Tuesday, February 27, 2007

In the Beginning Was The Word...

Mitchell here.

Back in 1972 the best-selling novelist Irving Wallace published a suspense thriller (made into an eight-hour miniseries on CBS in 1978) called The Word. The story centered around Steve Randall, a cynical, hard-drinking, world-weary public relations executive (played wonderfully in the miniseries by David Janssen) hired by religious publisher George Wheeler to promote a project code-name “Resurrection Two.” The project turns out to be nothing less than (are you listening, National Geographic and Discovery Channels?) the Gospel of “James the Just,” younger brother of Jesus. The blockbuster assertion: Jesus did not die on the Cross the first time, but survived, continued to preach and perform miracles, and eventually went to Rome, where He was crucified a second time, and this time actually died. Wheeler believes the discovery will present a new, more human Jesus to the world.

From here the plot focuses on the standard elements: political intrigue, sex, betrayal, even a murder or two. Randall’s job is to prepare the public-relations juggernaut that will roll out the announcement of this discovery (you can see how things were different before cable television), while at the same time bringing into line some recalcitrant theologians, one of whom is campaigning to become head of the World Council of Churches (which was apparently imagined to be a prestigious post). As he becomes more involved in Resurrection Two, Randall even begins to lose some of the cynicism that has marked his life thus far.

Now, up to this point you’d be forgiven if you confused this story with, let’s say, something like The DaVinci Code. It has all the elements, albeit in a much more entertaining, better written format. But just when all the keys seem to be falling into place, Wallace throws us a curve.

The whole thing is a hoax.

Randall uncovers the master forger responsible for the fake gospel, a man with a longstanding grudge against the church. He tells Randall how he stole scraps of ancient papyrus from museums and used them to make the scrolls, how he concocted the ink and artificially aged it in order to fool the scientific experts. He planned to wait until Wheeler and his gang announce the news to the world, and then expose the work as a fraud, thus bringing down all of religion. (If this doesn’t make complete sense to you, keep in mind this is just the Cliff’s Notes version.) However, just when he’s about to show the skeptical Randall the evidence that will prove his story, he turns up dead.

Randall, now highly skeptical of Resurrection Two, continues to dig deeper but finds everything and everyone turning against him. Those in charge of the project put pressure on him to end his investigation. The recalcitrant theologian, Randall’s last hope to stop the project, betrays him and becomes a proponent of R2. The woman he loves doubts him. And when hecomes up with an ancient artifact that will totally disprove the story, he is arrested by the Italian authorities on a trumped-up charge, forced to give up the artifact, and held in custody until after the grand announcement is made.

There is a happy ending, or at least the hint of one. Resurrection Two sweeps the world, taking everyone in (including the pope). It is ushering in a new era in Christianity, making Jesus far more accessible and human to His followers (again, remember this is the abridged version you’re getting here). The new Bible, containing the Gospel of James, becomes an international best-seller. Randall, after hitting bottom, decides to fight back. (He is a PR genius, after all.) He starts work on a book that will tell the truth behind the hoax – a book that, with the publicity he can generate acting as a slingshot, may be the stone that brings the Goliath of Resurrection Two crashing down. We don’t see how his efforts fare – the book ends as he begins his work – but he straightens out his life, reconciles with the woman he loves, and thus fortified, we have hope for his success.

Lest you sell the book short, this brief description probably doesn’t do it justice. Irving Wallace certainly knew how to write a page-turner, and The Word is one of his best. And whereas pretenders like Dan Brown are clearly trying to mock and discredit Christianity, I don’t see Wallace playing that game. The whole Gospel of James the Just is exposed as a fraud, after all. The bad guys are truly bad (they’ll even kill to protect their interests), but they’re presented mostly as dupes, opportunists, or political Machiavellians out for money, personal power and glory – not schemers trying to deceive the faithful and bring down the faith. (And isn’t it nice, for a change, to have revisionist historians who are not truth-seekers, but mere profiteers, willing to sell out the Lord not for thirty pieces of silver, but international reprint rights.) They have so much invested in R2 (financially and otherwise), nothing can be allowed to stop it – not even the truth.

(If there is a bone to pick, it would be the idea that the pope would fall for this. One would have to assume his papal infallibility would protect him from making such a doctrinal error, even if everyone else was taken in. Wallace may be mistaken in giving us this, but I don’t think it’s out of malice.)

It was impossible not to think of all this the other day, seeing James Cameron on television “sinking Christianity,” as one commentator put it. It was so much like the scene of Nicol Williamson, playing the malevolent Maertin de Vroome, selling out Randall in return for the coveted leadership of the WCC, that one almost could laugh about it. It remains true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The major difference, of course, is that Irving Wallace never pretended The Word was anything other than fiction. Dan Brown admits The DaVinci Code is fiction, but wants you to believe it’s based on fact. But James Cameron wants you to believe his is the real thing. (Or the unreal thing, if you will.) And the same gullible consumers that Steve Randall made his living off of are still there, waiting to gobble up Cameron’s titanic “discovery.”

To use a theological term, we “dare to hope” that Randall wound up bringing down Resurrection Two, just as we dare to hope Cameron’s proclamation will fall on deaf ears. And for that we have two causes for optimism: first, in this era of the blogosphere there will be any number of Catholic (and other) experts just waiting to pick the story apart, much as they do with other bogus claims.

And second – Irving Wallace had a much better plot.

Cross-Posted to: Our Word and Welcome to It

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