The Grail Code 

Archive for December, 2007

PLS in action

Sunday, December 30th, 2007

Oh, I love getting unexpected gifts in the mail. Especially when those gifts are books, because I especially love books. And particularly especially when those books are sloppily printed, cheaply bound rants by conspiracy theorists. As my long-time readers already know, I have a particular affection for conspiracy theorists.

For Christmas, someone I don’t even know (how did he know my nickname was “Resident”? Only my closest friends call me that) sent me National Sunday Law, a long rant by a splinter Seventh-Day Adventist that shows how the Papists are conspiring with the United States Government to make you stop working on Sunday, in spite of the fact that Saturday is the real Sabbath. Satan is behind it all, you can be sure. (You can read it on line, but nothing can duplicate the experience of holding the actual foul-smelling newsprint pages in your hand.)

Personally, I’d be in favor of a law to make me stop working on Sunday, as long as it was understood that it was merely the first stage in a long-term plan to make me stop working on Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, and Monday as well. This working stuff is terribly overrated. But according to the book, it stops at Sunday, which I agree is wrong. A law that places one religion above another has no place in our (theoretically) tolerant society.

This book is such a classic combination of conspiracy theory and eschatological speculation that I can’t help myself. I have to read it, and I have to tell you about it. If I get a rant for Christmas, you get a rant for New Year’s.

There are just so many amazing things about this book. First off is that the national Sunday law is an imminent danger. It’s happening any moment now. And that’s still true in the newly updated edition of the book, even though the first edition was published in 1983. It doesn’t look like we’re any closer to a national Sunday law; in fact, it looks as though the idea of Sunday as just another shopping day has become firmly institutionalized. But, in the immortal words of Dick Martin, That’s what they’d like you to believe! Like every conspiracy theory, any apparent disproof only makes the theory stronger. The diabolical forces must be really diabolical, because they hide their work so well!

I hardly need to tell you that the book of Revelation gives our author most of his best material. Every generation reads Revelation and sees its prophecies coming true in our own time. This book follows the standard pattern. We start out with a standard description of how much more awful our age is than the ages before it were. Lots of stories about horrible murders and perversions lead up to this amazing declaration:

Crime doubles every ten years.”

This, by the way, is probably the most perniciously evil statement in the book. As far as I can tell, it’s just a bald lie; but it’s exactly what many people, perhaps even most people, believe. We make our political decisions based on perceptions like this, and your freedoms are always in danger of being eroded by them. Habeas corpus? Innocent until proven guilty? Maybe crime has spiraled out of control so much that we can’t afford such luxuries anymore.

Think for a moment what it would mean if the crime rate, usually measured as a percentage of the population victimized, doubled every ten years. Suppose we start at 5%, which was about the property crime rate in 1973. Count with me: 5%, 10%, 20%, 40%, 80%, 160%—it takes less than sixty years for there to be more victims than people.

I’ve written about this kind of PLS before, but here’s one of the clearest examples of it I’ve ever seen. The truth, by the way, is that crime has gone way down; for real crime statistics, see this page from the Department of Justice (“Since 1994, violent crime rates have declined, reaching the lowest level ever in 2005”; “Property crime rates continue to decline”). And then notice how, while the actual crime graphs go down, the generic graph icon for “Crime facts at a glance” shows a line rising steeply upward. That’s how firmly the impression of rising crime is planted in our minds!

Of course, the updated version of the book adds the September 11 attacks, painting terrorism as a new level of horror never experienced before. How easily we forget that the 1970s were the golden age of terrorism. Here in Pittsburgh, the Weather Underground tried to blow up the Gulf Building; radical groups of all sorts terrorized Europe. The September 11 attacks killed more people at once, but terrorism was actually more of an epidemic thirty years ago.

Shortly after that, the number of the Beast is decoded: one of the titles of the Pope is found to add up to 666 in Roman numerals, if we completely ignore the order of the numerals (so that IV denotes 6, for example) and count the letters that aren’t numerals at all as 0. Then we find that the mark of the beast is observing the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, and from there the whole Apocalypse falls neatly into place.

But even after the apocalypse, we’re not done. There are thirteen appendices devoted to individual subjects (numbered 1 through 12 but including a 1A). You can always count on appendices in conspiracy books. As the author gets deeper into the conspiracy, more and more things fall into place, and there just isn’t room for all of them in the main body of the book.

Now, what are we to make of all this? I think the message here is that we live in a state of permanent apocalypse. This book has been predicting the imminent arrival of the tribulation for almost twenty-five years now, and it claims “32 million in print.” I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m predicting that, in 2033, it will still be in print, still announcing the imminent tribulation, and with no excuse offered for the fifty-year delay. Meet me back here in 2033 and see if I’m right.

A more important lesson, though, is that we need to be very suspicious when things start falling neatly into place. Our minds are designed to see patterns; that’s how we learn and survive. But our pattern identifiers are quite capable of going slightly mad. If I told you that you were being pursued by a secret cabal of Masons in blue Chrysler minivans, you’d laugh at me. But the next time you went out driving, you’d begin to notice how many blue Chrysler minivans there are around you, and how many of them seem to be right behind you, and how many of them have Masonic symbols on their license-plate holders. Not all of them would have the Masonic symbols, but that just shows how clever those Masons are. Now, if you’re thinking rationally, you’d realize that Chrysler makes the most popular minivan, and blue is a very popular color. But that pattern-recognizing part of your brain is always working, tempting you to see patterns in random events.

Oddly enough, that ability of ours to see patterns has given us some of the world’s best fiction and some of its worst. The Walter Map Lancelot cycle sees the whole story of Arthur and his knights as a giant allegory of sin and redemption, the whole human experience. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code sees a pattern of conspiracy in the same Grail stories. In each case, the brain of the author has imposed patterns on certain events; the result is a masterpiece in one case, a shoddy mess in the other. I leave it to you to decide which is which.

Tomb of Jesus: still not found

Thursday, December 20th, 2007

In honor of the still-striking writers in Hollywood, here’s a rerun. One of the most-emailed items on the BBC’s web site this morning is this crusty old thing, a story that first appeared way back in February. “Jesus tomb found, says film-maker”—with a headline like that it’s got to be true! Actually, it’s not, but apparently some people are still talking about it as though it were. As you might expect, I thoroughly demolished the filmmaker’s argument when the story first ran, but as a public service to all those who might be taken in by the story on its second go-round, here we go again.

By now you’ve surely heard the wonderful news. But I’ll tell you anyway: the tomb of Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene has been found—and found, just coincidentally, by a famous director with a movie to peddle.

Mr. James Cameron is no fool. He knows a pot of gold when he sees one, and that’s exactly what he has on his hands here. Alternative-Jesus theories are big money these days. Just ask Mr. Dan Billion-Dollar-Industry Brown.

If you take all this for the hokum it is, it’s really very entertaining. But apparently some people are taking this tomb-of-Jesus story perfectly seriously, and that’s where I really have to draw the line.

I’m not an archaeologist, so I can’t evaluate the supposed find the way an archaeologist would. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to examine it even if I were a reputable archaeologist—or perhaps especially if I were a reputable archaeologist. But I do know a little about history, and about the history of archaeology in general. My little knowledge doesn’t give me much confidence in this supposed discovery.

First of all, it’s very odd that the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene should go undiscovered until exactly the moment in history when a lot of people are prepared to believe that there was a tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Considering the number of hoaxes that blacken the history of Palestinian archaeology, I’m inclined to doubt the authenticity of this find altogether.

But let’s say that the discovery is authentic: that there really is a group of ossuaries marked Mary, Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Matthew, and Judah son of Jesus, plus four irrelevant unknowns.

Now, Mr. Cameron says that statistics and DNA analysis prove his claim that this is the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Let’s dismiss the sillier claim first. DNA can’t prove anything of the sort. The only thing DNA analysis could possibly prove in this case is that some of the people were related in certain ways to some of the other people. DNA doesn’t include a coded curriculum vitae. So it might (I don’t know enough about DNA analysis to say it would) be possible to prove that one of the Marys was the mother of Jesus son of Joseph, and that Judah son of Jesus was the son of the other Mary and Jesus son of Joseph.

Now let’s talk statistics. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Judah were some of the most common names in first-century Palestine. Jesus had at least two disciples named Judas (the Greek form of Judah): Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him, and Judas “not Iscariot,” who didn’t. (He’s more commonly known as St. Jude.) Almost universal ancient tradition says that the given name of Thomas was also Judas, which would bring the total to three.

As for Mary, think how much trouble average readers have sorting out Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife (or mother) of Clopas, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Even scholars still debate how many of those were the same person. It’s quite clear that the ground was littered with Marys in first-century Palestine.

Suppose I found a tomb dated roughly the time of George Washington—between 1700 and 1900, let’s say. Suppose it contained the remains of one George whose wife was Martha and whose mother was Mary. Would that prove conclusively that I had found George Washington? No, because those are very common names. Yet I don’t think they’re anywhere near as common as Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and Judah were in first-century Palestine.

Now, let’s look at the assumptions we’re making. Mr. Cameron says that finding the tomb of Mary Magdalene was what convinced him that this must be the real tomb of Jesus. I quote from the BBC article:

Another grave said by producers to be of Mary Magdalene convinced researchers of the truth of their find, Mr Cameron said at a New York news conference.

Unveiling his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Mr Cameron said the chances of finding that combination of names together was like finding a grave marked Ringo next to others marked John, Paul and George.

“Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that’s the Ringo, that’s what sets this whole film in motion,” he said.

In other words, what proves that this Jesus is in fact Jesus Christ is the fact that he was buried with his wife Mary, presumed to be Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a son. Without that fact, the find wasn’t convincing even to Mr. Cameron.

Now, let’s step away from the early 21st century for a moment and remember that, in almost all the rest of history, that fact would have proved conclusively that this was not the tomb of Jesus. Relying only on the known histories of Jesus’ life, every historian—Christian, agnostic, atheist, Satanist, or whatever—would have concluded that he died without marrying.

Now a number of popular books have, without a scrap of real historical evidence, convinced the illiterati that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Because of that unhistorical popular delusion, Mr. Cameron is convinced that he’s found the tomb of Jesus.

In other words, the premise is pure fantasy, which is why I can’t really accept the conclusion.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey