Seldom have I started my Lenten non-fiction reading journey in a less auspicious way. I went to the library to look around for books that grabbed my eye — I’m usually looking for things at least tangentially related to religion, spirituality or theology, although in some cases the connection is tenuous and clear only to me.
My eye lit upon Journey of the Magi, a book about a guy who decides he’s going to retrace the journey of the Magi from Persia to Bethlehem and along the way learn the true meaning of who they were and why they were present at Jesus’ birth. Sounds like a great concept, doesn’t it? Since I’m planning to write a novella about the Magi story, I thought this would be a great read.
It starts promisingly enough, as Roberts explores a version of the Magi story recorded by Marco Polo and teases out the differences between it and the Biblical account told in Matthew’s gospel. But before he even gets to Iran to begin the journey, Roberts indulges in a huge and tiring amount of pop-theology — the kind of “Jesus Seminar Lite” stuff that’s rooted in an innate distrust of organized religion and a deep dislike (in Roberts’ case, I’d call it a visceral hatred) for the canonical New Testament, along with the automatic privileging of non-canonical texts that always seems to accompany this attitude.
What results is what all too often results when people write about Christianity and the historical Jesus at the popular level — a kind of heedless acceptance of the most far-fetched Jesus theories without even flagging the fact that they are theories, presenting them instead as simple fact. This tendency, which I’ve decided in the interests of coining new words to call Danbrownizing, runs rampant all over Journey of the Magi and spoils what might otherwise be an interesting exploration.
It’s not that I have a problem with people holding all kinds of diverse theories about the historical Jesus, the early church, or Second Temple-era Judaism. You’re welcome to your theories. But at least give readers a hint of how complex the field is, rather than making sweeping statements — such as Roberts’ confident assertion that Jesus was an Essene, as were all his family, and that this is clearly demonstrated by passages in the Dead Sea Scrolls that obviously refer to Jesus. This kind of begging the question really annoys me. (And yes, it annoys me just as much when conservative Christians make the same kind of statements, like asserting that all four Gospels were written within 20 years of Jesus’ death, without even hinting at the complexity of scholarly thought on the subject).
Now, the thing is, Paul William Roberts knows better, because he’s a scholar — he’s from Oxford, for crying out loud. When I had my own brief brush with academia, I sometimes got frustrated by the tentative nature of scholarly writing and how you could never assert anything without a dozen qualifiers in front of it. I can see how if you take to popular writing it might be tempting to abandon that hesitancy and just come out and say what you think. I wasn’t looking for this to be a scholarly book, but through me a bone, Paul! Even a statement like: “After reading x and y, I was convinced that Jesus was an Essene,” (or any one of a zillion other theories he states as fact) would have made the book more palatable to me.
So, there’s that. Rant over, I’ll go on to say I liked a lot of things about this book. Roberts is definitely at his best as a travel writer; his descriptions of the places he visits and the people he meets there are vivid, funny and intriguing (though often unkind, in the case of people). I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it had been mostly travel writing with much less of the theological speculation.
Worse yet, through all the venom directed at the Catholic church and the canonical gospels, I found it hard to grasp what Roberts was actually saying about the link between the Magi and Jesus. I think his point may have been that more mystical versions of the great religions — in which I think he would include Essene Judaism, Sufi Islam, Gnostic Christianity and some forms of Zoroastrianism — are all closely linked because they are the real religion, in which believers have a direct experience of God, but that this is constantly getting messed up and suppressed by the evils of organized religion and priestly castes in every religious system. I think that’s his point, but don’t quote me on it, because I’m not quite sure.
The Magi may or may not have come to Bethlehem, and there may have been two or three of them, and they seem to have gone there in hopes of preventing another organized religion from being spawned … I wasn’t really clear by the end of the book on what Roberts’ thesis was. He does eventually get to Bethlehem, but after a very strong start in Iran (the best part of the book), an interesting interlude in Iraq, and a funny-slash-horrific story about crossing the desert with a Bedouin on a camel who gets blown up by a landmine, the story seems to peter out by the time it gets to Israel. It trickles away rather than finishing with any sort of conclusion or insight, as if the author got tired of writing it. I sympathize, because by that time I was kind of tired of reading it too.