Category Archives: Christianity

L. Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall

De Camp-Lest Darkness FallTitle: Lest Darkness Fall

Author: L. Sprague de Camp

Publication Information:  New York: Ballantine Books, 1983

ISBN: 0-345-31016-0 (i.e., 978-034-5310-16-3)

Library of Congress Classification: PS3507.E2344

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Time travel–Fiction
Rome–Fiction

This is an old one, and a good one.

When I was young, I used to be an avid science fiction reader. I remember L. Sprague de Camp’s The Tritonian Ring fondly.  I still have the book. It was so much, with the protagonist being a cynical hero that, in the end, just gave up and walked away from a potential drawn-out fight with his brother for the rule of their city.

The protagonist of this book is Martin Padway, an American graduate student in Rome doing research for his Ph. D. On the first page, the idea of time travel is introduced as Padway’s host, Tancredi, discusses his idea of time “pockets” simply appearing here and there and people, who just disappear and are never seen again, having fallen through and into the past. Thus the entire premise of the book is introduced.

Padway falls into one of these holes, going from fascist Italy (the original copyright is 1939 and explains why there’s a remark about Mussolini) into Ostrogothic Italy. Rome is in ruins and civilization is slowly sinking into the Dark Ages. Now known as Martinus–to the general public he will later be known as Mysterious Martinus–Padway begins his attempt to save Western civilization from decline.

The first order of business is to get money, so he sells the coins he has for their gold and silver, making friends with a Goth who knows Latin. Slowly, Martin learns the Germanic spoken by the Ostrogoths, and secures a loan (after teaching modern math to the accountants of the banker) at a high interest rate–far higher than today’s rates. With the money, Padway invents brandy, which quickly becomes a hit and makes him a wealthy man. Then Padway “invents” a printing press and then a telegraph.

Right away Padway runs into problems with religion. The Ostrogoths, converts to Arian Christianity, are heretics in the eyes of the the mainstream Christians, being the Romans and the Byzantines, who later enter the picture. Nonetheless, the Goths tolerate the range of Christians and their beliefs. Padway knows history, and he knows that Justinian, an orthodox Christian and a zealot, would be a horrible master. Also, the disastrous war waged by Justinian’s armies lasted two decades, bringing Italy back into the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire but at a terrible price. The peninsula was completely ravaged and it would be centuries before the damage could be undone.

Sorcery is leveled at Padway, so he has to fight for his survival, eventually using his wealth to bribe an influential bishop.  In the end, Padway ends up serving as the quaestor of the king whose life he saves. He’s able to defeat Justinian’s armies, throw back an attack by the Franks, and also crown a new king. He explains away his “gift” as not so much being able to see the future but to see “paths” that can be changed if those around him listen and act accordingly. He tells them his religion is Congregationalist, coming from America, which no one has ever heard of.

What is perhaps most interesting of all in this book is the alien nature of Ostrogothic society, and that of the last of the Romans living under Gothic rule. There is no sense of a nation-state as we are used to; identity at this time was very fluid. Vandals and Alemani serve in Italy under the Ostrogoths. The “kingdom” as such is held together by the nobles who follow the king; a council of nobles elect–and can depose–a king. The Goths overall distrust those who read and write; they are mostly illiterate.

The Ostrogoths have no idea of cohesion; the reason to fight is for honor and booty, nothing more. Padway desperately tries to introduce military organization and tactics from the far future, but the Ostrogoths do not understand the purpose. Even the idea of the early type of Roman government is alien; the Romans resent Gothic rule and refuse to help, preferring the orthodox Justinian as their ruler. There is no other word for it: these medievals are stupid by our standards, seeing nothing past what already exists. There is no interest in being inquisitive and no interest in discovering the unknown or questioning the status quo; religion explains everything.

A really fun book, and a quick read.

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Look What’s New at the Warner Library!

Warner Library serves Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. There’s a big browsing section of what new books the library bought.

004Title: A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts

Editor and Commentator: Hal Taussig

Publication Information: Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-547-79210-1

Library of Congress Classification: BS2361.3

Dewey Decimal Classification: 225.52

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Bible. New Testament—Criticism, interpretation, etc.
Christian literature, Early—History and criticism

Usually I pass right by religious texts, but this one gave me pause and I ended up taking it out.

A New New Testament: a Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts is the traditional New Testament supplemented with ten added works from early Christianity not included in the traditional canon.

Hal Taussig, the editor and commentator, chaired a group of scholars who sat down and decided which ancient texts to add. (Their short bios are included.) Several, like The Gospel of Mary (probably Magdalene) and The Gospel of Thomas, were “lost” until recently discovered, many coming from the Nag Hammadi Library, found outside the Egyptian village in 1945. (Appendix 2 lists the books in each codex.) Of these, several manuscripts may now exist, copied at different times with subtle changes. Other texts, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, were never lost, just not included in the canon.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla is surprising. The revered St. Paul does not look so good in this work. He is seen as hesitant and negligent in his dealings with Thecla, a woman who wants to be baptized. Taking matters into her own hands, Thecla BAPTIZES HERSELF then PREACHES the gospels of Jesus to anyone who will listen, becoming a disciple.

No wonder the Christian writer Tertullian attacked this book in the 2nd century. Throughout this book, Thecla is seen as a leader standing up to government authority and cultural biases, all the while maintaining her faith. Ironically, this book was popular throughout the Middle Ages and was viewed as an appropriate reading for women and missionaries.

Taussig refuses to use the term “Christianity” because no one is sure when this term came into existence. Instead, he calls the early Jesus people “Christ movements,” plural because there were many different belief systems in existence early-on. I taught a politics and religion class at Purchase College, the State University of New York, in 2001 and I used the term “Christianities,” but the meaning is the same. There were many different versions of Christianity with radically different views of Jesus and God.

What we have today is Pauline Christianity, that version of Christianity which St. Paul taught and endorsed: Jesus as God, the Trinity, etc. This version of Christianity was adopted by Emperor Constantine; henceforth, all other Christianities were now viewed as heretical. The three major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant) and any splinter groups are Pauline Christianity.

There is so much here. Each book, including those in the traditional New Testament, is introduced by Taussig. He includes a short bibliography at the end of every entry. The book also has: an overall introduction; Q&A on typical things asked about the New Testament; a companion section, consisting of nearly 100 pages of research; a bibliography; and subject and scripture indices.

Peter Stanford, The Legend of Pope Joan

(2013-07-07 094)Title: The Legend of Pope Joan

Author: Peter Stanford

Publication Information: New York: Berkley Books, 2000

ISBN: 0-425-17347-X (i.e. 978-0-42-517347-3)

Library of Congress Classification: BX958.F2

Library of Congress Subject Headings:
Joan (Legendary pope)
Church history—Middle Ages, 600-1500.
Popes—Legends.

First of all, I liked this book.

I wasn’t sure that I was going to when I started it. First, Peter Stanford is a journalist and not an academic. The book is his first person account of how he got interested in the Pope Joan legend while staying in Rome and what he did to investigate it. The legend goes that a woman was able to con her way into being made pope and reigned for two years or so before giving birth during a papal procession. There are various versions of the story, either Joan and the child were immediately murdered by the mob, or only Joan was murdered and the child was allowed to live.

Is the story true? Stanford believes there is something to it and he travels around Italy tracking down clues to the Pope Joan story. He recounts one of the darker histories of the papacy, when the throne of St. Peter was controlled by the House of Theophylact from 911 through 1048. Theophylact’s wife, Theodora, and his mother-in-law, Marozia, sought to re-establish the greatness of Rome and planned on using the papacy to do it. No less than ten popes were brought to power by or under the influence of this house. The corruption and misery culminated in the “election” of John XII, called the “Christian Caligula.”

For Edward Gibbon, Pope Joan was a code for the House of Theophylact and all its corruption. Stanford refutes this, however, citing that all theologians knew the stories of the house and openly recorded the transgressions without the use of any code. Nor is Pope Joan a fabrication of reformers trying to discredit and embarrass the Roman Catholic Church; information on Joan predates the Reformation. Stanford talks to those who had studied Pope Joan before him, but they shed no new light on the mystery.

One interesting aspect of Stanford’s study is that he had a psychological profile created for a woman like Joan. Joan, the daughter of Christian missionaries from England, was born and raised in Germany and would have been educated there. Taking into account the times and the limitations put upon women, what would it take for a very intelligent woman to actually rise in the Church while hiding her sexuality? This part of the book is fascinating.

But perhaps the most revealing part of the book has nothing to do with the Pope Joan legend, but with women who have already been ordained Roman Catholic priests. Stanford views them as modern-day Pope Joans. He interviews a woman in the Czech Republic who was ordained a Catholic priest during the communist era by Bishop Felix Davidek.

Stanford discusses the so-called “Mexican faculties,” the name of which comes from the anti-clerical and anti-Church behavior during the Mexican Revolution. Because of immediate threats to the Church, the “Mexican faculties” allow priests to consecrate other priests and bishops to consecrate other bishops. This is how Bishop Jan Blaha ordained Davidek in 1968. The communist regime in Czechoslovakia was extremely repressive, and there was a fear that the Roman Catholic Church would be eradicated, which led to this extraordinary situation. It was Bishop Davidek who, in 1970, believed that by ordaining married men and women they would be less likely to be suspected by the government and could operate as clerics in secret without discovery. In the case of the woman Stanford interviewed, she was able to celebrate communion, hear confessions and perform other clerical duties for those Catholics imprisoned; no one in authority suspected a woman could be a priest. This seemingly validated Davidek’s initiative.

Sadly, Davidek died in 1988, one year before Gorbachev’s perestroika began thawing East-West relations that resulted in the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Once Czechoslovakia was free, Rome refused to acknowledge Davidek’s ordination of women; the ordained men were told to join the Uniate church, those Eastern Christians who kept the Eastern Orthodox rites but acknowledged papal primacy; this church, like the Eastern Orthodox churches, have married priests. These men are betrayed, according to Stanford, since they have no connection to the Uniates but are Roman Catholics. At least they have an option in which to remain priests. The women have no recourse. Rome will not recognize the ordination of women under any circumstances. With Davidek already dead, he could not defend his actions.

As older copies of Christian scriptures are found— predating the traditional holy writings by hundreds of years—we are discovering that pronouns were changed in many works from female to male, and that there are other Christian works where women are in leadership positions; there is evidence that women also performed clerical duties. Nonetheless, Rome—and the Eastern Orthodox churches for that matter—refuse to even consider the possibility of women priests.

Was there a Pope Joan? There have been other books written about the possibility of a female pope. Many of these were written by academics. I have not read them, but I can say that I enjoyed this book. This is a very good introduction to the topic.