More Reflections on Time Travel and History Writing

More Reflections on Time Travel and History Writing October 12, 2020

I was asked if I would share some highlights from my talk via Zoom in a first year seminar on Religion and Science Fiction at Yale. That week’s classes were focused mostly on what we might call “Jesus stories.” The professor, Maria Doerfler, had the brilliant idea of having students read an array of canonical and extracanonical texts from the biblical tradition, and then follow with science and speculative fiction stories exploring the same or related themes or characters. Since it was a seminar class I started with a question about the sci-fi stories and excerpts they had read: Which story if any came closest to conveying what Jesus was “really like”?

Among the questions I followed with and shared my own answers to are these: Is all history historical fiction? Are all historians time travelers? A story like W. E. B. DuBois’ “Jesus Christ in Texas” makes Jesus sound more like the precise way he does in the Gospels than does the Jesus of Ken MacLeod’s “Jesus Christ, Reanimator.” But the way Jesus sounds in the Gospels seems odd, out of place, and unrealistic when situated in our time. Hence my question about historians as time travelers. If we went back to watch events as outsiders to the culture, history, and language they would seem just as alien. And so what conveys what Jesus was like: a story that rigidly sticks to what he might have sounded like to ancient people or one that conveys what he might sound like if he lived in our time? To “say the same thing” in a different time do we by definition have to say something different?

The readings for this seminar introduced me to Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha which is truly fascinating for many reasons. I especially appreciated the suggestion that watching TV changes our memories. Think about Jesus, the Exodus, or any other biblical story that you’ve seen depicted in a movie, TV miniseries, or even Christmas pageant or play.

I was going to mention if time permitted the recent news item that a Chinese textbook had changed the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery so that in the end he stones her.

“When everyone left, Jesus stoned the woman to death himself, saying, ‘I am also a sinner. But if the law could only be enforced by men without blemish, the law would be dead.’”

That’s not that different from one of the ways that someone tried to revise the story of Jesus in Vidal’s novel. (I might also have asked whether, given that the story is almost certainly not originally part of the Gospel of John and thus might not be deemed canonical, does that make this tampering with it different as a result?)

I shared the thought experiment that inspired my story “Certainty.”

 

I liked the way the narrator in “Jesus Christ, Reanimator” described the impact of the teaching of the returned Jesus on him: “it has an effect on how you think. It isn’t a question of belief, exactly. It’s more a question of examining beliefs, and examining your own actions, even your thoughts, as if under his sceptical eye, and in the echo of his sardonic voice. It works on you. It’s like a whole new life.” I loved the fact that this apocryphal (in the popular sense) story discussed authentic vs. apocryphal sayings of the returned Jesus, who had blogged. I also loved the genuine humanity of the Jesus of the story. Even when it came to the ascension, it was emphasized that this must be a form of levitation that humans are capable of, since what he can do, in principle we can do.

The ascension is a natural topic to focus on in a sci-fi context. I took the opportunity to share a couple of favorite quotes:

Keith Ward (The Big Questions in Science and Religion, p.107): “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).”

James D. G. Dunn (article on “Myth” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Downers Grove: IVP, 1992, p.568): “To demythologize the ascension is not to deny that Jesus “went to heaven”; it is simply to find a way of expressing this in language which takes it out of the realm of current or future space research.”

I also talked about literalism and the fact that there are no actual biblical literalists. Few so-called literalists accept that Jesus meant his words about his generation not passing away before the end literally, embracing the implication that Jesus was mistaken.

There were many things that I was ready to share if occasion arose. A favorite quote related to time travel is this one: “When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small, but barely anyone in the present really thinks that they can radically change the future by doing something small.”

To conclude, for the benefit of those who may never have seen it, let me share something lighter: The Greatest Action Story Ever Told:

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