Gore Vidal, 1964

Flavius Claudius Iulianus was the emperor of the Roman Empire from 361 to 363. Known as Julian the Apostate, he attempted to undo his predecessor Constantine's establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the empire and revive the old Greco-Roman temples. He was killed at the age of 32 during a campaign against the Persians, most likely by a Christian assassin in his own army.

"But I have given way to my worst fault! Prolixity!" Ah, yes, the old trick of pre-emptively pointing out the ways in which your story sucks rather than making it suck less. Julian is narrated by three characters — the philosophers Priscus and Libanius, and Julian himself — and they all frequently apologize for rambling. Apology not accepted. This book should have been half as long. I can't say that it's bad, exactly, because it's pretty readable all the way through if somewhat pedestrian. But, damn, there really should have been less of it. It's so shapeless.

I try not to read Slate, but sometimes I go to see whether Dahlia Lithwick has written anything new and get sucked into reading some article not by Dahlia and therefore stupid. Recently, I came across one with the provocative title "A Mormon president? No way." in which Jacob Weisberg argues that not only can a Mormon not win the presidency in today's culture, but that one should not be elected: "I wouldn't vote for someone who truly believed in the founding whoppers of Mormonism. The LDS church holds that Joseph Smith, directed by the angel Moroni, unearthed a book of golden plates buried in a hillside in Western New York in 1827. The plates were inscribed in 'reformed' Egyptian hieroglyphics — a nonexistent version of the ancient language that had yet to be decoded. [...] Smith was able to dictate his 'translation' of the Book of Mormon first by looking through diamond-encrusted decoder glasses and then by burying his face in a hat with a brown rock at the bottom of it. He was an obvious con man. Romney has every right to believe in con men, but I want to know if he does, and if so, I don't want him running the country." I'm with Weisberg so far. But then he goes on, "One may object that all religious beliefs are irrational — what's the difference between Smith's 'seer stone' and the virgin birth or the parting of the Red Sea? But Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference." They do?

Interestingly, the Romans had the same idea, back when they were persecuting the Christians. Prior to Constantine, Roman religion, like that of the Greeks, was based not on doctrine but on community practice, particularly sacrifices to the appropriate gods at the appropriate times following the appropriate rituals. The Romans believed that their prosperity depended on keeping the gods happy in this manner, and therefore they hated the Jews, who refused to participate. Hadrian particularly despised them. But still, the Romans respected the Jews, acknowledging that their religion was as ancient as the Romans' own. They had no such respect for the Christians. Christianity was different... because it was based on such a transparent and recent fraud.

Gore Vidal didn't believe that a few eons made much of a difference. Julian is primarily an attack on Christianity, written in the hopes that a change of perspective will shake people up a bit. I suppose this is possible. I vividly recall a Christian on the MUD several years ago expressing astonishment at some of the stranger Mormon articles of faith, only for the secular ones among us to point out that he believed that the execution of a schizophrenic rabbi expiated the sins of mankind — oh, and that said rabbi was also the creator of the universe. "But that's true! You... you really think that's comparable to this crazy made-up Mormon stuff?"

Still, though, I don't know how successful something like Julian can be. It seems to me that either Christianity strikes you as patently, laughably ridiculous, making Vidal's project is an exercise in belaboring the obvious, or else your brain is wired in a way that I cannot understand and thus have no idea how to persuade. But who knows? I imagine that a lot of what Vidal presents is new to most Christian readers. Take the hot debate of the 4th century over whether the relationship of the Son to the Father is one of homoousios (same substance) or homoiousios (similar substance). In Julian, we watch people murdering each other over this dispute (which makes about as much sense to me as killing someone over whether the Scarlet Witch uses chaos magic or hex spheres). Would most Christian readers even know which side they're supposed to be on? Those who do would likely point to the Nicene Creed, thinking that the dispute was settled in favor of the Athanasians and homoousios in 325... only to discover that the bishops appointed by Emperor Constantius II to teach Christianity to young Julian were, like the emperor, Arians, and that Athanasius was considered the heretic at the time! Perhaps this sort of thing prompted some readers to more closely examine the articles of their faith. But I kinda doubt it. (Interestingly, Mormon doctrine is basically Arian as well... but how many Mormons even recognize Arius's name?)

Vidal's critique doesn't end there, of course. Some of his points aren't really unique to the period, though it is helpful that the historical record reflects that Julian himself brought them up often. Christianity's rejection of life in favor of rewards in a mythical afterlife is a recurring theme, for instance; Julian referred to churches exclusively as "charnel houses." Also repeatedly mentioned are the fact that most Christian theology (the nature of the Trinity, for instance) has nothing to do with what Jesus actually taught, and that what Jesus taught is, philosophically, not exactly sophisticated. (Not that Julian would have used those words: Julian referred to Jesus as "the Nazarene," and to Christians as "Galileans," in an attempt to frame Christianity as a regional cult.) Other points are more historical in nature. Today around the holidays we sometimes hear people point out that Christmas trees and Easter bunnies have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, but were stolen from pagan practice; in Julian, this theft is still in progress. Several characters make the case that Christianity is really little more than warmed-over Mithraism, only twisted a bit to appeal more to female slaves than to soldiers. And it's a pretty strong case! But who today remembers Mithraism?

I can see how Vidal might have been drawn to Julian as a subject; if you think Christianity is responsible for many of the world's ills, it's all too easy to dwell on what might have been had Julian lived longer. (Julian, amusingly, didn't ban Christianity outright: his strategy was to announce a policy of total religious toleration, theorizing that without state intervention, Christianity would be so splintered by doctrinal disputes that it would crumble.) But Julian was no Enlightenment hero. As portrayed by Vidal, at least, Julian was a dilettante, an incurable chatterbox, and a gullible dupe who was played for a fool by charlatan "magicians" such as Maximus of Ephesus who passed him messages from the gods and interpreted omens for him in such a manner as to maximize their own profit and influence. He was also, of course, a pagan, and paganism is as objectionable in its own way as Christianity. In addition to "the Apostate," one of Julian's epithets was "the Bull-Burner": it seems he never met an animal whose throat he didn't want to slash, whose thigh bones he didn't want to set on fire, and whose liver he didn't want to examine for auguries of the future. I love Athena, but if she wants a sacrifice from me she'd better like salad.

I often wonder how the world's religious landscape will evolve. I remember in college hearing about an RPG based on the notion that the world is divided between the Mormons and the Scientologists. The former group, at least, seems to have adopted a winning strategy for growth, much to Weisberg's undoubted chagrin: breed as much as possible, and proselytize extensively, especially in areas that already have high birth rates. I hear the Pentecostals are also doing well. And of course Mark Steyn and Virgil Goode and company are already wetting themselves over the prospect that Europe will be mostly Muslim in 25 years and America in 50. But it'd be nice to think that when the tech singularity arrives it will change our brains enough that our age will represent the last gasp for Yahweh and Jesus and Allah and Xenu just as Julian's represented the last gasp for Apollo and Demeter and Zeus.

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