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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  • Randy Owens

    Let’s not forget Stargate: Atlantis, either, where you have McCay & Shepherd constantly exchanging comments about Star Trek, and I think quite a bit of Star Wars as well, and at least one Batman.

  • fraser

    Speaking of comics, the general rule that the current heroic age started “15 years before now” (or in DC, about five-six years) means that the in-universe comics now look wildly different from ours (it’s been previously shown that while not identical, they tracked fairly closely). With the Fantastic Four taking flight in the 1990s, that means their adventures were never written (an authorized adaptation) by Lee and Kirby (who probably made their name in the sixties writing about the retcon group First Line). DC Universe writers must have been retelling stories of 1940s heroes (or making up characters) well into the 21st century and Carmine Infantino never drew the Flash (sigh. Still the best super-speed artist). And so on.

  • k.

    I was actually talking about this with a friend. My theory is that the classic detective everyone has heard is Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, from him all murder mysteries came. So now instead of no poop (insert other word), Sherlock, people in BBC Sherlock and Elementary say “no duh, Dupin!” 

  • Jon Maki

    Given the MU sliding timeline, I also wonder what event it was that caused Steve Rogers to become so disillusioned with the USA that he gave up the role of Captain America and became Nomad.  In the original story, it was a thinly-veiled reference to Watergate, but as things stand now, he would have still been frozen when Watergate happened.  
    Was it the tail-end of the Lewinsky scandal?  Bush v. Gore?  The “missing” WMDs?

    And as for in-universe comics, it’s been demonstrated that the MU comics exist as comics in the DCU (and vice versa), which leads me to wonder what people in the DCU who grew up reading comics from Marvel that featured “homages” to DC characters thought when the DC versions of the characters finally appeared in real life (well, in in-universe real life).  “Hey, these Justice League guys are a lot like the characters in that Squadron Supreme comic!”

    On an unrelated note, I remember an interesting “movie-of-the-week” that CBS did back in the 1980s that took place in the same “Springfield” that was the setting for the soap opera “The Guiding Light.”  It didn’t actually intersect with the regular plotlines of the soap, but many of the characters from GL showed up as supporting characters in the movie.  For example, the lead character was a prosecutor (IIRC) who worked for Ross Marlor, the District Attorney on GL.

    I thought it was an interesting idea; exploring the lives of some of the faceless people in an existing setting who aren’t part of the main focus of the stories set there.

    I believe other networks have done similar things, like  NBC with “Days of Our Lives.”

  • fraser

     Well we know the DCU comics about DCU heroes are different from ours (no secret identities revealed, obviously) so maybe Marvels were too. After all, in our universe the FF were a response to the success of the JLA–so probably a lot of Marvel didn’t get off the ground.

  • Fusina

    Having just finished watching last nights Castle episode, Beckett has also watched McGyver–she mentions him, thus putting Castle in the same universe as Stargate.

    This is a fun game!

  • Matt

    Many people have screwed up Bible prophecy interpretation so badly that the real thing will not look the same. People will have no idea that prophecy is happening when it is in fact happening right before them.

    666 is an example. The latest theories suggest that we won’t see 666. Instead, we will see Arabic script but you have to know a little trick to understand. The link below gives the details:

    So most people don’t get it. Big wars are about to happen suddenly for no apparent reason. One day you are there, and the next you are gone as in dead. Of course there are reasons, but most people are sleeping and refuse to see them. So to them they are out of the blue. Find out about the signs:

    This video explains how 9/11 represents a harbinger of doom:

    Real world signs:

    Bible prophecy signs:

    Hope this helps.


  • fraser

    There’s a scene in one of the last Tarzan books (Tarzan and the Foreign Legion I think) where when Tarzan introduces himself a guy asks “You’re—Johnny Weissmuller?” So Tarzan movies clearly exist in Tarzan’s world.

  • Tricksterson

    In fact there is a scene at the end of one book , don’t recall which, where he visits Hollywood as Lors Greystoke and tries out for a role in a Tarzan movie.  He’s automatically rejected for the title role because he’s “the wrong type” but given a tryout for a big game hunter that “Tarzan” rescues from a lion.  Well the lion gets loose and and Tarzan, being a strong believer in Gibbs Rule Number Nine (“Always carry a knife”)  winds up rescuing “Tarzan” and is summarily ejected from the studio grounds for having killed the lion.

  • fraser

     Yes. Tarzan and the Lion Man I think.

  • Matt McIrvin

    …Speaking of Doctor Who, Community of course has its affectionate Doctor Who parody called “Inspector Spacetime.”

    But there were also indications in earlier episodes that Doctor Who actually exists in the Community universe, so there may be two similar shows there (and if Doctor Who premiered at the same time as in our world, Inspector Spacetime actually preceded it by about a year; maybe Doctor Who is the knockoff of Inspector Spacetime).

  • Matt McIrvin

    Andrew Wyatt: Not only that, Toy Story 2 establishes that Woody (and Jessie, Bullseye and Stinky Pete the Prospector) were licensed toys, now sought-after collectibles, based on a 1950s puppet TV show called “Woody’s Roundup”, and that “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” may exist in the fictional universe as a song originally written for Woody’s Roundup and sung by TV Woody onscreen.

  • Michael I

    Besides, recognizing zombies as zombies isn’t so much “acknowledging they’re in a movie” as it is acknowledging that they’re in a world that HAS zombie movies, books, etc.   Which means that when they see creatures that remind them of the zombies in the movies, books, etc., they’re going to call them zombies.

  • Paul Durant

    Characters in slasher movies also live in worlds like ours, and slasher movies exist in our world, yet characters in slasher movies do not acknowledge the existence of slashers in popular myth like Jason or Michael Meyers because that is tantamount to admitting they’re in a movie and it’s really really “meta”. Acknowledging the existence of movies like the one they are in is characters being aware of their own medium, and more jarring than pretending they don’t exist. The only time characters acknowledge stuff like that is in movies like the Scream series and Cabin in the Woods, where being jarring and “meta” is the whole point.

    I keep bringing up slashers because they, like zombies, were created by movies. There’s folklore about the reanimated dead, but nothing like zombies. The reanimated dead in folklore are generally bad, malicious people or the direct victims thereof, trucking in dark magicks, with obscure and odd weaknesses, transmitting their condition (if they do so) to select victims or accomplices. Zombies are an endless, faceless horde that will never, ever, ever stop devouring, who convert all of the living to more zombies because they are the annihilation of the very concept of identity. Folklore cannot come up with a creature like the Romero zombie because folklore purports to be true and it is impossible to believe you live in the same world as Romero zombies if the world hasn’t been eaten by them.

    World War Z and Feed can cite zombie movies because they are not movies. They aren’t the characters being aware of their own medium. Just like how Zoey in Left 4 Dead can “call zombie bullshit” on the Infected because all the zombie movies she watched say they are supposed to be slow, because Left 4 Dead is a video game, not a movie. If she were to compare the zombies she fights to the zombies in Killing Floor, another video game, it would be way too meta and jarring. And even then, that might get in as an Easter egg or something; books and games are way longer than movies and they can have periods of being “meta” without the whole work being focused on being “meta”, the same is not true of movies.

  • Kenneth Raymond

    At this point it’s become pretty much apparent that we’re never going to agree on the ability of a medium to acknowledge the existence of its own medium and retain verisimilitude. I’d like to cut this short before the argument chases its own tail any further. I’ve been taking an extended break from another online community entirely because of that self-same tendency for arguments there to spiral on until someone blows up because others don’t get their “self-evident” views, and I really want to stop that.

    No hard feelings, I just want to stop before they have a chance to develop over this because I’m starting to get the general mental fatigue towards an ongoing debate that makes me grouchy and biting about it. You make a good argument but our premises are too different, so I am bowing out because I don’t think we can convince each other.

  • AnonymousSam

    FWIW, I’m with you. I think it’s far more inconsistent with reality to say that modern cinema doesn’t exist within a setting which is intended to be as similar to the real world as possible. If someone invented a virus which did as virii in zombie movies are wont to do, anyone calling the resulting mindless hordes “zombies” would most certainly not be committing some kind of existential crisis waiting to happen.

  • fraser

    I’m with Kenneth on this one. I don’t think most viewers, or movie characters, would bat an eye at someone saying “They’re zombies” or debating that these aren’t classic voudou zombies. After all, the modern vampire is nothing like the folklore, but there are still stories where people peg the vampire as a nosferatu (though as noted on this list, not enough).

  • Tricksterson

    Then there was Watchmen where the existance of real life vigilantes (although only Dr. Manhatten could be considered a “real” superhero, the rest were all badass normals) killed superhero comics which were repplaced by pirate comics.

  • Jon Maki

    There’s an episode of Buffy in which, as the result of a backfiring spell, the Scoobies develop amnesia, completely forgetting who they are and everything they know about the supernatural.  When they decide part company and to leave the magic shop to try to figure out who they are, they open the door and are confronted by a vampire.  They scream and shut the door (this shot was added into the opening credits that season), and immediately begin talking about how they just saw a vampire, and they explicitly refer to it as such.

    Additionally, when Buffy meets Dracula, her response is, “No way!” followed by questioning whether this is just a fanboy thing, as she’s met more than a few greasy, overweight “Lestats” in her time.

  • Ross

     The thing I didn’t like about that episode (And the similarly-plotted ‘Angel’ episode handled this much better) was the trope of “Amnesia erases your memory but leaves intact a detailed notion of what a normal person should act like and makes you think that you act that way too.”  So Spike *who has never been a normal 20th century human* still acts like one, and Giles doesn’t remember his training-since-childhood in the supernatural, but does remember that *normal people don’t believe in the supernatural*. Where would Giles get the idea “There’s no such thing as vampires” from in the first place?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Haven’t seen the ep, but that sounds less like erasing a hard drive and more like installing a new operating system. The programming’s there to tell them how to behave, it’s just not the programming that was there before, and it has no data to work with.

  • Mark Z.

    It’s standard-issue TV amnesia, where you only forget everything that’s specific to you, while remembering everything that’s common to your culture (how to speak, how to tie your shoes, where things are in your city). It’s magic, so who’s to say it doesn’t work that way, etc.

    Still doesn’t explain Spike, though. For that, we have only the Season Six Drinking Game: When you notice you’re watching Season Six, take a drink.

  • Jon Maki

    It’s been a while since I saw the episode, so my memory is, fittingly, a bit fuzzy, but there’s always the convenient handwave, a la Lucy Lawless on The Simpsons, of “When you notice something like that, a wizard did it.”  Or in this case, a witch.

    The spell that Willow was casting was intended to only erase some specific memories, but it overshot the mark, in a plot-convenient fashion.  I can understand your objections, but I wasn’t particularly bothered by it.

    Certain aspects of their core personalities did remain behind.  For example, while Willow and Xander had decided, based on some clues they had in the form of identification and whatnot that they were a couple (IIRC), the underlying attraction between Willow and Tara managed to manifest itself.

    Of course, I’m not actually trying to defend the episode (or the season, though, I don’t object to the later seasons in the same way that many others do), I merely mentioned it as an instance of characters in a show about vampires who, having no (recalled) experience of encountering vampires, explicitly called the vampires exactly what they were.

  • Ross

     It’s not that their memory erasures were oddly specific that bothers me so much as the fact that they all seemed to have memory *insertions*: they all “remembered” things which weren’t part of their acutal life experience: Spike “remembered” how to act like a normal 20th century human; Giles “remembered” that the supernatural was all stuff and nonsense; Willow “remembered” how to act like a 20 year old in a nice average run of the mill heterosexual relationship. These aren’t just “The way normal people act when they do not have the extra memories of their particular life experiences”, they’re learned behaviors which these characters had never learned.

    (This is why I liked Angel’s equivalent episode better; instead of nebulous memory erasure, their memories are all rolled back to when they were teenagers. So Wesley and Cordelia still know about vampires, but are jerks. Whereas Angel sees a car and freaks the hell out, because when he was a teenager, it was the eighteenth century.  Also, Wesley gets to proudly proclaim “I’m head boy.” which cracks me up even to the day)

    There’s a similar thing in an episode of Power Rangers: Divatox takes a blow to the head and loses her memory, so she becomes a waitress at a diner, acting like any other uncouth, uneducated wage-slave.  Only Divatox is an alien warlord who has only been on earth for a couple of months at this point, so how does she have any idea how to act in away that’s even vaguely recognizable as human social convention?

  • Invisible Neutrino

    There was an interesting treatment by Star Trek TNG about a memory-loss episode, in which it is revealed that the memory loss was artificially induced.

    It’s really a fascinating episode to watch. Erich Anderson as Keiran MacDuff is really good for a one-show actor. :)

  • Patrick McGraw

    I really detest the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory of “everything that references anything else occurs in the same fictional universe. Hate it.

    The basic flaw underlying the theory is that a character appearing in two different works does not necessarily mean they occupy the same fictional universe. Characters can exist in multiple fictional universes simultaneously. Some characters, like Superman, exist in literally dozens of distinct fictional universes.

    So no, character X appearing in show Y does not mean that X’s show exists in the same fictional universe as show Y. The only thing it definitely means is that character X exists in show Y’s fictional universe. You’re going to need two-way crossover or Word of God to establish shared universes.

  • Mark Z.

    That, and if we’re talking about ANY “reality” in a fictional work extending beyond what we see on the screen, and we’re not going to accept every little artifact of TV production as part of that reality*, then we need something like what TVTropes calls the Literary Agent Hypothesis to allow for mediation of the “reality” into what we see. And mediation weakens a lot of those supposed “same universe” relationships.

    For example, a key element of the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory is the appearance of Morley cigarettes in shows like Buffy and The X-Files. Supposedly this makes them co-real.** Except that with Literary Agent mediation, the alternate theory is that the producer*** of a docudrama based on the vampire slayer Buffy Summers felt it was important to show Spike as a heavy smoker, so he went into the prop closet and grabbed several packs of Morleys that had been created for The X-Files (which is purely fictional).

    * including Dr. Watson on Elementary being the same person as Lucy Liu’s character in Kill Bill.
    ** you know, “real in relation to each other”. Like “covariance”.
    *** Indie filmmaker Andrew Wells, who claims to be a self-taught demonologist, vampire hunter, protégé of Rupert Giles, and survivor of the Sunnydale Catastrophe, but is probably just a D&D-playing Slayer fanboy talking out of his ass.

  • Patrick McGraw


    For example, a key element of the “Tommy Westphal Universe” theory is the appearance of Morley cigarettes in shows like Buffy and The X-Files. Supposedly this makes them co-real.**

    That’s one of the other things I really detest about the theory – it takes almost ANY little shout-out or reference to another work as “this proves they are in the same universe.”

    Sometimes even including references to a character from another show that are clearly “the character is comparing something to a TV show,” or clear in-jokes and actor references. (Witness claims that JAG/NCIS/NCIS:LA are co-real to The Man From Uncle because of a reference to Ducky looking like Ilya Kuryakin when he was young.)

    Indie filmmaker Andrew Wells, who claims to be a self-taught
    demonologist, vampire hunter, protégé of Rupert Giles, and survivor of
    the Sunnydale Catastrophe, but is probably just a D&D-playing Slayer
    fanboy talking out of his ass.

    This may become part of my headcanon now.

    Speaking of headcanon, my RPG group has been running various Star Wars campaigns for years, switching between different eras and GMs, and establishing a distinct multi-campaign continuity. The funny part is that discussion about it caused us to realize that our SWRPG-verse headcanon is comprised of several sources:

    * All levels of official SW canon including the Expanded Universe,
    * All of the Saga Edition SW books,
    * Everything from our campaigns,
    * The Robot Chicken Star Wars specials

    That last one wasn’t anything that we had worked out beforehand, but we realized that we had all more or less accepted it.