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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 30, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Early Christianity and Polar Express

As Christmas approaches, it might be worth taking a look at a couple of iconoclastic but scholarly books that examine the roots of both Christianity and Judaism.

Oskar Skarsaune's In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity is a good reminder that you can't really understand the New Testament or the early doctrines of Christianity without recognizing that the early Christians thought of themselves as fulfilling and continuing the prophetic and temple-centered worship of their ancestors.

As Skarsaune points out, "Before Alexander the Great and his program of 'cultural conquest,' there hardly existed any 'ism' in the old world. People defined themselves and their identities mainly by place of origin and ethnic decent" (p. 39). In fact, Judaism may well have been the first religion in the world to spread itself, not by conquest or colonization, but by example and proselytizing.

By Jesus' time, Jews had established colonies throughout the eastern Mediterranean and eastward beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. By their insistence on continuing to live their law despite the local religious practices, they provided the world's first challenge to established churches. And Rome had met the challenge by allowing Jews to be an exception to religious laws throughout the empire.

In fact, in the early anti-Christian persecutions, the victims seem to have been non-Jewish converts to Christianity; those who could prove they were also Jews were exempt -- at least until the Jewish revolts in Palestine ended their special status.

It is too easy for modern scholars and theologians to look at contemporary rabbinical Judaism and assume that today's practices and teachings are essentially identical with the religion of Jesus' time.

But Jesus lived in a time of great fluctuation and transition in Judaism, with many threads and traditions; today's rabbinical Judaism survived because it was the one best equipped to survive the destruction of the temple.

One of the most fascinating points made by Skarsaune is that there was a continuity of Jewish Christianity in the Holy Land. This group might have handed down personal knowledge of the locations of key events in the New Testament, so that perhaps Constantine's mother wasn't just making stuff up when she declared where Calvary and Jesus' tomb were located.

It seems that Hadrian filled in a valley in Jerusalem in order to build a pagan shrine as a symbol of his defeat of the Jews. Later, Constantine had his architects excavate the site down to the original ground, and built two churches, which are now incorporated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Now, it's possible that they decided to build the churches there and, in excavating, discovered a hill that was a likely candidate for Golgotha and a cave that might be the tomb -- quite by chance.

But Skarsaune raises the intriguing possibility that the local Christian community remembered that Hadrian's landfill had covered up those spots, and that was why Constantine's architects excavated there in the first place.

Throughout the book, however, Skarsaune is very careful to recognize the limitations of the information he is working from. He raises possibilities and explodes myths, but seems never to make claims beyond what the evidence can justify.

Margeret Barker's The Great Angel: A Study of Israel's Second God is from an earlier scholarly tradition -- she wanders through the evidence with the freewheeling majesty of, say, J.G. Frazer's The Golden Bough or most of Hugh Nibley's books on ancient religion.

The result is a thrilling but highly speculative ride. While Barker recognizes the impossibility of finding proof of any of her hypotheses, she does have the natural human tendency to build a house of cards: This might be true, and so might that, and if they're both true, then this third thing might also be true, which might lead to this other thing being somewhat more likely ... and so on.

As long as you keep the limitations of the method in mind (and, like Skarsaune, Barker never claims to have proven what she merely wonders about), The Great Angel makes fascinating reading.

Barker, like Skarsaune, dismisses most of the "higher critics" of the Bible as useless, because they make radical but unconscious assumptions that lead them to conclusions about early Christianity and early Judaism that simply don't fit the documentary evidence.

One of the key assumptions is that, because modern Judaism and early Christianity are so radically different -- Judaism being rigidly monotheistic and Christianity having that troublous doctrine of Jesus-as-God -- there must have been a period of evolution between the crucifixion and the identification of Jesus as God.

They even assume that this deification is the result of Greek influence on Christian thinking.

Barker finds this highly unlikely -- the Greeks were far more disposed to monotheism than were ordinary Jews. And the common people seem to have preserved a lively and ancient tradition of several gods or near-gods that would have allowed them to recognize Jesus and the Holy Ghost as divine beings right from the start.

If Barker is right, then there was no transition, and Christianity was not "invented" by Paul; instead, it was the fulfilment of an ancient tradition that the "Deuteronomists" had tried to obliterate centuries before, and the Sadducees and Pharisees had to take into account during Jesus' time.

Barker enumerates many tantalizing hints of El-Elyon as God the Father and Jehovah (to avoid using the name sacred to Jews) as his son, the "angel" that was the "Lord" that the prophets and patriarchs were believed to have seen.

A third personage, the possibly-female "Wisdom," who is personified consistently as a female in much of the Wisdom literature, would have provided the figure which the Christians came to call the Holy Ghost, the "other comforter."

Nothing is proven, of course. But the documents she quotes certainly represent real beliefs at the time they were composed, and many of them are known to predate the New Testament and to be contemporaneous with the assumed dates of composition of parts of the Old Testament as well.

Neither scholar is writing in order to explode or support any particular belief system. While no one is immune to being influenced by their pre-existing beliefs, they tie their work to the documents. Sometimes this means they are vague where we might wish for certainty, but I, for one, found it refreshing to read books without dogmatic certainties -- I've heard far too many of those from "theologians" who often spout off about how Abraham didn't exist and Paul invented Christianity.

*

Polar Express won't come out for nearly a year -- it's slated for November of 2004. But they're running a trailer for it now, just so you won't get confused and think any of this year's Christmas movies is worth a fig.

I had a chance to talk with Doug Chiang, whose animation studio is responsible for the brilliant work on this film. What you see in the trailer is only the tip of the iceberg; this adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's book is going to be everything we might have hoped for.

Van Allsburg isn't easy to adapt to film. His books are slim -- the standard 32 pages of the picture book form. And his drawing style and subject matter are so evocative that something delicate is bound to be lost in translating it to film.

It was tried once before, with the live-action Jumanji. I enjoyed that movie a lot, but there was simply no way to keep the texture of Van Allsburg's art or the mysterious ambiguity of his story in a realistically-photographed film.

So perhaps animation -- with an artist of Doug Chiang's enormous talent matching and augmenting what Van Allsburg's 32 pages didn't show.

An interesting footnote: Chiang's team went to Van Allsburg's hometown and discovered that in his books he is largely recreating the neighborhood where he grew up. For the film, they created a three-dimensional computerized model of that neighborhood (not to mention one made of folded paper) so that when Van Allsburg sees this movie, he really will be going home again.

I don't usually use this column to tout my own work, but since Doug Chiang and I collaborated on the book Robota, it's impossible to recommend his art without also recommending my text.

Our goal was to create an art book with text, in which the text was actually worth reading -- a rare thing in art books. Whether we succeeded you'll have to decide for yourselves. But at least take a look at Chiang's wonderful art. Responsible for some of the best work coming out of Industrial Light and Magic in years past, Chiang is now out on his own, and it won't be long before he's a major player in animated film. Robota itself has a good chance of being a ground-breaking movie and computer game, and this book is your first chance to look at the action.

*

The strangest of all possible Christmas cds has to be Toolbox Christmas by Woody Phillips. He really does perform standard carols using tools -- both electric and acoustic -- you might find in your own garage. And you know what? You can almost stand to listen to it. For fun. Once.

And the sentimental sound of the Irish Tenors works for many of the songs on their We Three Kings album. But why did they include "America the Beautiful" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" on a Christmas cd? American Christians are usually patriotic, and many American patriots are also Christian, but does anybody really feel the need for a fusion of the two musical traditions?

*

If, by some remote chance, you happen to be in the Los Angeles area early in December, it's worth buying tickets to a fine production of Ernest in Love, a delightful musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest. It plays at least through mid-December at the Fremont Centre Theatre in Pasadena, a 99-seat "Equity Waiver" house -- which means they can pay union actors less than union minimums for a limited run of a play. (That's what makes productions like this financially possible.)

The music is appropriate to the time -- it sounds more like Gilbert and Sullivan than Broadway, and the lyrics are appropriately intricate and clever. I had never thought Ernest needed to be a musical, but this production convinced me that at least the music does no harm.

And the performers are wonderful. We often think of New York as the epitome of excellence in American theatre, but it's worth remembering that a lot of first-rate actors are in L.A., trying to get into movies -- and in the meanwhile, there they are as a pool of underpaid talent, happy to do their best work in stage plays in the hope of getting seen by someone "in the business."

In fact, I've often been disappointed by New York actors who phone in their performances (one thinks of Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun). Nobody in Ernest phoned anything in.

And if you happen to go to a Sunday matinee, you might have a chance to see a scheduled performance by an understudy in the role of Cecily -- who happened to play Gwendolyn in my own production of the play in Greensboro a couple of years ago.


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