Zealot

I’ve always been curious about the life of Jesus, or what of it can be accounted for outside the New Testament. It’s a topic so burdened with sensitive beliefs and emotions, that it’s a little hard to approach with casual interest.

In Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the author acknowledges that neither the Gospels nor their authors were contemporary to Jesus’s life, and that the Gospels were not meant to be historically literal accounts of it. But since there is little else to go by, he analyzes them against what is known about first century Palestine.

Aslan’s thesis is that the historical Jesus led one of a succession of Jewish rebellions and movements against Roman occupiers and corrupt Temple priests. To Jesus, being the messiah would have meant re-establishing the kingdom of David, and ridding his homeland of these malign influences. The fact of his crucifixion meant, in the eyes of contemporaries who weren’t his devotees, that he was not really the messiah. It wasn’t until after the Romans finally crushed the Jewish revolts and destroyed both Jerusalem and the Temple that Jesus’s martyrdom was reinterpreted as “messianic,” and then mostly among non-Jews influenced by Paul of Tarsus.

Aslan dismisses the magical (or miraculous, if you like) stuff, including the resurrection, as a matter of faith and beyond the bounds of historical analysis. So, except to say that magicians weren’t unusual in that place and time, but were considered subversive, he doesn’t take a position on any of it.

I read through Aslan’s extensive endnotes. They are rendered in essay form— something I don’t usually like— but he’s pretty thorough and summarizes opposing viewpoints. I’d love to see this guy’s library. 

In the notes Aslan frequently refers to scholarship suggesting that  the lack of contemporary references means that in his lifetime Jesus was basically a nobody special; just another zealot from the boondocks. It was the Christians of the early church who made him into Christ, an orthodoxy that was only enforced as Christianity became a state religion. Christian beliefs that Jesus was not God were exterminated soon after.

To Des Moines for Wicked

The splash page of the Lonely Planet website is elegantly simple: a search box already filled with an exotic destination like “Macedonia,”  on a background photo depicting one of that destination’s amazing attractions (in Macedonia’s case, a castle perched on a hill).

I sighed, and typed in “Des Moines.”

According to Lonely Planet:

Des Moines, meaning ‘of the monks’ not ‘in the corn’ as the surrounding fields might suggest, is Iowa’s snoozy capital. The town really is rather dull, but does have one of the nation’s best state capitols and state fairs. Pause, but then get out and see the state.

This is a typically sneering assessment and yet, quite accurate.

We had tickets for the Broadway tour of the musical Wicked this afternoon. The Des Moines Civic Center was completely packed for it. Wicked, the book by Gregory Maguire, is one of my favorites. I own it and have read it several times, which was a slight distraction from enjoying the musical, but not too much. There are a lot of layers to contend with, though: the musical is based on Maguire’s book, which in turn is alternate perspective on L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its 1939 film adaptation The Wizard of Oz.

Even though the show starts out like an parallel-universe Victorian Grease, it  eventually takes on the ominous tone of the novel. The songs were very good, though none were truly catchy. The woman who played Glinda was especially funny (she invoked a lot of Carol Kane). Most impressive about the production was the way they used lighting to create patterns and effects. In the scene that concludes the first act, the character Elphaba floats in the dark at the apex of a cone of light beams which make her look giant and supernatural.

Wonder

We never have to wonder anything any more. Whenever I catch myself thinking, “I wonder…” I then have to say, “Oh, yeah. There is a device somewhere within arm’s reach that will find the answer.” It’s empowering and a little depressing: once I wonder about something I am then obliged to look it up and obliterate the mystery.

Alternate history

Though I’ve neglected writing my “book reports,” I’ve been through plenty of books this year, part of an effort to be a little more well-read. Lately I’ve been exploring classic science fiction and one of its sub genres, alternate history. The alternate histories I read this summer and fall are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel, and Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Along with Fatherland by Robert Harris (which I reported on a few years ago) these stories encompassed a formidable spread of approaches to the genre of alternate history.

The Man in the High Castle is set in a United States that lost the Second World War and is divided into puppet states dominated by Germany and Japan. The book’s historical divergence is pretty plausible. The assassination attempt on President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 is successful. The weak and incompetent presidents of the next decade leave the United States unprepared for the coming world war.

The book deals indirectly with how Americans might be disposed toward such an outcome. The Nazis are still bastards, of course, responsible for a monumental holocaust across Africa. Jews and blacks have largely disappeared from the United States, but most of the characters have accommodated themselves to their occupiers. In fact, many Americans express gratitude for the Axis’ extinguishing of world communism. It’s a good reminder that, if not for certain geopolitical calculations, we could have easily ended up on the other side of either world war. The most interesting turn of the plot is the emergence of a popular but subversive alternate history novel that hypothesizes an American and British victory over the Germans and Japanese.

The Years of Rice and Salt is both deep and sprawling . The historical divergence isn’t really plausible— the Black Death of the 14th century wipes out the entire population of Europe (as in, literally, the land between the Urals, Caucuses, Mediterranean, and Atlantic, as if diseases could confine themselves to artificially conceived geographic designations). The characters don’t dwell much on this puzzle; the mysterious plague is simply a handy device for imagining several centuries where Islamic and Chinese civilizations dominate the world.

Robinson’s stories are pretty erudite, steeped in science and philosophy along with history. This can make his books a little know-it-allish and tedious to read, but he constructs a sturdy fictional world for his characters to inhabit. The plot threads its way down the centuries through main characters reincarnated into different periods of world history. The most enjoyable chapter takes place in 17th century Samarkand and chronicles a Muslim gunpowder manufacturer who, under the patronage of the local khan, develops the scientific method as he investigates various natural mysteries.

For Want of Nail is in some ways the most remarkable of the three books. Rather than relate the alternate history through the plot of novel, the book is the alternate history, presented as an academic work, complete with footnotes, bibliography, even a critique by a dissenting historian. The subtitle, “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” is the only evidence of its self-awareness as a work of fiction. The academic conceit of the book makes it a bit of a slog to read through, but I felt it paid off to stick with it.

The historical divergence of For Want of a Nail, as the subtitle suggests, is the British victory in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1778. Which is pretty plausible; there was more than a little luck involved in the War of Independence, which the author wryly illustrates through his pro-loyalist persona. George Washington’s tactical blunders, the fractiousness of the colonies, the unpreparedness of the Continental Army to take on the world mightiest power—  the Revolution seems an ill-conceived adventure in a parallel universe, doesn’t it?

The war lost, moderates in Congress negotiate a settlement with London which reconstitutes the colonies as part of the empire in a Commonwealth-style association, the Confederation of North America, or CNA (the 13 colonies plus the Canadian colonies and the Old Northwest). The surviving rebels and their fellow travelers decamp to the frontier lands of New Spain (paralleling the flight of loyalists to Canada), where they set up their own republic called Jefferson (our Texas). Their leaders co-opt the Mexican Revolution and establish the United States of Mexico, or USM (comprising the territories of Mexico as they were before the Mexican-American War, including California and Arizona).

Some of the early characters are familiar, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Burgoyne, John C. Calhoun, and most importantly Andrew Jackson. But as the timeline progresses, familiar names and events disappear. There is no French Revolution of 1789, no American Civil War, no Second World War; no Napoleon, no Lincoln, no Hitler

The most peculiar development in For Want of a Nail is the rise of a huge multinational corporation, Kramer Associates, which from the California gold rush to dominate Mexico as an vertical industrial monopoly and becomes a world power as a non-state actor, even being the first to develop atomic weapons.

As the CNA and the USM square off in North America, Sobel uses them to play out the dual personality of the United States. The CNA is progressive, egalitarian, peaceful and isolationist, broadly industrialized and prone to quixotic social reforms. The USM is conservative, racially and economically stratified, militaristic, and expansionist. Slavery persists there well into the 20th century, and occasional draconian measures accompany a devolution into authoritarianism and dictatorship.

I also read this summer, as part of a collection of short alternate history stories, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, about life in the United States after Confederate victory at Gettysburg.  By the early 20th century the United States is decrepit and impoverished, at the mercy of predatory foreign interests, including the Confederate States. The main character, an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg, takes his academic investigations to extraordinary.  I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I wish you would read it, along with some of these other stories.

The walking sign

The photograph I most regret not taking was this:

I was driving along Interstate 10 in Mississippi several years ago. The night before someone must have driven a car right into a big highway sign. One of the legs was completely mangled and the other was bent. The sign looked like it had come to life, started walking along the shoulder, and then froze mid-step as if the life had gone out of it as suddenly as it appeared. The highway department fixed the sign before I got around to photographing it.