This post is ostensibly by way of reminding our Southern California readership that it’s not too late to catch the last day of the Claremont Conference on Joseph Smith. It’s also an excuse for me to ruminate on the ever-engaging question of what sixteenth-century blogging might have looked like had they, you know, invented computers and the internet and everything. Here’s a possibility:
A note Containing the opinion of one Christopher Marly Concerning his Damnable Judgment of Religion, and scorn of gods word.
He affirmeth that Moyses was but a Jugler, & that one Heriots being Sir W Raleighs man can do more then he.
That Moyses made the Jewes to travell xl yeares in the wildernes, (which Jorney might haue bin Done in lesse then one yeare) ere they Came to the promised land, to the intent that those who were privy to most of his subtilties might perish and so an everlasting superstition Remain in the harts of the people.
That the first beginning of Religioun was only to keep men in awe.
That it was an easy matter for Moyses being brought vp in all the artes of the Egiptians to abuse the Jewes being a rude & grosse people.
That if there be any god or any good Religion, then it is in the papistes because the service of god is performed with more Cerimonies, as Elevation of the mass, organs, singing men, Shaven Crownes & cetera. That all protestants are Hypocriticall asses.
That if he were put to write a new Religion, he would vndertake both a more Exellent and Admirable methode and that all the new testament is filthily written.
That all the apostles were fishermen and base fellowes neyther of wit nor worth, that Paull only had wit but he was a timerous fellow in bidding men to be subiect to magistrates against his Conscience.
That one Ric Cholmley hath Confessed that he was persuaded by Marloe’s Reasons to become an Atheist.
These thinges, with many other shall by good & honest witnes be aproved to be his opinions and Comon Speeches, and that this Marlow doth not only hould them himself, but almost into every Company he Cometh he perswades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins.
As it happens, this is an excerpted deposition given by one Richard Baines, testifying to the dangerous opinions of the notorious Christopher Marlowe, hard-living playwright and spy. What interests me are Marlowe’s (alleged) assertions that Moses was a juggler—that is, a coney, a con artist—who manipulated the Israelites with his clever Egyptian art in order to keep them in awe, and, further, that Marlowe himself could devise a better religion, should he be inclined. (The deposition goes on to quote Marlowe’s blasphemous take on Christ which, while not especially original, is still sufficiently pungent to make me uncomfortable posting here.) Today, as the Claremont cohort explores Joseph’s place in the prophetic tradition, it is perhaps worth noting that there is another tradition, an anti-prophetic tradition, in which Joseph also finds a place.
A few months ago, in the midst of the Tom Cruise media debacle, I read this profile in Slate on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The piece is determinedly unsympathetic, though, for all I know, entirely accurate—but what struck me hardest were the parallels between the writer’s version of Hubbard’s life and the common anti-Mormon attacks on Joseph Smith’s life. The anti-prophetic tradition is fairly well established, it seems, and the writer, like Brodie and Marlowe and countless others before him, hit all the major topoi: the dabbling in bogus magic, the money-trail, the undisputed cleverness abd conscious fraudulance, the tangles with law-enforcement, the salacious sexual deviance, the secrecy, the dedicated opponents, and, above all the egomaniacal hunger for power. It’s possible, even likely, that charismatic religious figures—particularly the successful ones—share a number of personal attributes. But the long history and predictable forms of the genre lead me to suspect that the anti-prophetic tradition tells us more about the sub-cultures in which it flourishes than about the subjects themselves.
The anti-prophetic tradition is a project of radical demystification reducing the miraculous to the manipulative, lofty profundity to mere power-hunger. The irony, of course, is that the anti-prophetic expose, for all its purported rationality, is itself a deeply mythologized form—particularly in the United States, where the con artist inhabits the upper reaches of our cultural pantheon in the figures of Brer Rabbit and Huck Finn and the Wizard of Oz and hundreds more. Even the anti-prophetic tradition, then, gives Joseph his apotheosis as quintessentially American myth-made myth-maker—whether his name be known for good or evil. Hail to the Prophet, and, yes, praise to the man.