Saturday, March 17, 2007

Matt 24 Watch, 15: Kathleen McGowan -- the Dan Brown effect mutates and metastasises

A few weeks back, about the time when the brouhaha over the Cameron video came up, I was browsing the stacks in the local public library. While doing so, I ran across Kathleen McGowan's recently published The Expected One, intended to be book 1 of a trilogy. [NB: I have seen a claim that it reached No 13 on the NYT bestseller list, so it is plainly worth at least a passing glance, if only to understand what becomes popular today, why.]

So, I borrowed it, and have been wading though it -- it is a sad, painful read.

Thus far, I see that it seems the author believes herself to be a descendant of the marital union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, basing this on visions she claims to have had, and on various folk tales and legends that she claims constitute “proof,” though not "academic" proof. An exchange with Ms Diane Sawyer during her ABC TV interview is quite revealing:

Sawyer: "For everybody who says, a novel, fine, write a novel, promote a novel. But there’s no proof here. There’s really no proof either of Mary Magdalene and Jesus being together."
McGowan: "That’s absolutely untrue, there’s all kinds of proof."
Sawyer: "Tell me."
McGowan: "It’s just not the traditional academic proof . . . . I set out to find proof that had not been written down. My work took twenty years because I spent so much time in the cultures, the folklore, the living traditions of this marriage and their children."
Sawyer: "So you’re say–you’re saying that the proof is in the persistence of the stories that have been passed down?"
McGowan: "Absolutely, and the endurance of these cultural traditions. But there’s all kinds of historical proof, you just have to dig to find it, and that’s what I did as I put all of that together in this book." [HT: Newsbusters]

In short, legends and stories, in Mrs McGowan's opinion, are proof enough to make major adverse claims against the historic Christian faith and its scriptures.

Further to this, as part of the "evidence" she cites, the book's chapters are typically headed by long citations from the alleged lost book, The Arques Gospel of Mary Magdalene, The Book of Disciples. In the text, she also has her revealer of the secrets of the Cathars speak of a gospel penned by no less than Jesus himself [!], which is stated to be the basis of the Cathar teachings and the trigger for the crusade and massacres against them. These books appear to be artifacts of her imagination, and/or the murky world of legends she seems to inhabit, as they are evidently unknown to the world of scholarship.

The novel itself is about Maureen Paschal, a red-headed [it's important!] feminist journalist and her vision-driven journey of discovery in the murky world of Catharism and two alleged ancient hidden and/or lost Gospels allegedly suppressed by the Roman church. It can most accurately -- and charitably -- be described as a thinly disguised fictionalised fantasy pseudo-autobiography. (I am not sure if this is a new genre that is emerging; more or less, my life as I wish it to have been, turned into a novel that reveals my view of the world's hidden truth, suppressed by evil conspirators..) Thus, what Dan Brown said of his fictional heroine, Sophie Neveau, we see here Mrs McGowan saying of her red-headed heroine and herself. As a USA Today article (complete with a picture of the red headed author standing in front of a church door and sporting near-Jesus-style long hair) reports:

Kathleen McGowan, novelist and self-proclaimed descendant of a union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene . . . says she's ready to cope with people who think she's crazy or a heretic . . . . her powerful literary agent and the editors at New York publisher Simon & Schuster . . . are throwing their weight behind her autobiographical religious thriller The Expected One, out July 25, with a sizable first printing of 250,000 copies . . . .

"I certainly expect there to be a backlash," says McGowan, 43, a Little League mom from Los Angeles who with her husband, Peter, has three sons: Patrick, 16, Conor, 12, and Shane, 4. "But I have the support of my family and friends and that's what I draw from." . . . .

McGowan says her book is not a Da Vinci Code knockoff.

"Everyone's going to think I'm on The Da Vinci Code bandwagon, but I'm not," says McGowan, who began working on her book in 1989. The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003 . . . .

Simon & Schuster is spending $275,000 to promote The Expected One and is sending the author on a cross-country tour beginning Aug. 3 in Los Angeles. But when it comes to McGowan's claims about her own bloodline (which she mentions in the novel's afterword), the publisher is treading lightly, with no plans to promote the author's personal story.

"It's an interesting back story, but we're marketing this fabulous novel," says Trish Todd, editor in chief at Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Todd says she has no problem believing McGowan's claim that she descends from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "Yes, I believe her. Her passion and her mission are so strong, how can she not be?"

Indeed, that is the vital issue. And, while it may be painful to look such a grim warning in the eye, it is wise for us to heed Solomon:

PR 14:12 There is a way that seems right to a man,
but in the end it leads to death.

PR 14:15 A simple man believes anything,
but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.

PR 14:18 The simple inherit folly,
but the prudent are crowned with knowledge.

PR 14:25 A truthful witness saves lives,
but a false witness is deceitful.

Harvard's Simon Greenleaf, a founder of the modern theory of evidence, adds, in his now classic survey on the evidentiary credibility of the biblical Gospels:

Every event which actually transpires has its appropriate relation and place in the vast complication of circumstances, of which the affairs of men consist; it owes its origin to the events which have preceded it, it is intimately connected with all others which occur at the same time and place, and often with those of remote regions, and in its turn gives birth to numberless others which succeed. In all this almost inconceivable contexture, and seeming discord, there is perfect harmony; and while the fact, which really happened, tallies exactly with every other contemporaneous incident, related to it in the remotest degree, it is not possible for the wit of man to invent a story, which, if closely compared with the actual occurrences of the same time and place, may not be shown to be false . . . . in the testimony of the true witness there is a visible and striking naturalness of manner, and an unaffected readiness and copiousness in the detail of circumstances, as well in one part of the narrative as another, and evidently without the least regard to the facility or difficulty of verification or detection . . . the force of circumstantial evidence is found to depend on the number of particulars involved in the narrative; the difficulty of fabricating them all, if false, and the great facility of detection; the nature of the circumstances to be compared, and from which the dates and other facts to are be collected; the intricacy of the comparison; the number of intermediate steps in the process of deduction; and the circuity of the investigation. The more largely the narrative partake[s] of these characteristics, the further it will be found removed from all suspicion of contrivance or design, and the more profoundly the mind will rest in the conviction of its truth.

In short, deception is exposed by want of coherence and correspondence between what is said and the material facts, but "simple" (or, naive and undiscerning) persons will too often fail to take the time to distinguish between what they feel or hear from those they look up to and what is credibly so. So, let us first go to the hinge of facts on the early history of the Christian church. For, Paul Barnett, in his classic, Is the New Testament History?, provides a much better place to start than with visions, untraceable books and legends, by giving us a resume of the consensus view of early non-Christian sources from late C1 to early C2, on the roots of the Christian faith and its characteristics:

On the basis of . . . non-Christian sources [i.e. Tacitus (Annals, on the fire in Rome, AD 64; written ~ AD 115), Rabbi Eliezer (~ 90's AD; cited J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1929), p. 34), Pliny (Letters to Trajan from Bithynia, ~ AD 112), Josephus (Antiquities, ~ 90's)] it is possible to draw the following conclusions:
  1. Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judaea during the period where Tiberius was Emperor (AD 14 - 37) and Pontius Pilate was Governor (AD 26 - 36). [Tacitus]
  2. The movement spread from Judaea to Rome. [Tacitus]
  3. Jesus claimed to be God and that he would depart and return. [Eliezer]
  4. His followers worshipped him as (a) god. [Pliny]
  5. He was called "the Christ." [Josephus]
  6. His followers were called "Christians." [Tacitus, Pliny]
  7. They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome [Tacitus, Pliny]
  8. It was a world-wide movement. [Eliezer]
  9. His brother was James. [Josephus]
[Is the New Testament History? (London, Hodder, 1987), pp. 30 - 31.]

The pattern in these corroborating sources is instantly familiar; that is, the NT accounts plainly fit into a recognisable historical pattern of facts credibly established through a range of quite early non-Christian sources on the C1 origins, claims and spreading of the Christian movement; though of course the primary Christian sources give far more details than one would expect from sources that mention such facts in passing as they go on to make their own points. That corroboration should not be surprising, given that (as Barnett goes on to observe, pp. 37 - 41) in the very first cluster of writing sub-apostolic church fathers -- Clement of Rome [c. AD 96], Ignatius [c. 108] and Polycarp [c. 110], 25 of the 27 books in the New Testament are cited or alluded to, as authentic and authoritative scripture [only the two rather brief works, 2 Jn and Jude, are not cited or alluded to]; so the subsequent textual history of the NT documents begins in the 90's, i.e. within living memory of the Apostles, and it continues in an unbroken chain of custody to the origin of printing.

The core testimony of that New Testament, traceable to the mid 30's AD, and preached all across the Mediterranean world starting right next to Jesus' empty tomb in Jerusalem, is this:

1CO 15:1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you . . . . 1CO 15:3 . . . Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 . . . was buried, . . . was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and . . . appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

1CO 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. 11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.

That is the record of those who were there, many of whom died for their witness. The Apostle Paul, who wrote down this witness in 55 AD, some ten years later went on to warn in his last Epistle, just before he was killed, that:

1 Tim 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths . . .

Peter, one of the 500 eyewitnesses, also wrote, as he approached the end of his life in 64 - 65 AD: 2PE 1:16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

So, whose report will we believe, why?

And, if one chooses to disbelieve the testimony of the C1 church, how will s/he then answer to the Morison Challenge:

[N]ow the peculiar thing . . . is that not only did [belief in Jesus' resurrection as in part testified to by the empty tomb] spread to every member of the Party of Jesus of whom we have any trace, but they brought it to Jerusalem and carried it with inconceivable audacity into the most keenly intellectual centre of Judaea . . . and in the face of every impediment which a brilliant and highly organised camarilla could devise. And they won. Within twenty years the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish Church and impressed itself upon every town on the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean from Caesarea to Troas. In less than fifty years it had began to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire . . . . Why did it win? . . . . We have to account not only for the enthusiasm of its friends, but for the paralysis of its enemies and for the ever growing stream of new converts . . . When we remember what certain highly placed personages would almost certainly have given to have strangled this movement at its birth but could not - how one desperate expedient after another was adopted to silence the apostles, until that veritable bow of Ulysses, the Great Persecution, was tried and broke in pieces in their hands [the chief persecuter became the leading C1 Missionary/Apostle!] - we begin to realise that behind all these subterfuges and makeshifts there must have been a silent, unanswerable fact. [Who Moved the Stone, (Faber, 1971; nb. orig. pub. 1930), pp. 114 - 115.]

This challenge is easy to duck, but not so easy to answer. So, indeed, whose report will you believe, why? END


starsbloom said...

do you realize that much of christianity is steeped in myths from other cultures that existed and adopted these myths way before the dawn of christianity? you are comparing her truths to your concept of christian truth, all the while assuming that all of your christianity is based on truth....beware....know what it is that you claim to believe.zvtfnxj

Gordon said...


Your comment unfortunately exemplifies a now all too typical pattern of dismissive, relativism-driven conclusion without seriously engaging objective evidence.

In particular, I observe that the notion "her truths" used in your comment is all too telling on the underlying idea that truth comes down to perception -- a point which you violates so soon as you affirms or deny any claim!

Christian faith is a faith, but it is a reasonable faith anchored in sound reason based on solid evidence. Ms MGowan simply has written a novel which tries to elevate dubious speculation to the same level.

The two simply do not compare. And, it is reasonable to expect you to tell the difference, and to expect you to address the issue on the merits. Sadly, that you have failed to do in your comment.


starsbloom said...

thanks for your reply... i confess i am not very good at debate, but i will try my best to make my thoughts clear as best i can.

you didn't address my comment about how much christian "faith" is influenced by ancient myths from earlier cultures, ones that were claimed as "heathen" and pagan by the very same church that adopted these myths and claiming them as their own....i am not one who has thrown out the baby with the bath water, although most mainstream christians would call me "damned".

with regard to "truths", i confess that i do embrace the concept that the faith that each individual has is their own truth; as there do exist, religions and cultures that each only accept their faith as the only truth. they all do....i have not affirmed or denied any claim -
it has also been my experience that i know enough to not believe that there is only one truth, and the beginning of wisdom is in knowing that you don't really, why do we always have to best each other? why can't we just embrace our own truths and allow others to explore and embrace their own without making it a contest, but a means by which we become a better people? isn't that what any god would want?

Gordon said...


First, if you will look at he right hand column in this blog, you will see several clusters of links that will carry you to abundant resources on the authenticity of the historical core of the NT and gospel as I outlined and excerpted on in the original post.

(You may wish to start with my own lecture notes here [on worldview-level critical awareness as the first step in philosophy], here and here [on modernity and post-/ultra- modernity and why they fall apart as worldview stances], here [on theology since C18], here [on evidence and the challenge of selective hyperskepticism] and here [on a case in point on the alleged historically incredible mythical claims at the core of the Gospel]. You may want to look here on one claim that is notoriously a case in point on how the Christian faith is often derided as patently illogical, but on closer inspection turns out to have a serious point.)

I strongly suggest you look at the four links on apologetics in the RH column, to address an encyclopedia full of issues you may have. There are many more links out there too. A good visit to any reasonable local Christian Bookshop will turn up much more. The Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics may be a useful compendium, Kreeft and Tacelli's Handbook of Christian Apologetics is a good survey of a lot of issues, and McDowell's Evidence, latest edition is also helpful as a start-point book. The staff may be able to help you with much more.]

In short, there is no shortage of resources to address your concerns, if you will but follow them up.

As to further concerns you state, I will remark more or less relatively briefly on points:

1] christian "faith" is influenced by ancient myths from earlier cultures

This is most likely a form of the old Frazer Golden Bough academic myth. Such theses have long since exploded, cf. e.g. Nash's The Gospel and the Greeks.

There have been accretions to the core Christian faith [NB the above original post, esp on 1 Cor 15, on what that core is about] from many cultures, much of it due to the early centuries missionary policy of providing a "close" substitute for pagan traditions and using pagan sites to found churches, but that has nothing to do with the historic core I addressed in the above post.

I currently take a very pragmatic view of e.g. Easter and Christmas: occasions to preach the gospel in ways that tie into now deep cultural and family traditions. (I once preached a sermon on whether one was celebrating Saturnalia or Christmas. I note, too, on another sermon on how the symbolism of light coming into the world and increasing to Pentecost is powerful in light of the seasons in the N hemisphere, as Rev Garnett Roper pointed out from the pulpit of my home church in Jamaica many years ago now.)

In short, the C1, NT-anchored core of the Christian faith is not pagan. [And if you are influenced by the Watchtower Society or the like, they simply have got it wrong, though if you don't know at least the level of what I have pointed to above, you will be easily misled. Sorry to be so specific in a reference, but that is what your claims invite.]

2] i confess that i do embrace the concept that the faith that each individual has is their own truth

It would be more correct usage -- but would then be a mere triviality -- to speak thusly: i confess that i do embrace the concept that the faith that each individual has is their own [OPINION].

In short, there is already a very good English word for what is of merit in what you are trying to say.

Let us therefore reserve the word truth for what Aristotle said in aptly defining it, 2,300+ years ago: that which says of what is, that it is; and, of what is not, that it is not. Jesus adds the appropriate virtue -- truthfulness: Let your yes be yes, and your no, no. Whatever is more than this comes of evil.

To deny that truth in this sense exists, is to try to affirm an instance of such a claimed truth, i.e it is self-refuting. Far better is to acknowledge what Josiah Royce highlighted: error exists.

Let us follow up the chain of logical consequences:

--> This is undeniably true as to try to deny it exemplifies it.

--> So, well-warranted truth exists.

--> Therefore, truth exists and is [at least in part] knowable, even by finite, fallible, fallen creatures who are too often ill-willed.

And, while we may be in error in part -- we see through a glass darkly -- that does not excuse us from the duty of truthfulness in thought and word; and even deeds as one can lie by what one does as well as what one says [a second NT cite].

[HW: tell me the NT texts that the above three cites come from, and where and when we first find them in the MSS of the NT and/or the Fathers.]

3] i know enough to not believe that there is only one truth, and the beginning of wisdom is in knowing that you don't really know

It would be far more accurate for you to say that, in the first instance: i know enough to not believe that there is only one [OPINION]

In the second part,the possibility of error haunts our attempts to seek or know or state truth, true, but the point of so stating is to make a claim to know a certain truth. Namely, that we start from error and relative ignorance, so should be humble and willing to learn and correct our mistakes.

This last is very compatible with the existence of truth and with the point that adequate warrant exists that certain opinions have a right to be termed: knowledge -- well-warranted, credibly true belief. [Cf here my first linked in the set of references above.]

4] why do we always have to best each other? why can't we just embrace our own truths and allow others to explore and embrace their own without making it a contest, but a means by which we become a better people?

So, why then are you trying to "correct" me in my "intolerant" and [by implication, "wrong"] opinions?

In short,t he answer to the problem of error and multiplicity of opinions leading to acrimonious debate and polarisation is not to indulge in circles of group-think, but to enter into serious dialogue based on comparative difficulties.