Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Fifth Gospel - a Vatican thriller

Book review of The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

This was an intelligent, erudite thriller that held me in suspense for the first 80% of the book. However, I was quite disappointed with the left turn it took towards the end and the final denouement. I will try to avoid major spoilers in this short review - at least until the final paragraphs.

As a religious thriller, I thought it was professionally done and succeeded in engaging my sympathies with the characters, especially the narrator, a Greek Catholic priest and his six year old son. Because both are threatened by the turn of events, the narrative was really quite moving and genuinely suspenseful. And using a Greek Catholic priest who is able to marry as the central narrator also offered a window into reform of the moribund Catholic system, without having to belabor the point. A very clever move, because the overall tone of the book is reverential (too much so) towards the hierarchical male system of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. There is also reverential awe displayed towards the 'saintly' John Paul II and respect for his closest theological advisor (and future pope) Cardinal Ratzinger. So any Catholics of a conservative bent would be reassured, while more progressive readers would be appeased by the use of a married priest. Very interesting interplay.

The interplay between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds was also fascinating for anyone interested in arcane religious lore. Beyond this, however, the early parts of the book formed a superb crash course in biblical exegesis and the 'critical-historical method' of reading the gospels. I went through all of this during five years of theological graduate studies. This short summary was really brilliantly done, engaging, interesting, and to the point as far as the plot was concerned.

More importantly, the author shows himself conversant with the latest scientific discoveries regarding the controversial relic, The Shroud of Turin. It is true that a seminal article was published in 2004 in the world's leading peer reviewed scientific journal. Thermochimica Acta by chemist Ray Rogers of Los Alamos Laboratories that seriously called into question the 1985 carbon dating of the shroud. As of this point in history, no respected scientist accepts the 1985 carbon dating as reliable. So the author of the Fifth Gospel knows his stuff and this makes for a compelling and exciting read.

My problem with the book (spoiler alert) comes towards the end in the uses the author makes of his biblical exegesis to 'prove a point' about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Having led us in one direction about the Shroud's authenticity, he then makes an abrupt turn in the opposite direction - without having sufficiently come to terms with or explained the implications of the discrediting of the carbon dating. He uses a simplistic 'critical historical' approach to John's gospel to prove his point, namely that the discrepancies between John's gospel and the other three 'synoptic' gospels rests with John's penchant for symbolization over factual accuracy. He implies that details found in john's gospel about the final passion of Jesus which are not found in the synoptics must therefore be imaginative inventions added for symbolic theological reasons - namely the wound in the side and the discovery of burial 'cloths' in the tomb rather than a single cloth. Unfortunately, this is an extreme oversimplification that robs his conclusion of any reliability.

Now he is writing a work of fiction, not a scientific treatise, so he is free to arrange, edit, invent and imagine as he pleases for fictional purposes - but within certain limits. He mentions, for example, that John's gospel says herbs and spices were used in preparing Jesus' body for burial, but evidence of such spices were not found during the scientific examination of the shroud. Therefore - wala - we see how John invents and adds. By implication, therefore, because John alone of the four gospels mentions the wound in Jesus' side, the Shroud of Turin, which includes a side wound, must be inauthentic or a 'fake,' based solely on John's imaginative invention. However, he fails to inform his readers that there is spectacular forensic evidence on the shroud that supports John's gospel and completely contradicts his own thesis. (I leave it to the interested reader to research what this might be, but forensic scientists have confirmed that the evidence is not apparent to the naked eye, but only detectable under microscopic examination under ultraviolet light. Therefore, in no way could it have been 'faked' by a medieval forger.). There is also equally spectacular forensic evidence coming from another source about the possibility of multiple cloths in the tomb (The Sindona in Spain, bloodstains of which form a perfect match when superimposed on the Shroud of Turin). Taken together, these two pieces of 'evidence' support the alternative theory that the author of the Gospel of John had access to a stream of authentic tradition, including eyewitness reports of the final hours of Jesus, which was not accessible to the synoptic gospel authors. Too complex a subject to go into detail here.

Does this matter in a work of fiction? Well, I think it does when the early treatment/instruction about the historical/critical method of reading the gospels has been so responsibly and seriously done. This raises expectations of trust in the reader - that the author, while fictionalizing the investigations surrounding the shroud, is also being responsible in his treatment of the subject and will not lead the reader astray. Not leading the reader astray does not mean espousing one position or another about the shroud's authenticity. It means warning the reader IF one is carefully selecting and editing/ excluding evidence to suit a fictional point of view. He includes what supports his thesis, he excludes what does not. Anyone familiar with the present state of Shroud research will feel quite deflated by this subterfuge. The ending feels dishonest to me, partly because I can't quite figure out his fictional purposes, and partly because it doesn't square with current research. There is even a bit of a snide, condescending comment aimed at viewers of the shroud exhibition (in the novel) thinking, "Ah yes, we always knew (the Shroud was authentic), when in fact they have all been fooled. But he hasn't presented a plausible argument, fictional or otherwise, as to how they have been fooled. If you want to suggest a bit of iconoclasm, that we shouldn't take such sacred relics so seriously, but focus instead on the substance of the gospels and you fictionalize that approach by questioning the Shroud's authenticity, well and good. But the author's approach seems so 'scientific' when in fact it is highly selective and, to this reader at least, more than a little dishonest. I felt quite let down at the end. What was the point of all that effort? 


Ruth Colón-Wagner said...

I didn't understand the ending of the book. I don't want to spoil it for others but I've just spent days reading this and I don't understand the ending. Simon is ushered up to the Pope - and what happens? Can you help?

Anonymous said...

"In the Holy Father's hand is the host" Host meaning communion bread, meaning Simon was forgiven.