Podcast 21 follows on from podcast 19 concerning Moses. Specifically, the question addressed in this podcast is the origin of Moses. While not historically attested, Moses is nonetheless an important figure in both Judaism and Christianity. How do we explain Moses if he is not historical? This podcast attempts to suggest one plausible origin for Moses while admitting that we simply do not know where he really emerges in the religious imagination of antiquity.
In my more optimistic moods, I like to think of myself as a literary sort. Not constrained by the narrow confines of academia’s hallowed — and often hollow — halls, I have spent much of my life reading literature. I can’t say what started me on this track; my parents were not readers and the small-town school I attended encouraged little beyond subscribing to MAD Magazine. When I stumbled onto the literary giants, I was hooked. There are still great writers I have yet to explore, but one that I only really discovered at the prompting of my wife is Mark Twain. I’d of course known who he was. In my youth I never read any of his books. Then on a fateful, if carefully planned out, trip to Hannibal, Missouri to dig geodes during my geologist phase, we were rained out. The geode farm was closed. Sullen beyond shattered rock-hound dreams, I was at my wit’s end (not a long trip) when my wife suggested we not waste the miles we’d traveled, since Hannibal was also the boyhood home of Mark Twain. While there we bought souvenir quality volumes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Upon returning home, I read them non-stop.
While on vacation last week my wife was discussing her literary pursuits with her family and it emerged that the full, uncensored, autobiography of Mark Twain will begin its public appearance in November of this year. One of the topics to receive his attention is religion. Twain was a Christian, insofar as any Presbyterian can make that claim, but he was critical of formal religion. A quote purporting to be from his autobiography runs: “There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.” A bit caustic, but honest. When the books come out, I’ll be able to check it for veracity.
One of the things I value most about Mark Twain was his ability to hit his readers without giving away that they’d been hit. He accomplished this through a brutal honesty, often cloaked in fiction. When I explain myth to my students I tell them that it is an attempt to clarify the truth through story. Modern people tend to be fixated on historicity and sometimes miss the importance of a story because “it never happened.” If Huckleberry Finn never navigated a raft down the Mississippi, it would not affect the truth of the story or the insight of the author. It seems to me that with a writer so honest we would do well to consider what he had to say about his own religion before unsheathing our swords and rattling our sabers.