Friday, 30 June 2017

Review: Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (1987)

Charles Berlitz, The Lost Ship of Noah (W.H. Allen & Co: London, 1987)

Berlitz's exploration of the Great Flood and the search for Noah's Ark is much better than it should have been.  It's a compact 187 pages but still gives the impression of covering significant ground at a slow amble.

The Lost Ship of Noah by Charles Frambach Berlitz

The book is best described as an examination of different aspects of the tale of the Flood.  Each chapter more-or-less stands alone.  One covers Flood myths from around the world (and the different personages 'Noah' has taken).  Another covers the difficulties of climbing Mount Ararat, and still another the verbal accounts of sightings of the Ark in the mountains of Armenia.  This has a few drawbacks.  The book seems fairly undisciplined and no real line of argument emerges.  Sometimes information seems to be included simply because the author was aware of it rather than because it was relevant.  I'm not sure why the final chapter discussed the prospects of the world ending in 1999 (pp. 171-187).

The author seems to have made a genuine effort to be objective.  For example, he recounts that timbers brought which Fernand Navarra claimed to have recovered from Ararat were variously dated to 5000BC and 560AD (pp. 94-95).  On the other hand, he studiously avoids commenting on how documentary evidence of Ark sightings can miraculously never be located.  For example, the report of a Russian search for the Ark was apparently destroyed by Leon Trotsky (p. 33).  People who have photographed the Ark will show the pictures to others but not release them to the press or allow them to be copied (pp. 41-42).  A statement from an eyewitness is mysteriously destroyed in a house fire (p. 150).  Newpaper reports can somehow never be found (pp. 42 and 150).  He is also remarkably unselective about his material.  He accepts as genuine an absurd claim by a man in Arizona to by the son of Tsar Nicholas II (p. 37).  He quotes from a fourteenth century Ark sighting by Sir John Mandeville, despite Mandeville being a fictional character! (p. 18).  And his account of flood legends from around the world seems to be drawn from secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting secondary sources quoting ... you get the idea: what the primary source material might be is anyone's guess (pp. 129-136).

Fundamentally, this book is less history and more a collection of folklore.  It's worth flipping through on a long train ride, but don't take it too seriously.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Book Review: Knight and Lomas, The Second Messiah (1997)

Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, The Second Messiah (Century Books: London, 1997)
Some while ago I wrote a fairly cranky review of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods.  I think I should apologise.  To Mr von Daniken.  He actually hasn’t written the worst piece of faux-scholarship I’ve ever seen.  That honour goes to Messrs Knight and Lomas for The Second Messiah: Templars, The Turin Shroud and the Great Secret of Freemasonry.
The Second Messiah by Christopher Knight
Image from here
The authors basic hypothesis runs like this:  Jesus Christ was the child of a teenager called Mary who was sexually assaulted by a priest of the Jerusalem Temple.  Paul the Apostle misunderstood that Christ’s resurrection, which (the authors say) was a Jewish ritual and not an actual return from the dead.   As a result, Christianity developed into a strange set of ideas which Jesus would not recognise.  The priests of the Temple fled to Europe as refugees after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.  There they established themselves as the “Rex Deus” families and, a thousand years later, conspired to launch the First Crusade, recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens, recover the scrolls and other knowledge buried under the site of the Temple, and found the order of the Knights Templar.  This order continued to exist after its suppression in 1307 (the image on the Shroud of Turin belongs to their final Grand Master, Jacques de Molay).  It morphed into modern Freemasonry, which has itself lost sight of the ancient knowledge it was meant to preserve.
I think it’ll tell you everything you need to know about this book that before I’d finished reading the first page, I’d already written “bollocks!” in the margin.  I repeated that word, and worse, for the next 244 pages.  In fact, the only pages that I didn’t write something like that on were the ones were I’d largely stopped reading and was just skimming with increasing annoyance.  Let’s speak plainly: the authors have not done even basic research into their subject.  They appear to be unaware of the scholarship surrounding how the New Testament came to exist (for example, they seem to believe that Mark’s gospel came into existence spontaneously, and don’t seem aware of the hypothesised “Q Source”.  They plainly know nothing at all about mediaeval spirituality (reading Norman Cantor’s landmark ‘The Crisis of Western Monasticism, 1050-1130’* and JH van Engen’s ‘The “Crisis of Cenobitism” Reconsidered’** would have done wonders, for instance).  Weirdly, they seem to think that a priest and a monk are the same thing (pp. 23 and 75), that canonization and beatification are identical (p. 40), and that the Celtic church denied the divinity of Christ (as, in the authors’ view, did some parts of Christianity(!) before the Council of Nicaea (pp. 70 and 199).
More exasperating, though, are the errors suggesting that not only did the authors do no research, but that nobody actually read the manuscript before it was published.  How else can one explain the baffling conflating of the Greek letter Tau (Τ) with the Hebrew letter Taw (ת), when the shape of the letter is critical to their argument (p. 41)?  Equally, how did nobody notice their bizarre claim that the serpent-and-rod symbol for medicine is the Rod of Asclepius from Greek mythology and not a symbol from the Jewish Essene sect (p. 213).
The entire “Rex Deus” argument is based on an account given to the authors of a story spontaneously told to another writer by “a distinguished [French]man of advancing years” who claimed to be a member of the Rex Deus family.  The Frenchman is never identified, although one wonders if it was the infamous fraudster andhoaxer Pierre Plantard (pp. 77-9 and 198-9).  The authors seem unfamiliar with the concepts of “hearsay”.  Or “lying”.  Or “bullshit”.
It would take a couple of pages to itemise the errors in the book, and I’m not going to do that.  It's simply not worth it.  The authors should perhaps not be condemned for writing drivel if the public was willing to buy it.  The publishers, however, should be strung up for aiding and abetting this exercise in historical negligence.
* (1960) 66 American Historical Review 46.
** (1986) 61 Speculum 269.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

First visit to an LDS Church

Hi everyone,

I spent most of the weekend in Melbourne at an SES Unit Controllers' Conference.  I had some time spare on Sunday and so I went to an LDS Church service in Wantirna South, not far from the conference venue.  I hadn't been to one before and it seemed a good opportunity.

LDS Temple, Wantirna South, Victoria, Australia (Image from here)
The congregation could not have been more welcoming.  One of the older gentlemen there (he told me his role but I'm afraid I can't remember) took me in hand.  He introduced me to a number of members of the congregation as well as to the Bishop and Missionaries.  They were welcoming but not overwhelming, which I found ideal.  I happened to have arrived on the Sacrament Sunday, where the bread and water is passed around and members give testimonies about the church and about the Book of Mormon.  In addition a "Sister Alice" was approved by the congregation to be a Sunday School teacher.  Three things stay strongly with me about this part of the service.  Firstly, there were many families there, from babies through to the elderly.  That part isn't new to me: any given Sunday a Catholic church will look the same.  Secondly, everyone was well dressed.  The women and girls wore sober dresses and blouses.  The men and boys wore suits.  I'd opted for Tommy Hilfiger slacks, a white shirt, blue tie and black windcheater, and felt almost slovenly!  This really was different: usually I attend church as neatly as I can, but I've been known to go wearing work clothes stained with mud, diesel and soot.  Thirdly, everyone seemed happy to be there.  Excited even.  The young lady who was appointed the Sunday School teacher positively beamed.

In my Sunday best.
The second part of the service was described as "Sunday School".  Notwithstanding the name it consisted of group scripture study by adults.  The discussion covered the Millennium and end times, particularly as covered by the Doctrine & Covenants.  I noticed that everyone had a keen knowledge of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants.

I think I was allowed into the third part of the service - the Priesthood Meeting - as a favour.  It sounds terribly catty to say it (and I only mention it because it's a strong recollection) but it was at this point I realised what I could smell: soap.  Every man present was not only clean shaven but seemed clean enough to be performing surgery.  This was appropriate: the discussion finished by noting elderly and infirm members of the congregation who needed help in one way or another.  Everyone was genuinely keen to see that these people were safe, looked after and cared for.  The outer cleanliness matched inner goodness.

The church seemed (I don't say it lightly) like a little vision of heaven.  It was clean.  It shone.  The people genuinely radiated the love believers are called to have for one another and for God.  This fitted: the more I learn of Mormon doctrine, the more I find in it which approaches perfection.  And I think this is why, right now, I doubt it's for me.  I don't belong in heaven, or at least in its earthly analogue.  Everything I know about serving God and loving my neighbour I've learned giving quick and dirty advice in a free community legal centre, or tarping rooves in the rain, or extricating casualties from wrecked cars.  The only things I do which are good involve dirty hands and cut corners.  I think that's why I love Pope Francis' call for the church to be a field hospital.  One columnist has put it particularly well -
One of Pope Francis’s gifts as a communicator is a peculiar feel for the memorable image: .... The most striking analogy in the interview is this: “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” No doctor doing triage on a battlefield is going to be fussing about his patients’ cholesterol or blood sugar levels. He is going to be treating major wounds and trying desperately to stop the bleeding.

I think my place is to be where people hurt and where I can help them, and where everything is imperfect and shopworn and down-at-heel and damaged.  I don't think I can serve God and neighbour as well anywhere else as I could do where I am.

There's one other thing.  I wasn't born into my church, but entered as an adult.  If I wasn't caught up by its firm teaching on divorce and remarriage, I might never have thought about leaving it.  To convert out of it feels a little like desertion.  No, actually it feels like something worse: cheating.  I know that my current status is problematic at best.  I know that if I repartner I'm in grave danger of damnation.  That doesn't seem a good enough reason to change my loyalty.  Whatever happens in this world or the next, I will not have dodged the rules*.

I have arranged, despite all of this, to speak to the missionaries in Shepparton next week.  At the very least one should put the question to them and hear their side of the matter.  They're such plainly good people that it would be a sin not to hear them out.  In the end, one must find the best place to serve God and neighbour and act accordingly.  Everything else is details.

* I'm endebted on this point to Camus -
They have wagered on the flesh, knowing they would lose. ... These men have not cheated.  They were gods of the summer at twenty in their thirst for life, and they are still gods today, stripped of all hope.  I have seen two of them die.  They were full of horror, but silent.  It is better that way
Albert Camus, 'Summer in Algiers' (transl. E.C. Kennedy) in P. Thody (ed.), Lyrical and Critical Essays (Vintage Books: New York, 1970), pp. 81, 91-2.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Ten years, new days

Hi everyone,
I'm typing this tonight on 1 June 2017 because I doubt I'll have a chance to do it tomorrow.  I'll cue it to post sometime in the small hours.
This post will go live on 2 June 2017.  June 2nd is my wedding anniversary.  This year would have been (is?) the ten year anniversary.  I'm sitting here typing this and wondering why I'm not reacting to it in any significant way.  I only noticed the date was coming up the other day.  In the last year or two, I've been generally aware of June 2nd in the same general way I'm aware of July 15th (Fall of Jerusalem in 1099) or October 25th (Russian Revolution in 1917).  Since noticing it, I've vaguely thought that I should do something to mark it.  Truthfully, though, I really can't be bothered.  Not in a huffy "letting severely alone" way.  I just can't really give a toss.
I suppose I should mourn in some way the life the ex and I started all those years ago, and the death of all that possibility.  Still, it's been over a long time.  I feel less regret now than ever.  It only recently struck me that after it all went kerplooie, I was entirely cut off by the my children's godparents.  The former in laws (save for the ex's parents) have made little if any effort to stay in touch.  These two points feel oddly liberating.  They are (or were) faithful and committed Roman Catholics, and their repudiation of me so much mocks the sacraments of Communion, Baptism and Matrimony that I feel largely absolved from my obligations of faith to anyone except my beloved daughters.
I have wondered if I am missing the city life I had with the ex.  I suppose I am: after all, I've gone from having a window office in two of these buildings -
Long time readers will know that I previously worked in Bourke Place and the Rialto Tower
- to working here today as a rouseabout -
Shearing shed near Costerfield, Victoria, Australia
It may or may not be significant that today in the shearing shed pictured I was working in the Tommy Hilfiger jeans she wanted me to buy years upon years ago!

The old life is slipping away a little more each time.  I guess I'm OK with that.  God does not intend us to be prisoners of the roads we have travelled.  If he did, He'd never have allowed us to see new horizons.
Image borrowed from Janie and Steve, Utah Trails: Almost Spring in the Grand Canyon