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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  • Myusefuladdress

    Indiana Jones has a different-but-related problem: Every feature film, he forgets about the existence of the supernatural and “resets” to being a skeptic.

    Not quite. He recognises the Ark of the Covenant when he sees a carving of it in Last Crusade.

  • Matt McIrvin

    Some of the Doctor Who tie-in books have apparently established that the rough equivalent of Doctor Who in the Doctor Who universe is a TV show called “Professor X”. Some fans have decided that the show we hear premiering in “Remembrance of the Daleks” is in fact “Professor X”, though of course there’s no explicit indication of this (the narration cuts out just before the title is announced).

  • 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!

  •  It was indeed an outtake. But a funny one.

  • Persia

    The Teen Wolf show actually did this quite well: The lead gets bitten by a werewolf, the best friend realizes this, and they spend a good amount of time arguing with each other about whether or not werewolves actually exist.

    Buffy went around it by basically having characters mostly-aware that magic existed but not really willing to face it until they had no other choice. Oz’s “Actually, that explains a lot” was a great line.

  • AnonaMiss

    It was implied that Farscape did exist but was unpopular/little known. In the episode 200, when Vala is pitching Stargate-themed retreads of things she’d seen on TV, Farscape is included – and the only one Martin has no idea what she’s cribbing from.

    I suppose you could read that as “This is actually an original idea of hers”, but knowing Vala, I consider it unlikely that she’d veer into original material after offering a string of retreads.

  • 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

     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.

  • 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.

  • …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).

  • 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.

  • Freak

    A “Chicago Hope” character once made a comment along the lines of “but E.R.’s on that night.”

  • Launcifer

    In one episode, they also brought in an image consultant to produce an – I guess it was a sort of infomercial – about the hospital. When the staff finally sat down to watch it, it was basically the opening credits to ER but with the Chicago Hope cast, right down to the theme music. The only person who didn’t hate it was the guy who’d been given George Clooney’s spot.  

    Hell, let’s not even get into Kelly’s other shows. Boston Legal explicitly referenced itself as the only programme on television willing to give centre stage to over-fifties actors during a case about ageism in television. The only reason they didn’t outright name the show was because “that would break the wall”.  The whole series is just full of this kind of thing, though it got really out-there during the final season.

  • There was a rather interesting roleplaying game published in the early 1990s called Castle Falkenstein; it took place in an alternate-history Europe in the 1880s or so and both Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle were characters in it (as were H. G. Wells and the Invisible Man, Dr. Moreau, the Time Traveller and the Martian threat, if I remember correctly). At one point Phileas Fogg complained about all the inaccuracies in the novel “Around the World in 80 Days”.

  • I think there was an episode of Ally McBeal in which she made a reference to watching Chicago Hope.

  • Persia

    IDK, I don’t think anyone would want to serve on the Red Dwarf…

  • There’s a scripted MacGuyver reference in the pilot – the writers basically tipping a wink at the viewers. The clip was from a prank Amanda Tapping played on Richard Dean Anderson in a later episode. Sam and Mac are technical geniuses; Jack, not so much.

  • Paul Durant

    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.

    Zombies, yes. Vampires and werewolves, no. Vampires and werewolves have been folklore creatures for centuries, and in most vampire and werewolf movies, set in the modern day, the characters realize that “vampires/werewolves are real”. There may be mention of how this movie’s vampires are “not like the ones you see in the movies” but specific movies usually are not referenced. They almost always know what vampires or werewolves are and the common folklore strengths and weaknesses. (Vampire and werewolf movies set in Ye Olden Tymes have characters who know vampires and werewolves are real, but then again so does every other movie in the same period whether or not there’s any vampires and werewolves around.)
    Zombie movies are the ones where the characters don’t know what the hell these creatures are, except for comedies like Shaun of The Dead and (if memory serves) Return of the Living Dead. And it’s for the same reason you don’t see characters in a slasher movie (except a comedy/deconstruction like Scream), getting picked off one by one by some superhuman monster mutant man, saying “Holy shit, this dude is just like Michael Meyers in Halloween!” Vampires and werewolves exist in folktales. Characters in a movie about them can realize their lives have become like those folk tales. Zombies and slashers only exist in movies, and to have prior knowledge of what they are, characters in the movie would have to acknowledge their lives have become a movie. And that’s just way too self-referential to do unless you are making a comedy or genre sendup.

  • Steve Condrey

    One of the episodes of the ‘Hawaii Five-0’ remake has McGarrett and Dan-o watching a rerun of ‘CHiPs’ on TV, with dialogue indicating that this was the show to inspire them to pursue law enforcement as kids.  Of course, the original ‘Hawaii-Five-O’ (distinguished officially by the use of the number ‘0’ rather than the letter ‘O’ in the title) didn’t exist in the universe of ‘Hawaii Five-0’, allowing for characters with the same names as the original to exist 40 years later (and in completely different ethnicities).

  • Steve Condrey

    TVTropes also has an entry relating to Fred’s original topic:

    A lot of works get around it by having in-universe works of fiction with similar themes but completely different characters.  If, for example, you have a world in which the original Star Trek as we know it was never made, but there was a science fiction show that took place on a starship with a lothario captain, a blue-skinned alien who fell back on logic,  a snarky doctor with a New England accent, and no-named characters in green shirts who got killed in the first 15 minutes or so, you’d have a show similar enough to fill the role in that universe, and be familiar to us, but yet not quite like the Star Trek we know.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’m given to understand that there’s a description of what vampires are in both the first Twilight book and the movie and at no point is there any indication given that the female protagonist even recognizes the concept from folklore. I haven’t been able to find an excerpt to confirm this, but the sheer amount of self-indulgence ladled into describing the vampires’ nature that I am finding is indicative of the author filling in what is perceived to be a complete void of information — something which shouldn’t exist in a modern setting.

  • Steve Condrey

    Clancy has at least three timelines, not counting his nonfiction work: the timeline established by Red Storm Rising, the Jack Ryan timeline (starting with The Hunt For Red October) and the current timeline.  At some point someone’s going to discover a wormhole and link all three (and the real world).  That would be made of awesome!

  • Steve Condrey

    IIRC, Wormhole Extreme was in part sponsored covertly by the Stargate Program as a very genre-savvy cover for their activities…if there were a leak about the Stargate Program, people would immediately think of the TV show and dismiss it as being someone’s imagination getting the better of them.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, but first they’d have to have heard of the show, and I get the impression that Wormhole Xtreme was just not that popular.

  • Steve Condrey

    The Twilight series being a key example (in fact, that’s one of the few good things about it–the Cullens are able to use the fictional portrayal of vampires to draw attention from them, because that’s what everyone’s expecting).

  • Paul Durant

    They didn’t start the show with the intention of making it a decoy for Stargate Command — my memory isn’t 100% on how it worked, but there was a guy who was writing the scripts that he thought were fictional, but were actually based on real stuff that he subconsciously knew about because he was… an alien with amnesia, or because he was close to some kind of quantum entangler device that had him linked with Colonel O’Neill, or something along those lines. 

    They originally investigated the show because they thought it was made by some kind of spy or defector, found out the deal with the weenie writer guy, and said “Well, long as it’s here, we might as well try and use it to cover up the real Stargate program.”

    Also, Wormhole X-Treme had to have been pretty popular within the SG-1 universe. It made it to 200 episodes!

  • 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.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Didn’t it get canceled early but they decided to make a movie and that’s why the guy was there for SG-1 ep 200?

  • Tricksterson

    Then there was the line in, I believe, the pilot:  “We never talk about that other hospital.

  • Tricksterson

    and genders.  I always thought it would have been nice for this Steve to have been the original Steve McGarrett’s grandson and named after him  but I’m not sure the numbers would have worked.

  • Paul Durant

    Wait, dang, you might be right. Episode 200 was Mitchell’s 200th trip through the gate, not episode 200 of Wormhole X-Treme. 

    I need to watch that episode again!

  •  I blame the 1998 british miniseries ‘Ultraviolet’, a story about vampires that avoided ever calling them by name. Fans lauded it for being “realistic” because of this, on the assumption that people would not call an immortal creature that feeds on the blood of humans, casts no reflection, has no vital signs andcan be killed only by a stake through the heart a “vampire” since “vampires are myth; these are real”. 

    Ever since then, it’s been increasingly  the gold standard to claim that it’s “more realistic” to have people avoid calling classic monsters by their traditional names.

    To me, it’s just like the thing with the air force not wanting to call their starship the “USS Enterprise”: if a shambling, revivified corpse comes looking to eat my brain, I’m gonna call it a zombie, and so is everyone else

  • Paul Durant

    It’s not a realism thing, it’s a fourth wall thing. Characters in a zombie movie can’t call the undead “zombies” because that meas they are acknowledging they are in a movie

  • For what it’s worth, in the Colbert Report universe, where The Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Mos Def Colbert, DFA, Heavyweight Champion of the World** is a pundit and not a comedian, all the film roles which in our reality are played by Stephen Colbert are played instead by Kevin Spacey.

    And there’s reason to suspect that the guy who played the Doctor on Star Trek Voyager in the Stargate-universe actualyl did bear a striking resemblance to Richard Wolsey.

  •  If my memory serves, it’s all true. It was cancelled almost immediately, but was brought back as a movie, and then on the strength of the movie, got brought back again as a show which ran over 200 episodes

  • Honestly that sounds more artificial than using the name, by this point. It’s not like George Romero invented the term, it’s something from an actual religious tradition that entered the Western pop cultural lexicon because it was found to be evocative and useful in stories, just like other creatures from folklore. If they cropped up in the real world, people would use the actual term and “acknowledging they are in a movie” be damned. Avoiding its use is far more unrealistic and forgets that, like vampires and werewolves, it came from somewhere independent of modern cinema.

  • 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

    The word “zombi” existed, but zombies as we know them were created by modern cinema. The word “Zombi” was unknown outside of the Carribean until around the 30s, and even then it was obscure, and meant “people enslaved by a magic voodoo man”. The dead rising from the grave to feast on the flesh of the living and convert them to zombies as well, in and endless tide of rotting flesh that represents our fear of loss of identity and that those around us are secretly monsters — that’s Romero. He took inspiration from I Am Legend, but even that book was only from 1954, not classic folklore and legends.

    If they cropped up in reality, we would call them zombies. But the people in zombie movies aren’t in reality. They are in a movie we are watching, for which we have to suspend disbelief, and things that remind us of its movieness hurt that. If you were being chased by an unkillable mutant slasher who killed anyone who had sex and was always just right behind his victims even though they were sprinting and he was just lumbering, you would almost certainly comment that he was just like Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers. But doing that in a slasher movie is just dumb, for the same reason people in non-comedy zombie movies don’t know what zombies are.

  • If they cropped up in reality, we would call them zombies. But the people in zombie movies aren’t in reality. They are in a movie we are watching, for which we have to suspend disbelief, and things that remind us of its movieness hurt that.

    I’m sorry, but that seems really internally inconsistent to me. The suspension of disbelief is based on making it seem like the fictional world as depicted could actually be the (or a) real world. Removing a piece of common knowledge from the world is going to mess with its verisimilitude unless you acknowledge it in some way other than “the characters just don’t know.”

    Superhero comics can get away with a lack of superhero comics in-universe because they’ve come to explicitly acknowledge that they’re in an alternate universe and there are parallel universes where such comics do exist and supers don’t. Sci-fi stories may not have much current SF in their universe but generally still recognize it as something that has happened in the pre-translunar-spaceflight Earth of the 20th Century. But zombie movies generally operate under the pretense of being the world we are in now, that the first bite could be taking place right as we speak (or type). Removing the ability for characters to acknowledge zombies, and not even giving it the slightest patch, is a big hole that can wreck people’s suspension of disbelief, as others have chimed in here already.

    I’d say check out World War Z and Feed. They’re serious novels in the zombie apocalypse genre that take advantage of zombie pop culture in the world and they don’t suffer for it. They feel more like they’re actually happening in the real world and I find them far and away more engaging than anything that tries to act like Next Tuesday’s Zombie Uprising is the first time anyone’s ever heard of them.

    (If this posts twice it’s because Disqus acted like it didn’t see me hit the post button at all. *fistshake*)

    ETA: “people enslaved by a magic voodoo man”

    The pre-Hollywood conception of the zombie is still that the enslaved person is an enslaved dead person. You’re confusing mechanism (a living person confused/drugged/hypnotized/whatever) with belief, which is that people really did die or were killed, and were then reanimated.

    Even just getting past reliance on the world “zombie,” the complete blindness to even the concept of their existence is still ridiculous because it’s not like the idea of reanimated dead who transmit via a bite belong to zombies entirely anyway. The modern cinema zombie owes its existence to vampires as much as Vodou. If you just don’t want to use the Z-word, the reanimated dead have appeared in other cultures and there’s always cross-pollination by which you could get another name. The complete ignorance of the idea is silly.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • fraser

     Yes. Tarzan and the Lion Man I think.

  • 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).

  • fraser

     Actually both the Marvel and DCU have comics–in fact, they both have DC and Marvel comics though very different (Marvel in the MU does licensing deals with super-heroes to fictionalize their adventures).
    One genre which has no problem referencing itself is detective stories. I’ve seen stories where someone calls everyone together to explain the murder precisely because he wants to do it just like in an old-school mystery, for instance.

  • Ross Thompson

    I heard there was a Stargate episode where they referred to something being ‘MacGyvered’.

    The first episode. Carter tells O’Neill that it took three years and five supercomputers to McGuyver a way to control the stargate.

  • Ross Thompson
  • 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.

  • There’s an amusing bit in Queen of Air and Darkness where the detective who has set up shop on the colony planet explains, as he smokes his pipe and shows off his deductive skills, that there are certain cultural myths that have enough power that it’s useful to align oneself with them.

    There’s also an H Beam Piper short story where a postapocalyptic group of survivors have constructed a religious cult and an associated lifestyle around The Books which tell of the one who died and returned: the Collected Stories of Sherlock Holmes, who go around being deductively clever as a matter of religious practice.

  • 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.

  •  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?