The curious incident of Elementary, Left Behind, and the paradox of ‘Bible prophecy’

I’m enjoying Elementary, the new detective show on CBS featuring Sherlock Holmes in contemporary New York City.

The cast and the writing are quite fun so far. The creators of the medical drama House have said that the show was conceived as Sherlock Holmes in the medical profession, and there’s a bit of Hugh Laurie’s House in Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes (which I see as a good thing).

Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a larger-than-life character, but compared to some other successful TV detective series — like CBS’ CSI franchise — Elementary seems almost realistic. Holmes’ super-human powers of observation and deduction may not be strictly realistic, but I’m happy to embrace that as just part of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original premise. But there is one recurring aspect of the show that seems wholly unreal and that can be jarring every time it comes up. Elementary, it turns out, is not really set in contemporary New York City, but rather in some parallel-universe version of contemporary New York in which no one has ever heard of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The setting is not really New York in 2012, but New York in 2012 as if Conan Doyle’s iconic stories had never existed.

That’s not a huge difference, but we’re constantly reminded of it when watching Elementary. Every time Sherlock Holmes is introduced as “Sherlock Holmes” and people respond without a hint of recognition, we’re confronted with the difference between the world of the show and our own world. Here in our world — the real world — everyone knows that name. Sherlock Holmes is not merely famous, he’s proverbial. “No [kidding], Sherlock,” we say, sarcastically invoking the fictional detective as the universally recognized epitome of deductive brilliance.

That’s the paradoxical problem in all stories like this. In order to present a setting in which Sherlock Homes can seem real, that setting cannot allow for the existence of the fictional Holmes. And a world without the fictional Holmes can never seem wholly familiar or real.

This paradox is not an insurmountable problem for Elementary which is, again, quite fun and entertaining.

But a variation of that same paradox is a far greater problem for stories like the one Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins tell in their best-selling “End Times” thriller Left Behind and its sequels. That story, LaHaye and Jenkins insist, is more than simply a diverting bit of entertainment. It is, they say, a depiction of “Bible prophecy” — an attempt to portray real events that really will, and must, occur here in the real world in which we now live.

I suppose such a claim was more plausible back in the early 20th century, when Cyrus Scofield was first madly scribbling the footnotes of his “prophetic” reference Bible. Back then, one could have read those footnotes in the first editions of Scofield’s annotated Bible and imagined that his “prophecies” might come true. The deceptive rise of the Antichrist’s rule over an unsuspecting world might have at least seemed theoretically possible.

But that deception and that unsuspecting world are necessary ingredients in Scofield’s story — and in the same story as later repackaged and re-sold by popularizers like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye. But due to the enormous storytelling success of Scofield, Lindsey and LaHaye, this blissfully unsuspecting world no longer exists. The deception integral to their story could no longer occur as they “prophesy” it must.

Just as Elementary requires the conceit of a world in which the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle never existed, so too the fulfillment of these “Bible prophecies” would require a world in which the Scofield Bible, The Late Great Planet Earth, and Left Behind never existed.

That’s not a big problem for Elementary, since enjoying that show does not require one to believe it’s a true story. But since the central claim of Left Behind, et. al., is that these are — or will be — true stories, this paradox is a much bigger problem for them.

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  • That’s totally not true, because shut up.

  • Jurgan

    Darths and Droids has dealt with this problem.  The premise of the comic is that people are playing an RPG that turns into Star Wars, in a world where Star Wars never existed.  They tackle what that would mean for the world if there were no Star Wars here:      Read the text at the bottom, then click the link and keep following it- it just keeps getting funnier.

  • Bificommander

    I was recently wondering if the Rapture-stories are well known enough and/or PMD Christians have visited Jewish settlers enough, that the leadership of Israel would automatically reject any treaty that comes with a seven year expiration date. If they really like the treaty, they might send it back with a note saying  “How about we make that 8 years?”

  • Fusina

     You…you utterly heartless bastard…like I didn’t have enough time sinks in my life…

  • Kirala

     Darths and Droids is quite interestingly realistic in that link, but less and less plausible (and IMHO less and less clever) the further back one follows the linkage – which doesn’t stop me in the least from counting down the D&D comics till the next divisible-by-50 triggers another layer of silliness.

  • D9000

    But, but, only Real True Christians know about Jesus!!!! Jack Chick told us!!!

  • Evan

    … Which will pose no problem for the real antichrist, who’s anti-keeping-treaties and all that, when he proposes a Treaty of Eternal Peace and Friendship and keeps quite quiet on his plans to break it in 3.5 or 7 years.  (Bwa-ha-ha!)

  • MaryKaye

    There is a beautiful throwaway detail in Sean Stewart’s _Resurrection Man_ (spoilers ahead, though not plot spoilers):

    The book is set in a modern-day Awakening world–that is, magic has recently returned.  The protagonist and family are chatting over breakfast and talk turns to _Star Wars_.  One character comments that it’s the perfect example of a movie that could not have been made without the Awakening:  that its tone and themes are perfectly reflections of the changes in the world.  

  • Pa1morecast

    No one on TV shows ever refers to other TV shows they might have watched. A CSI character never says “Did you see the Colombo rerun last night?”. And hardly any TV scenes ever show characters watching TV.

  • rrhersh

    We have much the same discussion back in college, playing a superheroes role playing game where the players played themselves, but with super-powered alter egos.   Did superhero comics exist in this game universe?  The answer would establish a lot of expectations and reactions from the NPCs.

    In a sense, any extended series set in the present day has the same problem.  James Bond exists in a world with no James Bond books or movies.  For that matter, inasmuch as the world of the more recent films resembles the real world, they exist in a world where the earlier exploits of James Bond never happened.  It is inconceivable that the world of the early 21st century could come out of the world of the earlier Bond films, even if we discreetly overlook Moonraker.

    The same happened with Tom Clancy’s novels (through the point where I stopped reading them).  He started out thirty years ago with a contemporary world, but ended up with an alternate history timeline.  The later books sporadically hit a de facto reset button, pretending that both his alternate history and the real world history had occurred, while avoiding thinking too hard about this.

  • cjmr

    Cheers used to have the characters watching TV in the bar.  Sometimes what they were watching even drove the plot.

    Law and Order and Numb3rs and other of that type of show sometimes have victims watching TV when they are killed (or whatever).  At least two of the episodes of Numb3rs had watching live-streaming video of a crime in progress as a plot element.

    In general they don’t show the screen of the TV, though, unless the show being shown on the TV during the show is from the same network/production house.

  • Ross Thompson

    In the BBC series Sherlock (set in modern-day  London), there’s a moment when Sherlock is becoming famous. As he leaves a crime scene, he grabs a deerstalker off a hatstand, to shield himself from the reporters outside. A picture of him in a deerstalker appears on the front page of every newspaper in London.

    He goes on to complain about how everyone always expects him to be wearing a deerstalker now, and Watson points out that “It’s not a deerstalker any more; it’s a Sherlock Holmes hat”.

    Fortunately, they didn’t make the deerstalker a part of his outfit, but it was nice to see it referenced like that.

  • GeniusLemur

    Or it could actually make things easier, when the horseman rides forth and the PMDers and uninformed people get behind him, because everybody knows the antichrist will talk about unity and peace and stuff, so this “conquerer, bent on conquest” can’t be the antichrist, right?

    (This, of course, assumes that there’s anything Biblical at all to antichrist lore, which is rubbish.)

  • Another thing: Enough of the “Mark of the Beast” paramoia has circulated into the mainstream that a dead giveaway for an Antichrist, if Revelation is to be interpreted for our times and not for ancient Rome’s, would be to demand that something on the forehead or the right hand become necessary to continue to use the world financial system.

    The very “revelation” of the way Biblical Prophecy folks think has, in a sense, invalidated their predictions because even non-believers would, by sheer weight of the evidence mounting up, find themselves startng to believe that the Bible is true and by extension, that the God and Jesus of that Bible are real.

  • AnonymousSam

    Distantly related, but I swear this is why whenever there’s a movie about zombies, vampires, werewolves or any other kind of mythological creature appearing in modern day Earth, there will inevitably be a terrified argument about “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?!” in which the relevant word is never uttered.

    TVTropes calls this GenreBlindness.

  • histrogeek

     BBC’s Sherlock does make a lot of winks at the audience regarding Sherlock Holmes’ mythology while pointing out the obvious absurdity of some Holmes conceits in modern London (like nicotine patches instead of pipes, using the word “hound,” and the deerstalker hat).

  • Albanaeon

    If I were a plotting evil semi-demon, I would go forward with the Apocalypse According to Frank*.  Something no one’s heard of and relying on the general populace to assume that John’s is the script. 

    *or something.  There were a number of Apocalypses written.

  • scifantasy

    Fringe went (appropriately) off the walls with this one. On the one hand, there were episodes of The X-Files on TV screens (and also references to The West Wing, which is more impressive because that’s cross-network). On the other, there have been a few references to “X-designation” FBI files, suggesting that the X-Files exist in the universe.

    (Of course, Fringe also has the benefit of featuring three alternate timelines, at least.)

  • Steve Morrison

     There was one All in the Family episode where someone mentioned Minneapolis and Edith said, “Oh, where Mary Tyler Moore loses her hat”.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    No one on TV shows ever refers to other TV shows they might have watched.

    One notable exception is an episode of the Sopranos where Uncle Junior, suffering from dementia, sees Larry David and Jeff Garlin on Curb Your Enthusiasm and thinks he is watching himself and Bobby Baccala.

    Also, the characters on NBC’s Thursday night comedies seem partial to Mad Men, The Wire and Game of Thrones.

  • Münchner Kindl

     I too get annoyed when a character in a TV show is too genre-blind.

    But on the other hand, I would not accept meeting a zombie or a werewolf or a vampire (sparkling or standard) in real life – because they can’t exist. They violate physics or biology or medicine or common sense. It’s an actor dressed up or somebody playing a trick.

    For the same reason, the Rapture and TurboJesus can’t exist, because theology (from the Bible) tells us that Jesus isn’t returning as TurboJesus to kill and torture people, and that even if a Rapture took place, God wouldn’t be such a sadist to allow plane crashes etc.

    So despite having read enough typically stories of this genre, I would refuse to believe this happen in real life, and wait for Amazing Randi or Mythbusters to tell us what’s really going on.

  • D9000

    Is The Big Bang Theory one of those Thursday night shows, as the characters in that reference other TV shows all the time. Sheldon is notorious for hating Babylon 5, the tasteless git.

  • Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) pulled off a subtle reference to Joss Whedon’s Sci Fi portfolio in a recent episode without looking too smug :)

  • Magic_Cracker

    While I very much enjoy the character of Sherlock Holmes, I’m not the biggest fan of the updates, reinventions, and rip-offs of the character, whether they go by the name “Sherlock Holmes” or not (i.e., Greg House, Gil Grissom, Bruce Wayne, etc.)  I much prefer detectives like Colombo or Barbara Havers (from Elizabeth’s George’s “Lynley” novels) who doggedly pursue a case, even when others tell them the case is solved (I’m looking at you DCI Lynley), tallying what suspects say against what the evidence suggests until the guilty party is exposed by their own lies.

  • Becca Stareyes

     To be fair, if my friends came up against a zombie/vampire/werecritter/etc. there’d probably be an argument about ‘okay what sort of undead monster was it’/’virus zombies or supernatural zombies’/’which vampire rules is this playing by’?  The problem with pop culture monster identification is that everyone wants to put their own spin on the classic until you get creatures like the Twilight vampires (which, importantly, seem to be immune to most of the normal vampire killing tricks, and have a lot of Obvious Signs that no other vampire has). 

    Once we got past the THOSE AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE REAL discussion, of course. 

  • There’s a nice wink to this kind of thing in DIARY OF THE DEAD; in a world without zombie movies as cheap horror flicks with occasional social commentary, there is instead an apparent boom in mummy movies.

  • fraser

    Funny, I see plenty of vampire movies where people are familiar about vampires, even if they don’t believe in them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    No one on TV shows ever refers to other TV shows they might have watched.

    Watch a couple episodes of The Big Bang Theory sometime. Or Community. Or Supernatural.

  • There is a surreal bit in Green Acres, the characters talk about “The Beverly Hillbillies” program and actor Buddy Ebsen, yet are nonplussed when the real Clampetts stop by their town.

  • Jenny Islander

    One of those “magic was just shut off  for a while and then it was turned back on” series–like Shadowrun, but lighter and fluffier–features superhero comics almost exclusively written by Jews whose particular denomination forbids magic use.  So you can still read The Adventures of Superman and Detective Comics while you’re locked in your saferoom waiting for the full moon to turn you into a werewolf.

    S.M. Stirling wrote an alternate history novel set in the late 20th century, in which the Earth was struck by an asteroid during the reign of Queen Victoria, ushering in several years of Fimbulwinter in the Northern Hemisphere.  Her Majesty and most of the government fled to India, where they kept the Empire going.  However, people still read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, because A.E. Conan Doyle also escaped and spend the rest of his life writing nostalgic escapist fiction.

  • fraser

    I don’t think it’s as bit a problem for Elementary as The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a TV pilot (failed) of about 20 years ago. Here we have Sherlock Holmes himself thawed out of suspended animation but he fails to recognize the mystery he’s involved with is The Sign of the Four reworked.
    As far as TV goes, Stargate kept referring to a show based on the Stargate program called “Wormhole Extreme” or the like.
    Generally, though, I think “But X isn’t in our world because the TV show X itself doesn’t exist in that TV show!” is kind of a pointless observation.
    Elementary is fun, but it’s as much Monk (mentally troubled but brilliant detective) as it is Arthur Conan Doyle (which is not something I saw about Sherlock).

  • Magic_Cracker

    Hmmm… Mummy movies could provide some much needed social commentary for which zombies aren’t very well suited. I mean, zombies are good for your “mindless hordes of X” commentary where X = communism, consumerism, 9/11 jingoism, etc., but mummies could well represent the 1% whose immortal capital gets passed down generation to generation compounding interest in hoary Swiss vaults, but don’t you dare touch it, ye 99%, lest you awaken the Curse of the Job Creators!

  • xytl

    The mysterious alien wanderer of space and time lands his impossibly powerful vehicle in modern London, where, owing to a minor malfunction in its stealth circuitry, it is disguised as an unremarkable piece of street furniture from some forty or fifty years previously; an article which, nowadays, would attract some comment as a very old fashioned structure that you don’t see many of nowadays.

    Well, it _would_ attract that sort of comment, if it were a universe where _anybody_ in modern London didn’t know the TARDIS when they saw it.

  • I’ve often thought about this issue a lot over the years a comic book fan.  It springs to mind in particular whenever there’s a relaunch, such as last year’s “New 52” from DC, where iconic characters are just now making their debut in their particular version of reality.  

    In the hands of a skilled writer, it could lead to some interesting plot developments and worldbuilding concepts.  I mean, what was the DC Universe of the New 52 like for the 70+ years in which there was no Superman?  How radically did it diverge from our reality where the character has become deeply embedded in our culture?
    Of course, these are the sort of things I think about when I’m not actually reading and getting engaged by the stories in the comics, so they don’t interfere with my enjoyment. On the contrary, in my post-reading time I find such thought experiments to be an interesting diversion.

    There are times, however, when there can be a sort of jarring reminder of the disconnect between this reality and the alternate reality.  For example, while it was a nice winking nod to the popular culture of the time, there was a period in the 90s in which Jimmy Olsen could be seen in the pages of Superman wearing a Spin Doctors T-shirt.  That sort of made me wonder what the Spin Doctor songs were like in the DCU.  I mean, Superman, Jimmy, and Lois were all relatively famous in-universe, so it’s possible there would be songs about them, but even so, it was something that gave me pause.

    (Sometimes I also wonder about whether or not the song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” exists at all in the DCU, since it would predate the appearance of Superman by decades, or if it exists in a slightly different form.)

  • John

     There have been numerous winks and nods to “Firefly” on “Castle.”

  • AnonymousSam

    Yeah, that’s actually an example of comical GenreSavvy, not what I’m thinking of. I’ve seen a lot of movies where the characters aren’t just disbelieving about vampires/zombies (usually zombies), they’re completely ignorant. Apparently they dwell within worlds where supernatural creatures aren’t just mythological, but the myths themselves don’t exist.

    Two big scenes are typical, depending on the particular beastie-

    Vampires: The hunted survivors are gathered around a fire and someone utters the words “nosferatu.” No one appears to recognize the word. Someone inevitably asks how you kill them. Cue stunned looks of disbelief as the grizzled veteran/visiting archeologist suggests a stake through the heart or sunlight. None of this will appear to be a familiar idea to them, and they will inevitably die trying to kill the vampire in a different manner, usually involving their bare hands or something as bad.

    Zombies: People eating breakfast with the television on in the background. The talking heads make vague references to the spread of a mysterious disease and a rise in cannibalism-related incidents. Someone switches off the television without even looking at the screen. Later, this same person will empty their gun into the chest and shoulders of a person who is very obviously a walking cadaver and will then utter the words “That’s impossible. What are you?!” before being eaten alive. People will later talk about this incident as when “one of those… things” killed him.

    In both cases, expect at least one person to be killed in front of everyone and then to rise from the dead again, and for only one person in the room to understand that the disorganized shuffling, groaning, “hungrrrry glarrrggh” person is not miraculously alive and well.

  • Worthless Beast

    I figured that was why Carpathia had magic mind-powers.  Magic like that was necessary for his deception of the masses  – he hyphotizes them with his brain and Satan so that any one of them who’s ever watched Jack Van Impe or one of those guys or culturally absorbed any of the End Times rhetoric would forget it and just follow the magic-man… or something.

  • AnonymousSam

    Clearly you have spent less time on the Syfy channel than me and are to be lauded for that fact.

  • [ the disorganized shuffling, groaning, “hungrrrry glarrrggh” person is not miraculously alive and well. ]
    Well, said shuffler could also have just come from the dentist. Novocaine does do that to you, sometimes.

  • It’s rare, but they do; one showrunner (I think it may have been John Rogers from Leverage) complained that he’d wanted to have a character make an offhand reference to a character on another show being related to them, but because that show had someone mention watching his show they were now fictional relative to each other and it wouldn’t work.

  • Ross Thompson

    Actually, we should probably also mention Once Upon A Time, in which the principal characters are refugees from a land of fairy tales (Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, King Midas, Jiminy Cricket…)living in a small town in Maine, but in which these fairy tales are well known, and where understanding someone’s story can be vital to figuring out what they’re up to…

  • Tangentially one amusing thing about Doctor Who is it apparently takes place in a universe where Doctor Who (the tv show) apparently exists (or did at one point) and no one ever notices. At least if we believe the meta reference in Remembrance of the Daleks. It also apparently takes place in the same universe as Quatermass.

    And the Master likes children’s TV. X-D

  • flat

    I have said before I am not a gamer and I only follow playthroughs.

    But if there is one videogame that is capable of making me smile watching it: then it would be kid icarus uprising.
    I must admit that playing as an angel fighting against underworld army, the forces of nature, and against his own goddess can be an incredible dark game.
    Yet it is funny in a look at me: I am videogame breaking the fourth wall all the time kind of way.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    I was actually thinking of Ben and Leslie on Parks and Recreation, Liz Lemon on 30 Rock and Michael Scott on The Office, not to mention everyone on Community, but you’re right about Big Bang Theory. Though I’ve noticed that as the show has gotten more popular, the characters have become more indiscriminate in their tastes, especially when it comes to DVDs and video games that coincidentally have recently been released. They get a lot of mileage out of Wil Wheaton’s appearances as well.

  • I distinctly remember some sci-fi author suggesting that ultimately all fictional works are works of science fiction, even the most mundane ones, because they all posit a parallel universe which serves as an alternate reality to ours even if the only divergence is that in that parallel universe, the actual book you are reading was never published as a fictional work. I found that mind-blowing at the time. 

  • Revelshade

    Here’s the first thing this post reminded me of: link is the first episode of a photo-webcomic based on the premise “How would the Lord of the Rings go over with modern day fantasy RPG players if they’d somehow never heard of Tolkien, Middle-Earth, etc. It is insightful and occasionally hilarious, at least to this old DnD player.

    My second thought was of how in Star Trek VI Spock attributes the “When you have eliminated the impossible…” quote to an ancestor, implying that he is descended from Sherlock Holmes, and how that conflicts with the ST:TNG holodeck episodes that clearly establish that Holmes is fictional in the Star Trek universe.


  • Magic_Cracker

    My second thought was of how in Star Trek VI Spock attributes the “When you have eliminated the impossible…” quote to an ancestor, implying that he is descended from Sherlock Holmes, and how that conflicts with the ST:TNG holodeck episodes that clearly establish that Holmes is fictional in the Star Trek universe.

    Perhaps the ancestor to which Spock is referring is Arthur Conan Doyle, or perhaps Joseph Bell.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Or the ancestor is someone from Vulcan who thought it up independently.

  • Anne

    Funny, I was pondering this exact point the other day.  I honestly like Elementary better than Sherlock, and I suspect I may come to like it better than House.  While Sherlock still demonstrates the deductive skills we know and love, he’s more human and less overwhelmingly arrogant.  The re-envisioning of Watson is also very well done and leads to a much better (read: less abusive) dynamic than Sherlock and House have with their respective Watson/Wilsons.  The problem with House and Sherlock is that, once you lock the character into being a totally arrogant SOB, you can only humanize him so much without losing the character.  The human drama has to happen with the supporting cast always trying to accommodate the mad genius in their midst.  By presenting Sherlock up-front as an extraordinary (and extraordinarily messed-up) human instead of a psychopath they can do more with the character.

  • Ross Thompson

     Or he was being arch; he did that occasionally.