misstep.

The book has a lot of missteps. It's like Rice doesn't know what she's doing from one chapter to the next. So, in one chapter, Joseph tells Jesus not to do violence. He is clear. Joseph says, “Never lift your hand to defend yourself or to strike.” Then, a chapter later, Joseph and his relatives kill a man who is attempting to rape a woman. Which is it, Joe? Never lift your hand, or is it okay to kill in self-defense of third parties?

Another misstep is the . . . well, the Jewishness of Jesus is a complex subject in the book. Clearly, if Jesus lived at all he was Jewish. We don't know what kind of Jew – we know very little about him, as a person, and it is often contradictory or outright silly – but certainly a Jew. Christianity largely de-emphasizes Jesus' Jewishness. Some of it is outright racism on the part of Christians, certainly, but there is a larger point to it – Jesus is not a Jewish messiah but a universal messiah. By emphasizing Jesus' Jewishness, it weakens Jesus' universal appeal, which clashes uncomfortably with the rest of the tone of the book where it is emphasized that he's a universal messiah.

Those are the three major missteps I can think of, right now. Now I'll start to address the further horrors of the book.

Keeping on with the Jewish character of Jesus, the book dwells on things in a truly comical way. The characters mock Egyptian Jews who study the Jewish Bible in Greek, unlike Jesus and his family who do it in Hebrew. Which struck me as reasonably cruel, to mock someone's ignorance. It further struck me as comical – Jesus and his family of super-Jews. (Not to mention that it isn't like most Christians learn Greek and Hebrew to study the Bible. Rice, herself, had to do her Bible study in English. It seems a bizarre standard of mockery, given the lack of importance American Christians give to learning the languages the Bible was written in.)

The Jews, in general, are treated in a cartoonish way. So, in Sepphoris, Jesus notes the absence of prostitutes for the Roman soldiers to fuck, vis-a-vis Alexandria. As if Jewish women didn't know how to prostitute themselves? The Bible is very explicit on the extent of prostitution amongst Jews. Apparently, it was nigh ubiquitous. At several places in the Old Testament – such as Ezekiel 16:15 . . . oh, to at least verse 38 – the author shows a pretty profound knowledge of the ways of prostitutes. And, of course, famously, Jesus hung out with prostitutes. But in Out of Egypt, it's like the Jews are too moral to engage in prostitution, which is laughable.

(Interestingly, the book seems to praise Jewish women for wearing the veil, which protects them from the Roman soldiers. I don't think that Rice was praising the veil as effective against sexual assault – when a person gets it into their head to rape someone, a piece of cloth is unlikely to stop them – but trying to suggest that Jesus would have been for the veil because it's modest. Still, there is also enough in the Gospels to suggest that Jesus wouldn't have cared about veils or the conservative social modesty of the Jews. He broke a lot of Jewish social rules, such as traveling with women (Mary Salome, Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene – by the social rules of the time, they should have been escorted by a male relative) and associating publicly with prostitutes. But she chose to have Jesus praise the veil, which isn't necessary given the further life of Jesus nor particularly sensitive to modern issues.)

And the Pharisees are SUCH GOOD PEOPLE. They're so learned and holy and . . . ugh, it's childish. They're not just good people, as humans can be, but they're these smiling, sinless people who never lose their temper, who never get developed beyond their smiling, one-dimensional caricatures. And there's the wise old woman who is so old and wise! And the crotchety uncle with sage advice! None of the cast (who aren't walk-in characters, generic threats) had, it appears, a single bad impulse in them – even when they do something that is bad (such as Jesus striking someone dead) it's never because they possess a sinful thought; Jesus acted impulsively, without thought, Joseph and his cousins acted to save someone else. Humans without some measure of bad in them, of course, are caricatures. They aren't believable. Thus, none of the characters in Out of Egypt are the least bit believable.

Going hand in hand with the cartoonish, one-dimensional nature of the characters is the awful writing. There are some examples that will help illustrate this. Be warned. It is bad.

Elizabeth lowered her voice and spoke on.

“We have brethren with them, grandsons of Mattathias and Naomi, who went out long ago to the desert to live with them, and I've spoken with them, and they will take him, even now. It's their way to take children and bring them up strictly, abiding by their rules of purity and fasting, and strict community, and all these are natural things to my son. And he will study with them. He will learn the prophets. He will learn the word of the Lord. The desert is where he wants to be, and when I'm gathered to my ancestors there he will go until such time as he is a man and decides for himself what he will do. I have already provided for John with the Essenes and they wait only for my word, or for him to come to those that live on the other side of the Jordan and they will take him far out away from here to where he's to be brought up removed from the affairs of men.”

Who speaks like that? C'mon. It's a parody of the sonorousness of the King James Bible. This passage isn't a particularly bad one, either. It's all like this. Very portentous, very pretentious. In other passages, I swear I can also hear the nasal New Yawk twang, too. How can a person take this seriously?

Another bit that I found amusing:

”Oh, yes,” said a woman who saw me look at them. Her eyes were red, and her clothes covered with ashes and dust. “And days ago they massacred us, I tell you, and sold off anyone in sight to the filthy slave merchants who descended on us to put our loved ones in chains. They took my son, my only son, he's gone! And what had he done, but gone out to try to find his sister, and she took for what? She was trying to go from my house to the house of her mother-in-law?”

Rice, especially with female characters, has them say things like “I tell you” and repeat themselves – the slavers sold off anyone in sight and put their loved ones in chains – in a way that makes me wonder if this was proofread at all, by anyone! And sometimes, again largely with female characters, I swear I can hear a New Yawk twang with all the “I tell yous”.

Rice also does that annoying thing where when she wants to emphasize something, she puts a particular sentence as a sole paragraph. This is also pretty juvenile, I feel, and vaguely insulting to the intelligence of the reader. Like we're not clever enough to figure out what's important.

Over and above this, however, the book's biggest problem is it is painfully dull. It took a bit, but since I was stuck on the road a lot over the vacation, and there's only so many cacti a person can look at before they all blend into a Platonic form of cacti, I figured it out. Jesus and most of the main characters of the story are, well, canonical figures. Because nothing is really known about Jesus' childhood – a few spurious infancy gospels aside – and because Rice doesn't want to do anything to blatantly contradict the Bible (tho' she fails in this in a couple of places, as said above), the characters must be static. They can't do anything really noteworthy, else she would have to explain why this wasn't included in the Bible, itself.

Particularly static is Jesus. Because she is, in large, trying to write him as the perfect child, and because Joseph and Mary are protective parents, this means he obeys his parents. And when you're seven years old, well, you're not allowed to do very much. A fair bit of the book is Jesus asking to do something interesting, being told that, no, he's not allowed to do that, and then him obeying. After all, he must! He must honor his mother and father, right?

And because the extended family of Jesus included in the novel are equally holy, they are equally dull. For a moment, there is a brief bit of tension because Jesus' brother James (the Just, eventually, who is patriarch of the Jerusalem church and a martyr in the fullness of time) resents Jesus because James knows that Jesus is the messiah, but what could have been actual tension is resolved instantly, so it means little. And the rest of Jesus' family, who know he's the son of Jehovah, also have no problem with it – they accept it wholly and without any problem at all. Again and again, there are places for actual conflict, but Rice never really capitalizes on this. I suspect she does this because, well, the messiah can't have a fucked up family full of people who doubt Jesus is the messiah, right? Even though there is Biblical evidence that his family didn't accept his mission!

Even when Rice suggests that the larger Nazareth community doesn't believe the stories about Mary and the virgin birth, but it's kept very distant. Mary is never confronted, and neither is Jesus. The tension is hinted at, but nothing is ever done with it.

Satan also makes an appearance in one of Jesus' dreams (though uncredited, it's obvious who it is). Now, Satan is one of my favorite literary characters because it's so easy and fun to deconstruct Satan. Other writers have really had fun with Satan, from Milton to Kazantzakis. He's a fun guy! Rice's take on the big S seems designed to be as bland as possible. The child Jesus easily beats off whatever temptation that Satan might have been trying to do – compare with the Satan out of The Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus on the cross came very close to succumbing. Satan, the greatest villain of Christianity, is treated as though he was a punk ass bitch. Again, when given the chance to really create some tension, for something interesting to happen, Rice flubs it. One could even say that, as a child, Jesus would be vulnerable to Satan's charms. Apparently not. Yawn.

So, all the action of the book takes place from a very limited perspective. Of a young child that has no real verve, an obedient child, a completely dull child. The other characters are equally dull, because they have to be worthy to be the family of the Christian messiah. Even the passage through the riots following Herod the Great's death are without impact – they are never really threatened. The book is very explicit about this, that Joseph wouldn't have been ordered to return to Galilee if the way hadn't been made straight. So, no real threat! They are protected by GOD HIMSELF.

All of this combines, of course. It isn't just that the characters are one-dimensional parodies, and it isn't just that the writing is bad, and it isn't just that nothing really happens. All of these things are happening at the same time.

The book is dull and silly, it says nothing original in poor language. It isn't even bad in an interesting way – it plods along, boring and pretentious, not even letting the audience thrill in how truly awful it is. It's bad in a pedestrian way. I recommend giving it a miss.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Messiah on Messiah Combat!

Most Christians are totally ignorant that the 1st century CE was an era of tremendous messiah activity beyond Jesus. (Indeed, generally, the lack of cultural knowledge that most Christians have about that time period that wasn't directly tied to the Gospels I've found consistently shocking. I've met a dozen Christians who know everything about the events in the Bible, but can't hold a conversation about Tiberius, the Emperor at the time of Jesus' death. And, like Mel Gibson, most Christians think that Romans in the area spoke Latin . . . even tho' in the Book of Acts the Gentile party is referred to as the Greeks and the New Testament being an almost entirely Greek document originally.) Jesus had serious competitors in a variety of ways and the Christian victory was sure from assured.

The first place we can see the struggle between messiahs is the struggle between Jesus and John the Baptist. Most Christians accept without thinking about it that John the Baptist was, consciously, waiting for a messiah and that messiah happened to be Jesus, but there was an obvious struggle between early Christians and followers of John the Baptist.

You can see some of this in the Bible, itself. In Matthew 9:14 the disciples of John the Baptist criticize Jesus' disciples for their lax fasting habits. (Jesus answers them that his disciples might as well enjoy the good times while Jesus is still alive, likening himself to a bridegroom, because soon he'll be gone and misery will await them.) In Matthew 11:2-3, a couple of John's disciples question whether Jesus is the Messiah. (Jesus sends them away with no answer, but orders them to go tell John the Baptist of his works and deeds.) (I will also presume that anyone who reads this can find Bible quotations without me linking them. A trifle lazy, perhaps, but I don't use the Internet for my Bible and I don't have links for all this stuff laying around.)

By the time Luke was written – some twenty or more years after Matthew and Mark – there is even more signs of struggle. A fair bit of Luke is designed to demonstrate that John the Baptist is clearly Jesus' inferior, and that John the Baptist recognized it. So, in the Gospel of Luke, there is an extremely self-serving account of John the Baptist's birth where Luke time and against makes it clear that John the Baptist is the inferior of Jesus and knew it. Luke chapter 1 is just full of Elizabeth and Mary going on about how how Mary's child is so much greater than Elizabeth's, specifically the Magnificat and Ave Maria. Otherwise, Luke follows Matthew in the disciples of John the Baptist questioning of Jesus.

By the time that the Gospel of John was written, the overt struggle between Christians and the followers of John the Baptist had largely come to an end. John the Evangelist was very confident in the Baptist's inferiority. In John 1:20, the Baptist clearly says he's not “the Christ”. In John 1:21-23 he says he's not even a prophet, really, but just “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord.” And in John 1:32, the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus and in John 1:34, the Baptist said, “And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” Nevertheless, later on the questioning of Jesus that occurs in Matthew and Luke resurfaces in John, too.

Still, this is all pretty veiled. Most Christians don't even realize there's an ancient religion that continues to exist to this very day where John the Baptist is considered the Messiah and Jesus a traitor to John – the Mandeans. These are a non-Jewish, non-Muslim, non-Christian group of people who acknowledge Adam, Noah and John the Baptist as prophets but not Abraham, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad. They also seem to have been influenced by Chaldean and Babylonian religions, as well as Zoroastrianism. I am not claiming expertise. Indeed, it is hard for anyone to claim expertise because the Mandeans have as one of their religious creeds near absolute secrecy.

Unlike Baha'i (who also refer John the Baptist), the Mandeans are an ancient religion. Because of their intense secrecy, small numbers and the vicious persecution that has occasionally befallen them, there is no clear connection between Mandeans and the disciples of John the Baptist who questioned Jesus. It does, however, demonstrate that religions that followed John the Baptist existed in antiquity and that John the Baptist was, and is, the messiah in some people's eyes. This lends considerable credence, I think, to the notion that the treatment of John the Baptist in the Bible is due to the competition between the followers of the Baptist and the followers of Jesus.

However, by the time of the Gospels of Luke and John, Christianity had grown considerably towards Rome and amongst the Gentiles. If we take the Mandeans as evidence of the direction that the followers of John the Baptist went, they went into Persia – which could explain the high-handed way Luke and John treat the Baptist. Christians and primitive Mandeans didn't intersect very much, with Christians spreading to the West towards Rome and the Mandeans going east into Persia. However, it is indisputable that people in antiquity took John the Baptist very seriously as a messiah.

This is bolstered by Josephus in The Antiquities of the Jews where in Book 18, chapter 5, Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a good Jew and a holy man but does not refer to Jesus at all in connection with John the Baptist. So, by the 70s CE, when Josephus wrote The Antiquities, John the Baptist wasn't linked to Christianity much less as an inferior to Jesus.

While, in the end, the cult of Jesus would clearly grow far beyond the cult of John, for a while it was clearly touch and go. But there was a bigger Messiah that Jesus had to face. Growing into the Roman Empire it became inevitable that Christianity would have to deal with, in some fashion, Rome's most powerful religions: Mithraism and Magna Mater.

Mithraism, like all mystery cults, is a hard nut to crack because secrecy was part and parcel of the religion. However, it was very popular amongst the Roman army and was the official cult of several of the Legions. It . . . had certain issues that limited it's popularity, such as being open only to men and having a complex and uncomfortable initiatory rite. As a soldier's religion, it worked because soldiers have all that macho bravado going for them, but amongst the general population the rites were fairly extreme. The cult of Magna Mater, on the other hand, or the worship of the Great Mother, was nigh universal. In the ancient world, over time, the mother goddesses tended to get rolled up into a single character – the Magna Mater – with similar rites from modern Afghanistan to Portugal. Between Mithraism and Magna Mater, virtually every Roman shared in some of their rites.

The struggle against these religions is subsumed under the Christian struggle against “paganism” and even Christians acknowledge that it was a bitter struggle. What they don't seem to grasp is that virtually all the great holy days of the Christian calendar, such as Christmas and Easter, come from either Mithraism or the Magna Mater cult. Indeed, things like the resurrection can easily be traced back to myths about Attis, Osiris, Dionysus and Tammuz, all of whom informed both the rites of Mithraism and Magna Mater and would go on to influence Christianity through those religions.

Christianity overcame this obstacle through a multi-faceted strategy and some luck. If Christianity had stayed a Jewish religion, I suspect it would have died out. But by conversions of Romans, Christianity both spread through the Empire as well as started to adopt more and more characteristics of the big Roman religions at the time which helped to distinguish it from Judiasm. This was particularly assisted by the various destructions of the Jews at Roman hands, both in 70 CE and again in 135 CE. After the second rebellion lead by Simon bar Kochba, there wasn't many Jews left in Judea or Galilee as the Romans destroyed over 900 Jewish towns and villages, destroyed Jerusalem itself and forbid Jews to enter the city after replacing the Jewish Temple with one to Jupiter. The diaspora of the Jews was complete – there was no “home” to return to for 1800 years. This allowed the Gentile sect of Christians to gain total dominance over the religion, with a decidedly Roman character. So, Roman festivals and holidays were brought wholesale into Christianity, making it easier for Romans to convert to Christianity – it was like Mithraism or Magna Mater without a lot of the attending hassles of belonging to those religions.

The second big break came when Constantine I opted for Christianity to receive special Imperial sanction in the Edict of Milan. Effectively, Christianity had become the state cult of the Empire. This allowed Christians to spread without fear of retaliation through the Empire, often engaging in massacres and land theft to bolster their own religion. Most people believe that Constantine, himself, wasn't particularly a Christian and used Christianity to unify the Empire under a single religion for political reasons. I accept this as true. He is a Christian saint in virtually all Christian religions that allow that sort of thing, however.

However, the expansion of Christianity wasn't certain, and Christianity had a lot to overcome towards becoming the world's largest religion.

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