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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.