A Gedanken Canon

Originally posted at Pharyngula. Salvaged from the comment threads, edited and re-posted due to popular acclaim.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that in the near future, our global civilization collapses: maybe we try to cancel out global warming with nuclear winter. Centuries later, cities are being built again, and archaeologists come across books. One series in particular must have been exceedingly important, as copies are found in different languages — French, German, English, Latin — all around the world. Each copy is only a fragment, but by comparing the overlapping portions a complete canon is tentatively identified. Some portions, attested only in surviving electronic records and printed material of lesser quality, seem to be later additions by a community of hands, but then again, portions of the canon itself are judged on literary grounds to be as low-quality as the least inspired of the apocrypha. The first copy found is in Latin, which scholars know to be the oldest of the languages in which translations exist, but further investigation turns up copies in Germanic languages which appear to be older.

Much of the material in these chronicles is of a fantastic nature, with epic battles between good and evil waged in a realm beyond the sight of most citizens, which the chronicles describe as blissfully ignorant. Believers in magic point out that prophecies made in one book are fulfilled in another, a claim which scholars dismiss as valueless. Upon a closer look, however, some places in these fantastic tales can be matched with known cities of the era, attested by archaeology — places like London. What’s more, incidental mentions of technology coincide with what is known about the era just before the Great Collapse.

Should we then have faith in Harrius Potter?

8 thoughts on “A Gedanken Canon”

  1. Delightful. But there’s a kink in the analogy, which of course is that careful linguistic analysis will reveal that, despite the multiple languages, all of the books have the same author.

    See, this is what bothers me in all discussions about sacred literature. On the one side, you’ve got ‘true believers’ with nearly zero real scholarship and a pathetic credulity that’s off the charts. On the other end, you’ve got people who are really well-educated—really, a whole lot smarter than me, who can do things I only wish I could do—-but they seem to prefer a cartoon version of scripture to debunk, rather than the real thing.

    See, books didn’t end up in the canon on the basis of whether or not they have the same author (they don’t) or the same lingo (they don’t) or whether they agree in every particular (they don’t) or whether they were intended in every case to be taken as literally true (they weren’t). Different criteria were used, and while that doesn’t make necessarily make them sacred, it makes the real canon a lot more interesting than a series of books by the same author. Though, as with Rowling’s work, it is interesting to attempt to discover what earlier traditions might have wormed their way in there.

    BTW, I finally managed to meet PZ Mwahaha and break bread with him (well, pizza, actually, courtesy of Eugenie Scott). And we had a beer later. It was good. I hope one day to buy you a brewski as well, Blake.


  2. All analogies have their limits; thank you for making precise one of them for this one. I wasn’t particularly concerned with the authorship question, although I tried to introduce a certain ambiguity with the fanfic issue: I’ve heard so many people complain about the epilogue to Deathly Hallows that I figured it would be neat to imply that people might treat it as “the rest of Esther” or “the longer ending of Mark,” while items of well-written fanfic might end up in the canon. See, it’s not the canon we hold valid now which matters, but the one constructed in this hypothetical future, which might be the product of multiple authors!

    The goal of this flight-o-fancy wasn’t to make an exact parallel of the Biblical situation (try to capture every feature of the thing you’re trying to analogize, and you risk making a map which is as complicated as the territory). Rather, I was concerned with the people who say, “There really was a Pontius Pilate. Therefore, all of it is true!”

  3. Hmmm.. scripture as fan-fiction. Fans, I assume, of יהוה? So the Apocrypha would be stories that [the HP equivalent of George Lucas] considers to fit with the main continuity. Of course, different groups of fans consider different continuities. The Catholic/Protestant battles are “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, then?

  4. Also it’s interesting to note that the continuity reference on a television show, against which new episodes must be checked so that they don’t contradict old ones and they don’t screw up the long arcs the producers have been planning, is called the series’ “bible”.

  5. The “sacred texts” in A Canticle for Leibowitz were lovely, too.

    PS. Greg, I just finished Schild’s Ladder and I’m sure you get this all the time, but: wow! Even better that I didn’t read the back flap beforehand, since that would have spoiled the surprise behind the border…

  6. Blake, I’m now officially trolling for attention, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that part of PZ’s talk at the Berkeley symposia is on-line here.

    He really comes off well in the clip and it kinda makes me wish I could take a course from the guy.

  7. As I THINK we’ve discussed before, it’s always been a secret hope of mine that, at some point in the future, our descendants/replacements/the aliens who discover our ruins come across a copy of what they take to be a sacred book. From this book they derive a pantheon, creation myth, fall from grace, indeed, an entire history of the peoples of the earth. That book’s name, of course, is The Silmarillion.

    Few things could give me more pleasure, I think, than imagining a future world where people think any portion of our planet actually believed in Tolkien.

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