A few days ago I was browsing the new releases section of Chapters bookstore when I noticed a book with the odd title, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”1 Perusing the cover of the book I found statements to the effect that this book represents the “true” and “secret history” of Lincoln. Of course we all know (or should!) that this is a work of fiction. Nevertheless there is something compelling about a fanciful yarn spun around famous characters long dead. Notice that it is the “long dead” part that serves as the key ingredient in spinning a tale of this kind. Because Lincoln has been dead for almost 150 years now, no one who actually knew him and can verify any of what the book claims. The converse is also true, and this is key: No one who actually knew him can contest what the book claims either. This far removed in time, the writer is effectively insulated from criticism that he might have otherwise encountered had his work been written within a generation of those who knew Lincoln personally.
The time gap is essential in adding to the allure of the story. After all, there is a greater chance of it being true if no one who actually knew the man is contesting it, right? Interestingly, a few shelves over I saw another big book with the title, “A Lincoln: A Biography.”2 This book had endorsements all over its cover, claiming it was the best biography to date on Lincoln. Of course we take this to mean that this book gives us more factual information about Lincoln than any other thus far written.
I think it is safe to say that if we simply want to be entertained, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a viable option. If what we are after however, is factual information about the man, “A. Lincoln: A Biography” would be an obvious choice and we would save the vampire hunter tale for a day when we just want to put our brains on hold. Most of us I think understand the difference between imaginative story-telling and biography.
Nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus of Nazareth gathered a group of followers and began a movement that continues to this day. The earliest writings we have about the man, the canonical Gospels and the writings of St. Paul, are contained in the New Testament.3 How odd that these stark, unembellished materials written well within the lifetimes of those that knew Jesus personally are relegated to the status of the Gnostic writings, which are, by all accounts, clearly mythological in their structure and written, in some cases, hundreds of years after Jesus.4 It is true that many, if not most of the Gnostic texts claim to be revealing the “secret truth” about Jesus, but then again, the vampire hunter novel claims to do the same regarding Lincoln!
If we can today discern biography from historical fiction, why do we think those living in the early centuries of the Common Era were hopelessly inept in this regard?5 In fact, we would have to conclude that these folks, many of them possessing what can only be described as intimidating intellectual credentials,6 were almost hopelessly insane. After all, it is common knowledge that the earliest Christian communities often faced severe tortures for confessing faith in the Christ of Scripture. Which of us would die for the proposition that Abraham Lincoln was in fact a vampire hunter?
Notes and References
- “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter”, by Seth Grahame-Smith, Grand Central Publishing, 2010
- A. Lincoln: A Biography”, by Ronald C. White Jr., Random House, 2009
- Sources for this are superfluous. This fact is virtually uncontested in the scholarly world.
- The earliest of the Gnostic gospels – Thomas and Judas – are usually dated to the mid-second century.
- Richard Burridge’s “What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography”, 2nd ed., Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, is the definitive work on the subject of Gospel genre. Burridge combs through a copious amount of ancient Greek and Roman biographical material and shows unquestionably that the Gospel writers intended their works to be regarded as biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Any claim that the Gospels were not intended to be regarded as such must meet the challenges set forth by Burridge – a task that has not been successfully undertaken as far as I’m aware.
- Though it is now common at a popular level to regard the early church fathers as a brainless, superstitious, power-hungry, woman-hating lot, an actual reading of their materials reveals something quite different. No one who has actually studied the writings of Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria or Tertullian can seriously maintain that these men who lived through times of great persecution were lacking in intellectual capability or moral sensibility.
By : John Feakes