Thursday, December 14, 2006

Comments on CBC's Recent Article on the Gospel of Judas

http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2006/12/04/judas-scholars.html

Interesting news regarding the famed Gospel of Judas. At least one scholar has suggested the reconstruction and translation of the text is incorrect, and that the gospel depicts Judas as a dupe rather than a hero. This should be seen as a normal part of scholarly debate; in spite of the sensationalism, courtesy of National Geographic, some actual scholarship is involved.

What interests me more is the grossly irresponsible way this article is written (no, not the one you're reading--the CBC one linked above).

Whoever wrote this little article seems to be working on the assumption that the Gospel of Judas carries some kind of special historical weight, as if this document, by virtue of being sensational and by virtue of having been discovered recently, must contain gospel truth. Pardon the expression.

This leads me to speculate that, in many people's imaginations, the strange, especially in regards to the subject of Christianity, is assumed true with little or no critical evaluation. Witness the popularity not only of Dan Brown's novels, but of Dan Brown's ideas. Because Brown proposed strange and on rare occasion unique notions, many are willing to accept them as true history in spite of legions of experts who contradict him.

The contents of the Gospel of Judas have no compelling claim to historical veracity, though the text itself is of course historically important. To show how sf often successfully predicts real events, I refer the reader to George R. R. Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon," a short story remarkable mainly for its clumsy storytelling, though that didn't stop Donald A. Wollheim from reprinting it in The 1980 Annual World's Best SF, probably more because he liked its message than its artistic qualities. In the introduction to that same volume, Wollheim reveals himself to be a remarkably ignorant bigot, regarding people outside the pale of Western civilization as backwards and savage, living meaningless lives because they lack the creature comforts of modern technology. He hints that his bigotry extends even to those within Western civilization if they hold to religious creeds.

At any rate, Martin's space opera centers around a heresy-hunter sent to eliminate a new heresy that reveres Judas Iscariot as a saint. As a premise for a made-up heresy, Martin's idea is obvious and not particularly shocking, but he manages to spice it up. In this version, Judas is king of Babylon, master of dragons, and Jesus' greatest servant. After Jesus gets his legs chewed off (a nice, morbid embellishment), Judas carries him around. There's no traditional betrayal here, though Judas eventually falls out of Christ's favor by sending his dragons on a rampage after the crucifixion. When Jesus rises from the dead, he punishes Judas by making him into the famous Wandering Jew of folklore.

The narrator of Martin's tale hands a copy of this legend to a nonbeliever for comment, who replies that it's entertaining , unique, more interesting than the Bible (Martin clearly thinks highly of himself), and for that reason, apparently, more compelling than Christianity. Here we see, buried in Martin's short story, the same concept--that which pertains to Christianity, if it is novel, and especially if it contains conspiracy theory, is more acceptable to our exotic tastes than anything traditional. Of course, Martin is no more a believer in the Way of Cross and Dragon than is his narrator. The moral of his story, with which he gleefully bludgeons the reader, is that all religions, or at least Christianity (the only religion discussed) are false because their details are too hokey for Martin's tastes. That is, you might as well believe Judas was a dragonmaster as believe Jesus was the Son of God.

This isn't exactly brilliant reasoning. When is a detail in a narrative hokey? When it contradicts Martin's worldview, apparently. It's easy enough to point out absurdities in Martin's own story, if we all get to define our own absurdities. There are some indications that he wrote about Catholicism without researching it, and how about the psychic mutant who shows up for no reason? The philosophical sketchiness, thin plot, klutzy writing, didacticism, and occasional pure venom didn't prevent Martin from picking up a Hugo Award.
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