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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

administration and the seduction of prophecy

No writing today--just research in the morning and later afternoon. The rest of the day I was out at Mom's place: Harvey's cottage on the waterfront in Cove Cliff, which he bequeathed to her in appreciation for 40-plus years of friendship. The view out the living-room and dining-room windows is spectacular: past the little, tree-crowded islands called White and Boulder to the green mountains of Belcarra, and farther still, across Burrard Inlet, the deep-shaded clay cliffs of Burnaby Mountain with the tower of Simon Fraser University rising above the trees on top. Today was sunny, the first really fine day of spring, and the water traveled in green waves in the fresh breeze. I helped Mom prepare her income tax, and updated the estate workbook on her Dell laptop--a complex set of spreadsheets I built myself from scratch.

In the morning: 2 pages of Roman Lives and finished chapter 8 of Vintage, on the spread of the vine to Roman Gaul. That's all I need from this book; I'll return it to the library.

In the afternoon: chapter 2 of When Prophecy Fails, a description of the origin of the particular end-of-world saucer-cult under study. Interesting, the more so because I have been so attracted to prophecy myself. I think back to 1986, when I was traveling in Europe with Kimmie (we had been together only a year then). While we visited Joyce Schmidt, an old family friend in Silvaplana, Switzerland, I made an overnight sojourn to Geneva to visit CERN, the nuclear research facility (research for a novel I was working on at the time). On the long train trip (all the way across the country) I read a book that had been pressed on me by a young Jehovah's Witness friend of Joyce's sons. It was a little hardback in English called Survival into a New Earth, printed in a modest first edition of 4 million copies.

While I had not the slightest interest in becoming a Jehovah's Witness, I found the book engrossing. In 190 short pages (it's right here in front of me--grass-green with gold letters) it set out the case for the authority of the Bible and its supposed coded prophetic message concerning the end of society as we know it--with a definite timetable. The timetable was seductive, for history was coming to a climax in the late 20th century. (Specifically, the current "world system" would pass away before the generation that was alive in 1913 had completely gone.) Whoah--time was ticking down!

For me, what was really attractive about the message was the idea that the whole meaning of human existence had been completely worked out, and a set of specific instructions given for how to behave so as to ensure salvation for oneself--salvation graphically described as eternal physical life on a renewed physical earth, minus all the problems and suffering that exist today. We'll look good, we'll feel good, nature will be pristine and pure, and we'll have infinite time on our hands to enjoy ourselves--in good ways. And it was just around the corner.

The book itself was well written: friendly, factual, logical--no tirades, no hellfire. A rational, intelligent person could subscribe to this, I thought. In fact, if you accepted their interpretation of the Bible, you almost had to subscribe to it. I liked it because it left no messy unanswered questions, no loose threads: the purpose of the universe was understood, and the mission of each one of us laid out. Look no further: the answers are here. Know everything, and enjoy eternal life.

I felt I understood why there are millions of Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide. I liked their un-traditionalness. They were Bible scientists, ditching all previous interpretations and customs to assess what the Bible actually said in light of modern historical knowledge.

Traveling to and from Geneva, I read the whole book (with a tour of CERN in between--vast underground chambers and tunnels filled with bright-colored European-made high-tech equipment, all beneath a town devoted to high-energy particle physics). My relationship and fascination with prophecy was much longer and more than that one book, but that was a strong experience of seduction for me. But I was delighted to return to Kimmie in Silvaplana: we were so glad to see each other after our first night apart in over a year.

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