If you’ve read the book, please post a review

If you’ve read The Gospel According to the Romans, you would do me a great favor (or favour) by posting a comment on Amazon.

An honest expression of opinion about the value of a book is always welcome.

A one-sentence (even one-word) review is better than nothing, although the most useful for a writer is probably to hear two things you liked and two things you didn’t like about the book. I find this also makes it easier to express the “didn’t like” side.

The place to go for the Kindle edition is http://amazon.com/dp/B006L80G8Q

or, for the paperback version, the address is apparently

http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-According-Romans-non-believers/dp/1456407082/?pf_rd_mnb=ATVPDKIKX0D34&pf_rd_stb=center-2&pf_rd_rat=0817NMRY4ZRQZM6P18TH&pf_rd_t3r=101&pf_rd_ptd=470938631&pf_rd_ied=507846&tag=buaazs-20&pf_rd_ptd=470938631&pf_rd_ied=507846

For the UK, of course, the addresses are identical except for .co.uk instead of .com

There are no reviews yet from the UK sites, but they post the US reviews. However the reviews are different between paperback and Kindle.

And if you haven’t read the book yet, The Kindle “look inside” will take you all the way to Chapter Three for free – map and timeline included.

The Transfiguration – just a bloody meeting

The Transfiguration is one of those classic iconic and apparently pointless events in the gospels. Jesus is up a mountain with a couple of the disciples, and Moses and Elijah show up to talk with him. Jesus’ clothes shine brightly (that’s the Transfiguration) and Peter in his spontaneous fashion suggests building tabernacles (tents or huts) for them. A voice from the clouds is interpreted as saying “This is my beloved son, listen to him.”

Another unjustifiably airy-fairy Jesus story

Paintings have developed a tradition to show Jesus and the other two floating around in the air. Is there any textual justification for this? None. (Aside: This is exactly how myths develop: one person hears a story, wants it to be dramatic, fleshes the untold details out in their own mind, and then adds them as fact when they present the story – without even realizing they’re making changes.) Changes regarding a hero’s story tend to exaggerate and glorify, so you can discount some of the frills. But there’s probably a commonsense basis for the story.

Here’s how I tell it in “The Gospel According to the Romans”. First, it’s nighttime, full moon, but overcast. They go up into the mountain without Jesus telling them why. Then he tells them to hold back and goes alone into a clearing, where two Zealot leaders named (or code-named) Moses and Elijah come out and discuss their plans for the attempt to take over the Temple at Passover. (These disciples aren’t privy to this; they were the fishermen Simon Peter, James and John, not the Zealots Judas and Simon Zealotes.)

The full moon comes out from behind the clouds, and catches Jesus’ face and his white robes, making them shine dramatically. There is a roll of thunder. You can make thunder say whatever you want it to say – Eliot records it speaking Sanskrit in The Wasteland. Simon Peter babbles, not untypically.

Going back down the mountain, Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until they’ve seen a man raised from the dead. In other words, not until he has done his Lazarus trick (which they don’t know anything about) which will be right before Passover at Jerusalem. At that point it won’t matter if anything they’ve heard gets out, the uprising to take control of the Temple will be about to happen anyway, and it will be too late for the Roman Legion to stop it…

So, what do you think? Plausible? Or you prefer the floating-around-in-the-air version?

Spies need pockets

When you’re writing something like “The Gospel According to the Romans” with its cloaks and daggers, your hero is bound to have the need to hide various items on himself, and his adversaries are going to have weapons stashed on themselves. This would be very easy in cyberpunk, the outfits are so elaborate, with belts and buttons and flaps and pockets all over the place. But what about Ancient Rome and Israel when your clothes were a simple toga, or a basic robe, or possibly a short tunic with a belt?

Robes can certainly have pockets

And then I noticed – being in Saudi Arabia these days – that all the robes have pockets, both men’s thobes and women’s abayas. Where else can people keep their keys and cash and cell phones? How long has this been going on? What is the history of the pocket?

The most succinct yet engaging history of the pocket – though with a very European bias – comes from columnist Jeff Elder, writing in 2004:

In Europe, common people began to exchange coins for goods and services toward the end of the Middle Ages. By the 13th century, many kings, princes, dukes, bishops and free cities minted their own coins.

So people needed someplace to carry their coins. The first pockets were small purses hung on one’s belt. You might’ve seen these in Robin Hood books and movies or Renaissance costumes.

But pockets on the outside of one’s clothes were easy to pick, or swipe altogether. One slice with a knife could cut the drawstrings and your money was gone.

So people started hanging their pocket-purses inside their pants. This made it tough for criminals to get at their money. It also made it difficult for the rightful owners to get at the money. To buy something you’d virtually have to drop your trousers and moon the entire marketplace.

So many people made a simple slit that enabled them to reach through their clothes and into their purses, which were still pouches hung around their waists.

But saddling yourself up with the purse before you put on your clothes was a hassle. And in the late 1700s, tailors and family seamstresses began to sew pockets right into trousers and dresses.

In  other words, it seems unlikely that you can use pockets for hiding anything in a Roman era novel. Yes, coins were common then; but the most you can assume is that a few people kept precious things in a bag round their neck or on a belt round their waist (under their clothes), just as backpackers do today when in unsafe lands.

Oh well, no pockets anyway. So unless anyone can tell me better, it’s back to the vague claim that “he hid it in his robes”…

Unasked questions: Who owned 2,000 pigs?

The oddest story in the Gospels is surely the one about the Gadarene Swine. It is so odd that many Christians don’t know it, and of those who do, many think is a parable. But it isn’t. Slightly different versions of the story (of course) are found in Matthew 8, Mark 5, and Luke 8.

Jesus killing 2,000 pigs

Jesus is in the countryside going toward Gadara (east of the River Jordan). A madman comes out of some tombs. He says his name is Legion, because he has many devils in him. Jesus commands the devils to leave him. The devils ask to go into some other being, so as not to go back to the abyss of hell. Jesus kindly sends them into a nearby herd of pigs. The 2,000 pigs rush over a cliff into the sea and are killed while the swineherds run away. The madman is cured. Jesus and whoever was with him carry on to Gadara. People come from Gadara, upset with Jesus, and tell him he isn’t welcome there. Jesus goes somewhere else, telling the healed man to talk about what he has seen.

So who would have owned 2,000 pigs? A Jew? No.

A non-Jewish farmer, maybe a Greek immigrant with a cow and an acre of land? Of course not.

Or is the answer in the madman’s name, Legion? It’s a part of the Roman Legion’s food supply, then.

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” this event is a strike by Jesus against the Romans occupying the Holy Land. A Zealot action against our friends the Legio X Fretensis. I can’t think of a more plausible interpretation.

And we have a deliberately garbled version of the story in the gospels, because the story was too well-known to be ignored. Paul’s pro-Roman revisionism did its best to disguise it.

So forget “Jesus meek and mild”. You may have seen pictures of Jesus tenderly holding a little lamb, but have you ever seen him cuddling a piglet?

Magical thinking and the Star of Bethlehem

The trouble with the Star of Bethlehem story is that stars are not what they appear to be to children and the uneducated. Yes, they look like fireflies or distant candles, and therefore can be imagined to float through the air like glowing fairies to hover over a house and point it out as special. Maybe they can think. Talk. Smile.

A star. (Note: not entirely credible, scientifically...)

However, being a minimum of 25,000 times the mass of our planet, this isn’t something that they can actually do. They only look like fireflies because they’re trillions of miles away. They’re pretty big, really.

Humans are designed for pattern recognition, and to seek out cause and effect, and to think visually, and to construct explanatory narratives and stories. “Sing me a song! Tell me a story! Read me a book!” A simple story is the most effective way to communicate an abstract concept – that’s why Jesus told parables. But this excellent intellectual tool of ours also has a downside: when our perception is limited or our understanding is incomplete, we use imagination to fill the gap. And our imagination springs from the dream world, not the physical world.

So we have no difficulty with the idea of Santa visiting all the world’s children in a single night. Or with the idea that, if we just get into the right frame of mind, we will be able to hear speech (in our own language!) from animals and trees. Or that we could walk around on the clouds if we could jump up there. Or that when people and animals die and get buried they are still around, you can still see them and talk with them under the right conditions. Or that we can influence the future with a rhyme or a ritual, control dice with a thought or a wish, produce rain by prayer…

We are born with that magical view of the world. It is very effective in keeping us optimistic, healthy, social and creative. Internally, it works. But externally? Sadly deficient.

Enjoy the stories that resonate with you, think about the images that feel powerful, give thanks (to the power of evolution) for the songs and landscapes that you love… but don’t conflate internal emotional power with external physical reality. Carlos Castaneda never turned into a crow, no matter how much peyote he consumed. There is no Easter Bunny. Nor angels, nor talking snakes, nor people ascending up in the air to live in “heaven”.

And regardless of how vivid your imagination is, nothing that has 25,000 times the mass of the Earth is going to hover over a house. Not in the real world. Sorry.

For Writers: ABNA 2012 is now open!

If you have a fiction manuscript, unpublished or self-published, ready to go… Then check out ABNA 2012.

ABNA - open now until Feb 5th.

No fee to enter, you’ll be forced to clean up your act about 300-word pitches and descriptions, you might get a professional review from Publisher’s Weekly, you might get a listing on Amazon… and you might even get published by Penguin.

Of course ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ is in already. There are only 5,000 General Fiction slots (and another 5,000 Young Adult).

So hurry, hurry, hurry!

And if there is a better competition out there, please let the rest of us know!

What’s this blog all about, anyway?

This blog is a marmalade – sweet and sour boiled together, both rind and juicy bits.

Jesus was not a pacifist.

  • It’s a blog for the ideas of my novel. The novel looks at Jesus in the context of the constant uprisings against the Roman Occupation that began 100 years before his preaching, and went on for 100 years afterwards… until the Romans finally leveled Jerusalem, and killed or enslaved and deported all the Jews, and banned them from the replacement city of Aelia Capitolina.
  • It lets you read Jesus’ words and actions with the awareness that his “greatest commandment” is to recite the Shema, the fundamental Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel,”) – and practicing Jews do it multiple times a day. It’s Judaism 101. Jesus wanted Israel to turn back to the Covenant with God, and get rid of the idolatrous, beard-shaving, pig-eating Westerners who were marching around the country without bothering to learn the language.
  • Yes, it makes comparisons with modern Western invasions and occupations.
  • So it carries all my grudges against the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Blair destruction of Iraq in the hope of oil money and imperial glory. 100 million of us around the world had protested and pointed out that it was going to lead to nothing but death, destruction and economic catastrophe at home and abroad. And here we are.
  • It also carries the ironies of the current Westernized Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the cynical and heavy-handed Israeli destruction of the people who have been indigenous there for the past 2,000 years… a repetition of how the Jews slaughtered all the Canaanites and others who had been living in the area before Moses came along.
  • So I think Moses was a genocidal barbarian (Deuteronomy 20: 16-18).
  • And Jesus was a Jew, and more in tune with Osama bin Laden than anyone else.
  • And St. Paul was an epileptic visionary who created Christianity out of a mishmash of Judaism, Mithraism, and bits of Egyptian and Roman mythologies and practices.
  • And I have no respect for any monotheist who believes the earth was created in the past 10,000 years, or thinks the tribal legends of illiterate herdsmen have relevance for government policy today.
  • Does anyone really believe the first chapter of Genesis, when it says that God created day and night on the first day… and then made the sun and moon on the fourth day? What I believe is that we live in a universe of a billion galaxies, each with a billion suns – and someone who can’t even figure out the relationship between daylight and sunshine is to be treated seriously?
  • As for what the creative force behind a billion galaxies looks like, who knows. Call it God if you want… but where did it come from? Why is there anything at all?
  • And I love polytheist mythologies, and they speak to the soul’s images and poetry and inner health – but they’re not literally true.
  • And I loathe people who use religion as nothing but a way to make money, or to grab power. And I loathe people who use politics in that way, too. So I doubly loathe hypocritical politicians who mouth religious crap.
  • But oh how I love it all, at the same time! What a planet! Unbelievable natural beauty and works of art, and the most appalling destruction and massacres, planet-wide pollution, and greed and ignorance. But what can you expect of a planet of 7 billion heavily-armed apes? Humans are simply mind-boggling, stumbling through the dark like reckless two-year-olds.

By the way, it’s also a blog for the novel itself. With links to the trade paperback and to the Kindle edition. But don’t expect to find all the blog’s ideas in the novel – it’s just a contrarian (realistic, commonsense) retelling of an old story from the point of view of, yes, the Western occupation. And yes, Jesus was crucified. No, he didn’t come back from the dead. So, do you want to see how he did all those miracles?

Scientology’s wacky SciFi “creation myth”

L. Ron Hubbard roughed out the story that became Scientology’s equivalent of the Garden of Eden narrative: how evil came to the Earth, and what we have to do to become pure. Read about it here.

Hubbard's notes for the oddball story that now underpins Scientology

Xenu, the Head of the Galactic Confederation, solved a massive overpopulation problem on his 75 planets some 95 million years ago by bringing people to Earth, putting them in volcanoes, and detonating H Bombs in the volcanoes. (How very 1950s!) This has emotionally scarred us (even if don’t remember it) throughout all our subsequent reincarnations, and only by remembering the details (including time and place) of traumatic events (including in past lives) can we cleanse ourselves of the trauma and return to being spiritual creatures who can control the physical world around us…

Other traumatic experiences, according to this page on The Beliefs and Teachings of Scientology, include “attempted abortions and other fetal traumas, acts of torture and violence experienced both as victim and as perpetrator, encounters with the Marcab Confederacy and various Invader Forces from spacefaring Galactic civilizations, life on earth as a clam,” etc.

Your past goes back billions of years. The cost of having Scientology help you clean it up, all the way back to the clams, may well be $500,000 or so.

Good luck.

Unasked questions: Sunlight

Creates Light, and Day and Night, in Day 1... doesn't create Sun and Moon until Day 4.

How can I have been in and around the Bible for decades, and never noticed the totally bizarre concepts in the first chapter of Genesis?

I don’t mean the impossible ideas of later chapters – not the talking snake, not the angels having sex with “the daughters of men”, not the assumption that every animal species on earth lived within walking distance of Noah’s ark… those ideas may be unscientific, preliterate, and so on, but they’re not as mind-bogglingly irrational as this:

“And God said, Let there be light… and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Genesis 1: 3-5.

“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night… And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also… And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.” Genesis 1: 14-19.

I’m still pondering this! Day 1: he makes Light, and Day and Night, and morning and evening. (Day 2, he makes heaven and sea and earth. Day 3, he makes grasses and fruit trees.) Then, on Day 4, he makes the sun, moon and stars…?!?

How could even an unscientific, preliterate, myth-creating narrator come up with something as nonsensical as that? (If Day and daylight are independent of the Sun, does the author of Genesis think that it is purely coincidental that daylight and the appearance of the Sun occur together?) Or how could even the worst story-reteller garble a narrative that badly in writing it down? And how the hell can ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible as we have it today is literal fact?

(And how could I have created a skeptical protagonist like Matthew in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’, and omitted to have him question Jesus on the believability of Genesis? No wonder there are no surviving dialogues of Jesus with Greek philosophers, they would have destroyed him! I may have to add a couple of sentences to the novel.)

Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.