News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Xtian Fiction as Science Fiction

Friday, January 06, 2006

Xtian Fiction as Science Fiction

Newsweek has done a big spread on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. (It is a novel, something readers and believers in its conspiracy theory tend to forget, in no small part thanks to Brown's misleading remarks at the beginning of the novel.) The work is now set to be released as a film starring Tom Hanks, something that perhaps will only bolster its book sales and deepen its impact on the popular imagination.

Of course, religious fiction, and Christian fiction especially, is not anything new in literature. The Bible itself contains numerous books that biblical scholars categorize as fictional. The apocryphal book of Joseph and Aseneth is simply one example of what seems to be a consciously fictional account by a Jewish writer. Another exmple includes the book of Job. ...

Such notions as fiction in the Bible are not new to biblical scholars. Yet, the idea that the Word of God might include anything but literal, factual accounts strike literalist evangelicals as heretical, if not downright demonic. Their chagrin, though in an opposite direction, is shared by atheists.

I personally see no problem with God--should He exist--using fiction as a means of conveying the truth. Anyone who doesn't have a troglodyte's aesthetic sensibility knows how powerfully and effectively fiction is at evoking the emotional and spiritual powers of the soul. The imagination is the source of seeing possibilities and potentialities that humans image to themselves when constructing life histories. If religion does anything, it is to elicit the powerful potential for change that is at the heart of being human.

Yet, the fundamentalist will have none of this. Much like the scientific fundamentalists, the religionists want to reduce reality to some barebones framework that conforms to the hard structures of sense and supposed empirical aspects of consciousness.

These assumptions that put a premium on these aspects of consciousness no doubt reflect a person's uneasiness with anything that might challenge easily digestible preconceptions. Without a doubt, it is easier to see the world in ways that evoke control and power than it is to see a world that explodes all categories and concepts that humans might want to impose on reality.

This is not to say that only the fundamentalists of both camps are wrong and the new agers like Brown are right. The virtue of Brown's approach is that it does provide a space within which the comfortable realities can be questioned. On the other hand, it proposes to replace the old certainties with new ones.

The Da Vinci Code's supposed reliance on "hard" scientific fact--filtered through the hypothetical results of the modern searches for the historical Jesus--is just another attempt to fit the divine reality that Jesus poses into categories that are more comfortable for a bourgeois consciousness to accept. Brown's radicalism is not really radical at all since it does not go to the root of the tremendously powerful destructiveness of the divine to explode all human attempts at understanding it.

Back in 1996 I addressed this issue in an online scholarly forum comprised of biblical scholars from around the world. In these remarks, I suggsested that the modern searches for the historical Jesus are so much science fiction. They are science fiction because they appeal to the modern propensity and disposition to only accept as truth and fact findings that ostensibly fall outside the possibility of scepticism.

My remarks included the following:

I can certainly understand Paul Swarney's puzzlement over the explosion of reconstructions of the historical Jesus, as well as the multitude of other reconstructions of groups, persons, states, etc. who lived or existed in 1st century Palestine. What is even more perplexing is the thought that many people want to *believe* in these reconstructions, although many are undoubtedly hypothetical. Why this desire to believe in something that may be as much fiction or myth (in the "good" sense) than any Gospel ever was?

Many want the kind of certainty that a scientific thesis can provide. Therefore, when a modern exegete, who has so much more information and precise tools at hand than scholars in the past, can paint a picture of a time and place in the past and people it with so-called *hard* data, many people will want to accept it. These are powerfully persuasive pictures--they provide many answers to nagging questions. In the best of circumstances they enlighten faith and provide correctives to over-simplified theological concepts.

Yet, when the authors of these reconstructions either refuse or are not capable of recognizing the hypothetical nature of their work, these pictures of times past *can* have about as much reality as science fiction. But this is an important statement about *what* some will believe in modern society. Science fiction relies on the imaginative *possibilities* of a fictional world.

This *possibility* is very important, I think, in the reconstructions presented by a J. Seminar, for example--that is, here we have *evidence* that what others believed was wrong and misinformed. Now look at this new *evidence*--it presents possibilities that these other generations could not even think about, much less understand. In the worst cases, this kind of scholarship feeds into "conspiracy theory" mentality, wherein people see THEM as wishing to maintain a religious power at any costs. Also, the possibilities that this new Jesus presents seems to allow us to answer all those cynics and critics of Christianity who have relegated it to the junk heap of history. With this Jesus of possibility we can devise new theologies, new approaches to God; the old is made new, and we can begin to conbine this new picture with more modern, scientifically based, theories.

So the *will to believe* these reconstructions is very strong. The pictures present a Jesus we are very familiar with--modern, open-minded, rationalistic, etc. He too was fighting the confusions of his time. What he was saying is fraught with new possibility, new answers to old questions, etc. But this Jesus is very cardboard. I do not think he can weather the crisis of faith we must all face and answer in our individual ways.

While I understand the need to find the new in the teaching of Jesus, I think that this is not going to happen through a historical reconstruction based on a very small database of facts. It will be a response of faith in the face of rejection, irrationality, and perhaps complete incoherence.

This response will come from the lives of those who live the faith--not those who write fictional caricatures based on so-called "scientific" studies. This "new" Jesus will have the face of a peasant woman in Guatemala, an AIDS patient, a prisoner on Death Row, the wino wallowing in his own stench in the gutters. This will obviously be an uncomfortable Jesus. But then, no one ever said the journey was going to be easy.

I have couched my response in the context of the historical Jesus--it need not be so. The same comments could be made about any reconstruction of ancient Judaism, Buddhism, or even Jainism (were these latter two to exist). What is at issue is the meaning of truth and belief and a confusion over the use and results of scientific biblical scholarship. In terms of anthropological understanding, one can see this this tendency as an attempt to *appropriate* the other and to mold and shape it (him/her) into a likeness to ourselves. It would seem that we cannot live with too
much strangeness or difference from ourselves--i.e., we cannot let others be who they were, as strange, alien, and perhaps bizarre as that was. At the same time, however, we cannot accept the strangeness which the other reveals about ourselves.

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