30 November 2011

The Second Advent

Now that Thanksgiving is safely passed (here in the good old USA anyway) the Yuletide is officially upon us, and its peculiarities and observances in full swing. Today, for example, is Mark Twain’s birthday—or, to be more accurate, his creator’s (Samuel Clemens’) birthday. He is one hundred seventy-six and still going strong, to judge from his literary output—the first volume of his autobiography came out this past year, with more to come soon.

Mark Twain had a jaundiced view of religion—though to be fair, there wasn’t much he didn’t have a jaundiced view of. Politics (The Gilded Age), morality (The $30,000 Bequest), imperialism (“To the Person Sitting in Darkness”), history (The Secret History of Eddypus), the French (“The French and the Comanche”), the afterlife (Letters from the Earth), literature (Is Shakespeare Dead?), supernatural beings (The Chronicle of Young Satan), big business (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), free will (What is Man?) and gender rôles (Hellfire Hotchkiss) all came under his fire at one point or another.

It seems to me that in some respects at least he just had trouble taking it seriously. A case in point would be a story he wrote in 1881 called “The Second Advent.” In it a young Arkansas girl, Nancy Hopkins, who is betrothed to a local blacksmith, Jackson Barnes, becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Jackson is not upset, however, as Nancy explains to him that God is the father. How does she know this? It seems an angel told her—an angel wearing a straw hat, jeans, and cowhide boots. How did she know he was an angel? He told her he was, and angels don’t lie. And further, Jackson had a dream in which God told him that Nancy was still a virgin and everything she had said was true.

Convincing as this evidence is, some of the townspeople are unconvinced: “To be frank with you, we do not believe a word of this flimsy nonsense you are talking. Nancy Hopkins has gone astray; she is a disgraced girl, and she knows it and you know it and we all know it. She must not venture to show her face among our virtuous daughters…”

Things look bleak for the young couple. Fortunately, however, the news spread, and wise men from the east (the presidents of Yale, Princeton and Andover) follow a star (okay, it’s the planet Venus) to Arkansas, where they deliberate and conclude that the newborn child is in fact the son of God on the basis of the testimony of the angel (according to Nancy), of Nancy, and of God (according to Jackson). They therefore leave gifts for the child, including “a little Holy Bible with the decent passages printed in red ink.”

Horace Greeley remains unconvinced.
We have hearsay evidence that an angel appeared; none has seen that angel but one individual, and she an interested person. We have hearsay evidence that an angel delivered a certain message; whether it has come to us untampered with or not, we can never know, there being none to convey it to us but a party interested in having it take a certain form. … “Evidence” like this could not affect even a dog’s case, in any court in Christendom. It is rubbish, it is foolishness.
In reply a fellow named Talmage—the reference is to a clergyman of the day whose opinions Mark Twain found distasteful—retorts:
Here is divine evidence, evidence from the lips of very God Himself, and it is scoffed at! here is evidence from an angel of God, coming fresh from the fields of heaven, from the shadow of the Throne, with the odors of Eternal Land upon his raiment, and it is derided! here is evidence from God’s own chosen handmaid, holy and pure, whom He has fructified without sin, and it is mocked at! here is evidence of one who has spoken face to face with the Most High in a dream, and even his evidence is called lies and foolishness! … If men cannot believe these evidences, taken together, and piled, Pelion on Ossa, mountains high, what can they believe!
This exchange is familiar territory, and reminds me of so many exchanges I’ve seen with True Believers of one stripe or another—Young Earth Creationists, the autism-is-caused-by-vaccines crowd, Presuppositionalists, quacks with generic cancer cures. The folks that insist we coulda wiped out malaria by unleashing DDT if it weren’t for that pesky Rachel Carson. The nuts that think Edward de Vere could somehow have written the works of William Shakespeare (the guy would have been hard-pressed to write Sir Clyomen and Sir Clamydes, let alone King Lear). Canonical critics—no, I take it back. There are some depths to which even canonical critics wouldn’t stoop.

Mark Twain’s target, of course, was not this fictitious second advent, but the first. Evidence that wouldn’t fly in nineteenth-century Arkansas is supposed to be accepted in a reverent and uncritical fashion when presented in first-century Palestine. If it’s hard to take Nancy’s claim seriously, why should we take Mary’s? Of course the Church (or Temple or Mosque) has always had an answer for that. I think it was in one of Max Shulman’s novels that the immortal line, “’Shut up,’ he explained,” occurs. Exactly. That’s what that stake with a large pile of wood around it is for—or those cease-and-desist orders from some crank with delusions of grandeur. Fortunately for us Mark Twain lived in more civilized times. That’s why “The Second Advent” could be published—in 1972, fifty-two years after Samuel Clemens died.

Oh well—happy birthday, Mark Twain. And keep ‘em coming, guy.

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