I was recently asked, "What, you haven't read Snow Crash?!?!?" by a colleague who had an appropriately-astonished look on his face. Beaus I'm a researcher in Virtual Reality who develops tools for scientists to study viruses, they assured me it was a "must read" novel by Neal Stephenson.
As I read, I was equally enthralled by the plot and disturbed by the references to Christianity that were peppered throughout the novel. If the thesis presented were true, I would have a lot of rethinking to do about my beliefs. So I set out to investigate them. This document describes that journey and what I discovered.
Once I realized that "The Deliverator" was a term created by a character in the novel rather than one intended by the author, I felt free to let myself be drawn into this engaging, high-technology novel set in a potential future. The characters are fun, the writing style is delightful, and potential "boring parts" are humorously skipped over. The settings are imaginative, the various subcultures are intriguing, and the overall virus thesis provides a rich back-story that really made me think and kept my intellect engaged while the action kept my interest.
Although the story is set in a possible future, the history of the story is that shared by those of us living now. Thus the statements made about story past can be taken to be true of the actual past (though they are not necessarily intended as such by the author). This can produce a mixture of fact and fiction surrounding historical people and events.
I suspect that many readers may infer from the historical and factual way theological material is presented to the characters that the theology described in the book is also true in our world. This is surely true for all of the descriptions presented (Babylonian religion in particular), but I am neither expert nor particularly concerned with most of them. I am concerned about several statements made in the book that are quite serious distortions of the way I've understood Christianity and Judaism to date, and these are what this commentary focuses on. I reproduce some of these statements here, labeled so that they can be referred to later by hypothesis number. All emphases are present in the original. [Braces denote editorial comment by me.] [Stop reading now if you haven't read the book; spoilers coming.]
Does the novel claim that everything described in it is true? Not at all. It is a work of fiction, not a philosophical or religious text. It does not claim to be either carefully researched or true to the facts.
On the first page of the Acknowledgments, we read:
Bruck Pollock... was the first and certainly not the last to point out that BIOS actually stands for "Basic Input/Output System," not "Built-In Operating System" as I have it here (and as it ought to be); but I feel that I am entitled to trample all other considerations into the dirt in my pursuit of a satisfying pun, so this part of the book is unchanged.
This sets forth a spirit with which we might take factual claims present in the book. Redefining BIOS (one of the older acronyms in computer technology) makes the story flow better and a good joke, so its original meaning is discarded. This happens in fiction and fantasy writing all the time, and is not a problem so long as readers don't try to bring the fictional meanings and stories back into the world of fact and history. Just as we would not be wise to rely on the definition of BIOS found here when taking a computer-science examination, we would be wise not to base our religion on the comments found here.
Christianity does in fact claim to be based on historically-accurate events relating to the life of an actual person named Yeshua (translated Joshua, then given the unique name Jesus). It relates to his claims to be the actual Jewish Messiah (called by his followers the Christ), and his actual claims like: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) It is therefore open to criticism on the grounds that what is presented in the Bible is not factual, either because Jesus was incorrect when he said these things or because later editors changed the text and he never actually said them.
This means that we need to investigate the claims made in the novel to see if they are in fact true. If they are, then we Christians should either change our religion or abandon it in favor of the postmodern "nothing is universally true, it is all just a matter of your point of view". Whether the author intended them to be true or not, we can investigate the claims based on the evidence at hand. I do so briefly here to allay nagging doubts in the hearts and minds of believers. These are not carefully researched arguments like those found in my comments on the Da Vinci Code because Snow Crash neither claims to present true material nor puts them forth as truth claims with references, it merely weaves them into the story. They are not a tightly-formed argument as is found in my comments on The Blind Watchmaker, which is a frontal assault on religion.
When we move from the technology claims to the religious claims, we find similar discrepancies between the novel and reality.
The passing statement about Eve in hypothesis 2 "whose Biblical name is Hawwa," is an example. The name Hawwa comes from some translations of the Quran, which is the Muslim holy book. This is Mohammed's retelling of the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, rather than the Biblical account. Some translations of the Quran (the Yusufali, the Pickthal, and the Shakir for example) do not include the reference to Hawwa, but refer to her only as Adam's wife. I say this only because it makes me wonder if the original source is the Quran or if it is Islamic tradition from which the name comes. This is of no consequence to the story line (somebody referred to her as Hawwa) but could be a problem for those of us who are trying to keep the story straight. Note that in the Quran as in the Bible, Eve's role is not that of a generic "ophidian mother goddess"; that idea comes from elsewhere.
The reference in hypothesis 3 to "King Hosea, who ruled the northern kingdom" is another example. In the Hebrew scriptures (adopted by the Christians as the old testament), references to Hosea occur only in the book of Hosea. In this book, they refer to the prophet Hosea which begins: "THE WORD of the LORD that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah, and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel." (RSV) Hosea was a prophet, not a king, during the time when king Joash ruled the northern kingdom of Israel. The prophets often opposed the kings and called on them and the nations to repent and return to God's ways, as Hosea did. The prophets are revered because what they predicted beforehand came true afterwards -- they were given true visions of the future by God.
Do these inaccuracies get in the way of the story? Not at all. After all, the book is a novel and its purpose is primarily to engage the reader in a thrilling story. It is not an academic article on theology, thus it does not require a strictly correct description of religion or religious history. It only has to be good enough to support the story line. It doesn't have to be true, only engaging and evocative.
In addressing the particular concerns listed above, I proceed hypothesis by hypothesis:
Hypothesis 1: Those who wrote Deuteronomy rewrote and reorganized tribal myths to produce a monarchy. History: Deuteronomy opens with Moses reducing his own centralized authority by appointing tribal leaders (1:9-18). He then bows to God's command and turns over his leadership to Joshua (3:23-29). He tells the people to obey the commandments rather than the leaders, who are warned not to add or remove any commandments (4:1-2). Indeed, there is a warning about the dangers of having a monarchy and strong limitations placed on anyone who would be king (17:14-20). The largest portion of the book is about the laws from God that are to be followed by everyone (and read every day even by the king) so that the heart of the nation will continue to be towards God.
Later, in I Samuel, we have a direct contradiction to the monarchy hypothesis, where we find the people asking for Samuel to "appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations." (RSV 8:5) The response of God, through Samuel, was to sternly warn the people that a king would take their sons and daughters for his own use, would take their fields and orchards and grain, and take their animals. (8:10-18) This was seen as a rebuke of God's leadership and was to be the cause of their ruin. (8:7-9)
So we see that the books attributed to the "Deuteronomists" do not themselves support the hypothesis of a shift from decentralized power to monarchy, but rather a decentralization of power and the exhortation of each individual to know and keep the law.
Hypothesis 2: Eve was another name for Asherah and was one in a long history of mythical goddesses associated with snakes and trees. She was worshipped by the Israelites until religious reformers came along. Comment: This is an example of an often-repeated form of argument whose template is: "The Bible contains a story about X. Other earlier works contain a story with elements similar to X, but with some differences. We can tell that the earlier work is a myth. Therefore the Biblical account is merely a myth." If Snow Crash had provided some specific references, we could follow up on them and make a specific response, but it is not intended as a scholarly work so it cannot be faulted for not providing one. Lacking that, we can only respond by saying that the generic argument has clear logical flaws; no matter how many stories I make up before or after a true account is made, their similarities or differences do not bear on the truthfulness of that account. If the presence of false theories invalidated the truth, science would have been unable to make the progress it has and the technologies we take for granted today would not function.
Hypothesis 3: The Genesis Eden story including Adam and Eve was a political allegory intended to warn the southern kingdom about the dangers of associating with Asherah. Comment: This raises the question of what kind of story the creation account and fall in Genesis is. Is it a myth? Is it a science textbook? Is it political commentary? Is it a description of the authority in the universe? Having not researched this myself, I am most convinced by the point of view I've heard expressed by Gerald Wooten (a member of our church who has studied the topic). He holds the view that Genesis was written to show the order of authority in the world to an audience that consisted largely of polytheists who worshipped many things (the sun, the moon, animals, lightning, the sea). Intending respect and without intending authoritative interpretation, I paraphrase the Genesis account as: "You worship the Moon? God made that. The sea? He made that too. The sun? Yep, even that! Thunder, lighting, sex -- He's got it all covered. The order He established is the inorganic, plants, animals, man, and Himself; man is to be the tender of the rest, as His agent."
Hypothesis 4: In the tongue of Eden, naming a thing was the same as creating it. Comment: This language of Eden is described as fictional, even within Snow Crash. It seems to flow from the same line as the Gnostic heresies; the belief that if you can obtain secret knowledge (like this language), you can have power equivalent to but independent of God's power. This was the exact temptation that the serpent presented to Eve in the Biblical account.
Hypothesis 5: "After the deuteronomists had reformed Judaism, instead of making sacrifices, the Jews went to synagogue and read a Book. If not for the deuteronomists, the world's monotheists would still be sacrificing animals and propagating their beliefs through the oral tradition... [they] implanted ... a belief in copying things strictly..." History: It is certainly true that the keepers of the written Hebrew scripture were very careful to keep strictly correct copies. Deuteronomy 31:9-13 commands that the law be read every seventh year before all the people. In chapter 12 of How We Got the Bible, Neil R. Lightfoot describes the painstaking work of the Massoretes, who used such modern tools as checksums and word counts to ensure correctness of copying. They took over from a school of professional scribes before them who had also diligently maintained the accuracy of the scriptures. (I Chron. 2:55) This work was done so remarkably well that when the book of Isaiah was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls (written about 100 BC), it was essentially identical to the next most-recent copies in existence (dating from 1100 years later). So you'll get no argument from me about the accuracy of the transmission!
The problem lies in the first portion of the hypothesis, where it is asserted that reading the Bible took the place of ritual sacrifices. This makes the false assertion that animal sacrifice stopped once the scripture was put down in writing. In fact, we read in the Gospel of Saint Matthew about Jesus' angry overturning of the of tables for the moneychangers and dove merchants who had set up in the temple courts (where the gentiles were supposed to be worshipping). (Matthew 21:12-13) These were doves that were being sold for sacrifice. For Christians, the sacrifices ended when Jesus' perfect atoning sacrifice on the cross took the weight of all sin. For Jews, the sacrifices ended around 30 years later with the destruction of the temple (where the sacrifices were to be made).
Hypothesis 6: Worldly explanation for a Hebrew victory. Comment: I don't have any problem with God having wiped out the invaders using a biological pathogen which he had given careful instruction for the Hebrews to avoid. I do object to the unstated axiom that God cannot work otherwise; that all miracles can be explained as natural phenomena or the scheming of men. Miracles seem to be the traditional way that God lets us know that God has shown up.
Hypothesis 7: Jesus actually did not rise from the dead; that was a story tacked on later. Jesus intention in providing an empty tomb was to tell people not to look for him for leadership anymore. History: The evidence of this provided in Snow Crash was the statement that the story sounds like something printed in the National Enquirer. The first, and quite powerful, evidence provided in Acts and in church history to indicate that Jesus was raised is the fact that the disciples rebounded from the scattered and depressed state they were in after Jesus' death. Something happened to convince them that continuing to follow Jesus was important enough to go to their deaths proclaiming the he lived. A second, independent line of evidence comes from Paul's letters. Recall the story where Saul of Tarsus (a zealous persecutor of Christians) met Jesus on road to Damascus and was convicted by Jesus' authority and became the apostle to the Gentiles. (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-31) If Jesus had not risen from the dead, there would have been no "later" to tack things on, because no apostles would have written the Gospels. They had gone back to fishing and despairing. The message intended by the empty tomb was indeed clear, and it is that presented in the Bible and read responsively in churches on Easter Sunday: "He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!"
Hypothesis 8: Speaking in tongues at Pentecost was a viral outbreak causing the apostles to speak in the tongue of Eden. Comment: I'm not going to comment about modern speaking in tongues (and its counterpart of interpreting tongues), where I understand that the tongues are not intelligible to listeners other than the interpreters. I know nothing about this subject, either firsthand or from study. This is clearly not what happened at Pentecost, where "there were devout Jews from ever nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowds gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each." (Acts 2:5-6, RSV) Snow Crash already described the language of Eden as fictional; something miraculous was going on here.
Answering the question: Isn't this viral theory really neat? One important answer is that Christianity is not about what's "neat," or what's fashionable, or what makes us feel good, or what might be helpful, or what is a good philosophy to live by: it is about what is true. We can go to the history books and find out. When the atheist CS Lewis (a British linguist) went to examine the texts of the Bible under the assumption that they were fabrication, he ended up convinced by his investigation that they could only be true accounts of actual events, and he ended up a Christian [Surprised by Joy, Chapter XV]. When investigative journalist Lee Strobel went looking for the facts of the case, interviewing those on each side of the debate, he came to the same conclusion and to the same faith [The Case for Christ]. Those who have earnestly sought the truth of this matter have found it.
A second, and to me more compelling, answer is to slightly rephrase the question to bring out what for me is a deeper yearning: Wouldn't it be neat if each of us could be infected by a little bit of God? This is the longing of my heart. It is the only thing that can bring people into right relationship with their loving Creator. The good news ("Gospel" means "good news") is that Jesus came to earth for the purpose of making this very thing possible. His innocent suffering on our behalf on the cross fulfilled the demands of Justice: he traded his righteousness for our sin so that we could be right with God. He died and then rose again, defeating the hold that sin and death have on those who accept this gift. He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell those of us who place our lives in his hands and open our whole hearts to His love. Read the Gospels to hear the story. Read the book of Acts to see the impact this had on the disciples. Place your life in His loving hands to get God into your own life. And yes, it is much more than neat!