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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  • Magic_Cracker

    Good point. After all, Shakespeare is better in the original Klingon.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I’ve always loved the way that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s great “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” handled this paradox: They just assumed that there is no such thing as a pure work of fiction, and that all literature, comics, films, television shows, and so forth co-exist in the same omni-universe as all the characters and events that they depict. Every work of pop culture from Sharkespeare’s “The Tempest” through the present day is, at minimum, “Based on True Events,” if not an actual documentary record.  (With some hand-waving about “distant future” science-fiction works….) So, for example, Mina Murray of “Dracula” knows Sherlock Holmes partly by his reputation in London as a brilliant consulting detective, but also because she has read the many stories of his escapades as penned by that Doyle fellow.  Which may or may not be that true. (Mine

    This allows Moore and O’Neill have great fun with the gulf between fiction and fact, and the way that expectations do not always match reality. Mina is greatly disillusioned, for example, in Volume 1, when she discovers that her childhood hero Alan Quatermain is a decrepit opium addict. And when Mina finally removes her ever-present scarf to reveal a neck that is a ruin of scar tissue, she concedes how different it is from the discreet pinpricks of Mr. Stoker’s legend.

    So in the “League” universe, there is no “mock” in mockumentary shows such as “The Office.” It’s a reality show, and Jim and Pam Halpert are real people laboring away at white collar jobs in Scranton Pennsylvania. And apparent “narrative fiction” shows like, say, “Breaking Bad,” are just dramatized depictions of true stories that are widely known primarily due to the popularity of said show.

  • Solmead

    One thing I always say when someone tells me “I’m not voting for X / Supporting Y / Doing Z, because that is / leads into the mark of the beast and the anti christ” is this:
    So you are refusing to allow jesus to start the tribulation and bring about his second coming then? If you really wanted Jesus to come back and really believed that the Left Behind stories have it correct, wouldn’t you be in support and trying to push anything that looked like the Anti Christ / MArk of the Beast? I remember back in 1988 or so (I was 13) going to see a preacher who had written a book named Doug Clark. He want on and on about chip in the hand technology, mark of the beast 666 and how we need to stop the chip in the hand technologies. At the time I bought it hook line and sinker, it took 20 years for it to break apart, and my first question to him now would be “Why not support the chip technologies, help get the end times ushered in, but not get the chip implanted in yourself since you know it to be the mark of the beast?”

  • aunursa

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

    Spock is, after all, half-human.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Related to the “Omniversal Meta-Fiction” of “League” is the mind-boggling notion that all fictional television realities ultimately collapse into the child’s snowglobe at the end of “St. Elsewhere.” At minimum, this theory seems to rope in most of Steven Bochco’s shows, David Simon’s shows, Chris Carter’s shows, and the entire Law & Order franchise. And since the “Millennium” episode “Human Essence” bizarrely establishes that “The X-Files” TV show exists within  the “Millennium” universe (and therefore “The X-Files” universe), we’re back to the “League” scenario where characters and works co-exists in the same universe, although in the “TV Omniverse,” this principle is consistently ignore. (e.g., everytime Fox Mulder or Olivia Benson introduces themselves to a new witness, the witness *should* say something like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen that show about you…”)

  • aunursa

    My understanding is that most Christians who believe in the End Times prophecy also believe that it will happen on God’s timetable.  In other words, it will happen when God decides that it will happen.  Not before, and not later.  Therefore, there is nothing that they can do to hasten the End Times.  While they would dearly love to be living at the very time that Jesus returns, there is nothing preferable about hastening the death and destruction that will precede this glorious moment.  As it were.

  • In the various books of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the Vampire Chronicle books actually do exist in-universe, in exactly the same form as they do in ours (they’re all written under the same pseudonym by characters from the books, which is explicitly stated in the books themselves) but most people don’t realize that they’re non-fiction.

  • Ursula L

    If we’re talking television crossovers, then this is an essential reference, because it seems that pretty much everything crosses over and connects to everything, eventually.

  • aunursa

    Dark Helmet: When does this happen in the movie?
    Colonel Sandurz: Right now.

  • The most recent book features a poster for a Tracy Jordan movie – “Who Dat Ninja?” – in the background in one panel, and there’s a reference to the American President Bartlett.

  • Carstonio

    Oh, wonderful. Another US ripoff from British television. Revenge for Led Zeppelin’s thievery of African-American music?

    I’d rather see the BBC series. More believable to have Holmes and Watson in their home city, although in a different era. Plus, I prefer to have a British creative team in charge of the character. I have not yet seen the Robert Downey versions of the character but I’ve read that they have very little to do with the Doyle stores.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Yep. There are also references to “Lost” and “In the Thick of It” that I caught. I’m sure Jess Nevins’ annotations will reveal about a thousand others I missed. :-)

  • Andrew Wyatt

    The RDJr films are good fun, but definitely “Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock” in spirit, with the positives and negatives that implies.  They at least make Holmes physically dangerous again, as he is in the Canon: a talented boxer and singlestick fighter.

  • aunursa

    I have not yet seen the Robert Downey versions of the character but I’ve read that they have very little to do with the Doyle stores.

    They combined characters and elements from different stories.  Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan get married in the second movie, which ends with Holmes and Moriarty falling over a ledge into Reichenbach Falls.

  • To add to the list of television references on television, there is the scene in “American Gothic” Lucas Buck walks through the holding cell area whistling the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

    It’s been a long time; is that the first time we see Lucas?

  • Re: Omniverse ideas

    There is a Robert Heinlein novel by the title of Number of the Beast, which posits that all fiction is a set of parallel universes and the main characters have a vehicle that can travel between them. I remember they went to Barsoom, the Mars from Burroughs’ novels, but that’s the only fictional world I definitely remember. Also, the Number is (6^6)^6, the number of universes the Gay Deceiver (their car) can access or something like that.

    But it’s a Heinlein novel and subject to the usual warnings about his writing.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next.

  • aunursa

    this blissfully unsuspecting world no longer exists

    Who is this Jesus fellow?  And what role might he have played in the sudden disappearance of every child under eleven, and many people in predominantly Christian countries but very few in countries with low Christian populations?

  • This is going to sound crazy, but a while ago I read a book about a woman in Arizona who had Marian Apparitions (my Catholic mom sent it to me). The woman claimed that she was told that movies and TV were the anti-Christ. In a way it almost makes sense. Jesus can be understood as the real man – a living, breathing picture of what man made in the image of God looks like untainted by sin. TV – particularly in the beginning – presents a false image of what man looks like. It is the opposite of Christ – ie the anti-Christ. It leads us not back to God, but to an ever changing, usually deceptive array of images of ourselves. I don’t know that I buy it, but it sure makes more sense than this nonsense about a powerful man rising up and deceiving us. And it’s got that making a man appear to come back from the dead stuff down. Anyhow, just thought I’d share.

  • Carstonio

    To address Fred’s specific point, the LB problem is not really the same as the one with Elementary. Ellanjay’s world isn’t quite “blissfully unsuspecting.” The people left behind seem to know the general idea of the prophecies, even if they’ve never heard of people like Scofield. They had simply disregarded or laughed at the idea out of hard-heartedness. Ellanjay and their forebearers are, viewed as a single entity, more like Harold Camping who keeps changing his predictions when these aren’t fulfilled.

  • Carl Muckenhoupt

    Mind you, the original Sherlock Holmes stories themselves had something of the same issue, and dealt with it by positing that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as we know them were publishes in the world of the stories too — just as factual reports by Watson, rather than as fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle.

    Don Quixote did something similar a couple centuries earlier, allowing characters in volume 2 to be already familiar with Quixote because they had read volume 1.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” takes an interesting approach to this paradox, by deliberately “breaking” its nested realities, if only to make a point about the role of fiction in shaping history and about how emotional invested we can get in shared figments. The first three stories, A, B, and C, all seem to inhabit the same fictional universe. Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, and Frobisher’s letters fall into the hands of Luisa Rey. All three appear to inhabit the same universe at different points in history. But Rey’s story is a manuscript for a (presumably fictional) *novel* that has been submitted to Timothy Cavendish (Story D), so the first three protagonists–who the reader has spent so much time with until about the 1/4 mark of “Cloud Atlas”–may not “really” exist in the novel’s later realities at all. And Cavendish himself is a character in a film being watched by Sonmi-451 (Story E), which may or may not be based on a true story. It gets a bit mind-boggling.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I do think that the idea that the Anti-Christ is a system or persons who are agents of that system seems to be more in keeping with the spirit of the Book of Revelation, 1 John, and 2 John than the idea that the Anti-Christ is just one and only guy foretold in the Bible* who will be the opposite of Jesus.

    As for the woman in Arizona, sounds like she’s getting messages not from Mary, per se, but from Guy Debord!

    *For certain values of “foretold.”

  • Rhubarbarian82

    Det. Munch appears in Homicide, Law & Order: SVU, the X-files, Arrested Development, and the Wire. Which would imply that all of those take place in the same universe. But given the connection between Homicide and St. Elsewhere, and the series finale of St. Elsewhere…

  • Kadh2000

     Spaceballs – on the landing pad where our heroes order the Space Soup or the Space Special, one of the other ships on the landing area is the Millennium Falcon.

  • SDGlyph

    So, shorter Fred: “Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction”, yes?

    (I do like the delicious irony involved in the thought that the massive and very profitable success of Left Behind invalidates its own premise.)

  • James Simmons

     I read a biography of James Bond which had the premise that Ian Fleming had written the James Bond novels to convince the KGB that Bond was in fact a fictional character and not a real person.  The novels before Moonraker were based on real events, but Moonraker clearly was not.  It was sort of a flip to the premise of The Man Who Wasn’t There, where a dead soldier was given a fake identity and false papers and parachuted into enemy territory to convince the Nazis that the D-Day invasion was going to happen at a different place than it actually would.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Here’s another mind-blower: In “Toy Story,” the Buzz Lightyear character around which the film trilogy’s events revolve is an animate version of a mass-produced toy. (Whether all other Buzz Lightyear action figures are also animate and sentient–perhaps with identical personalities–is never elaborated upon.] That toy is part of a larger “Buzz Lighyear” property that exists *within* the TS universe, independent of the TS “Buzz Lightyear” character and merchandise that exists in our world. It’s not clear whether within the TS universe, BLY toys predate the BLY films and television shows, or vice-versa, or whether they were created simultaneously in the days of 1980 television deregulation. We do know that the 2000 DTV film “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins” exists *within* the TS universe, right down to having the exact same DVD package. We know this because the  film actually depicts the TS characters *watching* the DVD in a prologue, leading to a very “Spaceballs” head-scratching moment. (This suggests that Disney and Pixar *also* exist within the TS universe.)

    And it gets even more complicated later because BLoSC (the DTV film and later TV series) depicts the Little Green Men of Pizza Planet as co-existing in the same sub-fictional universe as Buzz, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, unless the LGM’s presence within BLoSC constitutes a paid product placement by Pizza Planet. Which is way more meta than I suspect Disney is capable of being.

  • James Simmons

     On The Big Bang Theory the characters constantly refer to other TV shows.  Castle sometimes refers to “Firefly” (“that Joss Wheden show”)  Castle wore his old Browncoat outfit as a Halloween costume.

  • Ross Thompson

    If we’re talking television crossovers, then this is an essential
    reference, because it seems that pretty much everything crosses over and
    connects to everything, eventually.

    That chart takes a very loose definition of “connected”; Veronica Mars is connected to Lost because Veronica uses The Numbers to play the lottery.

    Lost connects to the office because both universes have paper factories in Slough.

    Spin City is connected to Sports Night because Sports Night is seen to be playing on TV.

    Battlestar Galactica and Firefly are in the same universe because one of the ships in the Refugee Fleet looks superficially like a Firefly-class ship, despite the fact that if they *are* from the same universe, this would overwhelm everything in Firefly’s background, or the Firefly worlds were colonised by the 13th Fleet, and a similar ship design can’t possibly be anything but a coincidence.

    Red Dwarf and Dr Who are in the same universe because Red Dwarf has a TARDIS in the shuttle dock, which can’t possibly have been a non-functional model built by Lister, Rimmer or Holly, all of whom have stated that they’re fans of the fictional show.

    Several TV shows are connected because they mention a company called Yoyodyne (often working in completely different fields)

    By those standards, the real world is also part of the same meta-fiction because people play those lottery numbers, and the NYPD exists in both the real world and in Law and Order. Oh, and Nancy Reagan appeared on Diff’rent Strokes.

  • Carstonio

    There’s a long tradition of Holmes paraliterature, such as William Baring-Gould’s biography. The conceit is that Doyle’s inconsistencies with details were actually  deliberate obfuscations by Watson, to protect either national security or client privacy or both. Baring-Gould even postulates that the remarried Watson changed the dates of cases during his previous marriage, so as not to remind his wife in print that there had been someone before her.

  • Vermic

    As I presume nobody ever stops Dr. Joan Watson on the street and says, “Lucy Liu!  I loved you in Rise: Blood Hunter!”, another peculiarity of the Elementary-verse is that Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu do not exist or are not actors.

    In the backstory of Watchmen, it’s mentioned that the Golden Age of Superhero Comics withered and died when real costumed vigilantes became a thing in the 1940’s.  As a result, the prevailing genre of comics in the Watchmen-verse is pirates.

    I’m pretty sure I remember Robert Kirkman (creator of The Walking Dead) mentioning that in his universe, the Romero movies and other forms of zombie pop-culture never happened, which explains why the characters are initially at a loss to understand what’s going on, and why they have to make up nicknames like “walkers” and “geeks” instead of calling them zombies.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Leonard: I know what’ll cheer you up; let’s play one of your driving games.

    Sheldon: All right. This game is called ‘Traitors’. I will name three historical figures; you put them in order of the heinousness of their betrayal. Benedict Arnold, Judas, Doctor Leonard Hofstadter.

    Leonard: You really think I belong with Benedict Arnold and Judas?

    Sheldon: You’re right; Judas had the decency to hang himself after what he did.

    Sheldon: Round two: Leonard Hofstadter, Darth Vader, Rupert Murdoch.

    Leonard: Rupert Murdoch?

    Sheldon: He owns Fox and they cancelled Firefly. Hint: he and Darth Vader are tied for number two.

  • Magnum, P.I., Murder, She Wrote, and Simon & Simon all existed in the same universe (MSW and S&S had crossovers with Magnum).  I seem to recall, however, that there was a reference on an episode of Simon & Simon to Magnum as a TV show that existed in their universe.  

    Not sure if that was before or after the crossover, though.

  • Carstonio

    How about an LB crossover with the Omen or with Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Job: A Comedy of Justice

    …in what world can Job be a comedy?

  • There was another show in which Munch was scheduled to appear in an episode, but the show was cancelled before it aired (or else I missed it when it did).  It was called “The Beat,” and featured Mark Ruffalo.  I remember reading about Munch’s upcoming appearance in a local paper’s TV listings insert* at the time, and it was pointing out that he had, by that time, been on all of the shows you mentioned (except The Wire and Arrested Development, which didn’t exist yet).

    *At the time, I actually composed the TV listings insert at the paper.  I downloaded all of the content from an FTP site, then plugged it all into the template and did all the pre-printing work.

  • Aiwhelan

    I was befuddled by this very thing when I watched the movie Across the Universe, which is full of Beatles’ songs, Beatles references, and characters from their music, but no Beatles. And I just could not make myself believe in the 60’s without them, so the whole world of the movie felt just too off-kilter for me to relax into the story. I only watched half of the movie.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Here’s an added twist: Munch the character (played by Richard Belzer) is based on a real person, Jay Landsman, who also appears as a *separate* character on “The Wire,” where he is played by Delaney Williams. Since Munch appears briefly in an episode of “The Wire”, both Munch and the real-life persona he’s based on appear as characters in the same fictional universe, making Munch a kind of “two-steps-removed” fictional character.

  • walden

    There was a movie in the late 1970s, I think, which revolved around HG Wells building an actual time machine and pursuing Jack the Ripper to modern day San Francisco.  He was arrested and not wanting to give his real name, thought back to a fictional character he was sure no-one would have heard of.  “I’m Sherlock Holmes,” he said – only to be greeted with derision.  Can’t remember the name of the movie 

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Walden: That would be “Time After Time” with the great Malcolm McDowell as Wells.

  •  > …in what world can Job be a comedy?

    Well, as it happens, a wide variety of worlds… or, well, at least the story spans a variety of worlds, as its protagonist is universe-hopping.

    It’s been a very long time since i read the book, but I remember not having much of a clue why it was named that. Marketing reasons, I expect.

    The most memorable thing for me about the book was the protagonist commenting, about a world he briefly transits through, that the strangest thing about it was that they had these little colored boxes everywhere, and people allowed the colored boxes to control their movements rather like one might do a police officer. Which was decidedly strange, since they weren’t exceptionally law-abiding or cooperative generally, but they really took those colored boxes seriously.

  • EllieMurasaki

    When’s this book from? Before or after traffic lights?

  • Ima Pseudonym

     And let’s not forget that characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared in Homicide:  Life on the Street, Detective Munch from the same show is in Law and Order and Law & Order: SVU, and has appeared in the X-Files, which had characters who appeared in Millennium, The Lone Gunmen, and even the Simpsons, and the Simpsons has crossed with the Critic. 

    So by logical extension, EVERYTHING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED ANYWHERE in this reality or any other is taking place in the mind of an autistic young man named Tommy Westphall, the only completely real entity in all of Creation.  Tommy Westphall, therefore, is God.   

    Roll credits, please :)

  • Ima Pseudonym

     Damn.  You got there before I did.  :: shakes teeny tiny internet fist ::

  • fraser

     But I agree it’s annoying when it happens. There’s an old comics series, “War That Time Forgot”—US Soldiers run into dinosaurs—and every issue we go through the same “No, it’s impossible!” routine as the previous story.

  • Me, I just took it to mean that Spock considered either Holmes or Doyle sort of a spiritual ancestor, not necessarily by blood (whether red or green).

  • Sean Stewart wrote one of the greatest works of fiction I’ve ever experienced — The Beast — and it’s kind of a shame it’s more or less impossible to effectively reproduce in some form. I still remember a lot of those storylines, and I’ll try to explain them, and get about a quarter of the way in and realize I’m sounding completely mad. 

  • fraser

     I don’t agree with that LGX assessment. Most of their familiarity with other characters can be explained by news accounts (Hyde, Griffin) or, say, Watson’s accounts of Sherlock Holmes (which were indeed published in the Holmes universe–and presumably LGX too). If you’ve got a specific reference that proves your case, I’ll concede.

  • fraser

     Well we know Star Trek exists in the Stargate universe because of the one nerd who keeps referring to himself as a red shirt.