Saturday, March 20, 2010

The True Holy Grail

Last weekend the Discovery Channel engaged in an orgy of terrible Jesus-based programming.  I recorded two programs on my DVR: Who Framed Jesus? and In Search of the Holy Grail.  I’m watching the latter now and, well, let’s say that I’m not particularly impressed.  Especially the bit that involved a low rent pseudo-techno musical number played over images of the Crusades.

First of all, it seems that the program is endlessly focused on Holy Grail claimants in England, which is pretty silly.  Two of the stories are built on the Joseph of Arimathea legend, which is right up there with the Brutus of Troy story of the founding of London.  The nice thing is that the program offers fairly strong debunking of the tales.  It also offers a counter explanation that there was a later chalice commissioned by a follower of Christ that was conflated with the Last Supper and turned in to the Holy Grail legend we know today.  This, it seems, is reasonable.

The way they get there, though, is less so.  And this is where we hit the limits of television as an accurate way of disseminating historical information.

The first Grail they had was connected to Glastonbury, the traditional epicenter of the Camelot Grail Quest.  The Glastonbury Chalice is connected to a supposed healing spring.  The Glastonbury spokesman made a strong case that the Grail had nothing to do with the healing quality of the water, though.  He claimed it was “primary water,”* which passes through a vein of deep crystal underground and carries the healing qualities of the crystal up to the surface.

There’s a term for this that was coined, as best I know, over at denialism blog: crank magnetism.  The idea is simple.  Strong belief in one bit of unproveable nonsense leads to belief in ever more unproveable nonsense.  The initial post at denialism offers the idea that cranks ally themselves with any number of ideas in the theory that they see reality as a common enemy.  Slacktivist offers an idea that could help explain another transmission path for the magnetism.  The idea is that if you believe or want to believe something that’s demonstrably not true you have to create larger and larger circles of conspiracy to try to keep that reality out.

The problem with this, from the television’s perspective, is that it doesn’t make for very good TV.  What makes an exciting television program is controversy.  So they have a couple true believers, a couple historians who may or may not be believable authorities on such things.**  Then they have the cranks.

Beyond the Glastonbury guy and his crystal-infused water, there’s the Genoa Cathedral, which houses an emerald colored glass dish from which, legend has it, Jesus and the disciples ate the Passover lamb at the last supper.  This is an utterly absurd statement, but in the medieval period relics held great power.  As such, having a powerful relic could guarantee cash flow to a church from a steady stream of pilgrims.  Which is why there are so many.  It was tourism.

Now, the show plainly states that in the 1950s the artifact was determined to be from 16th Century Venice (which, oddly, I’d tend to dispute.  The legend of the artifact itself goes back to the 12th Century and the heyday of medieval pilgrimages would have been between those two dates.  So although I find the legend itself absurd, I find the date given to it in the program almost equally absurd).  They then bring in a guy named Daniele Calcagno from the University of Genoa who says that it’s probably from between 100 years before and 100 years after Jesus.  He then says, “As a professional historian, there is no evidence to prove the existence of the Holy Grail.  However, as a human being I find the object truly fascinating.  It would be exciting to think that it was really the plate used two thousand years ago by a man who made such a mark on history.”

What the hell am I supposed to do with an interlude like this?  We have a plainly absurd story about a religious artifact.  We have the narrator telling us the artifact is five hundred years old.  Then we have someone who identifies himself as a “professional historian” who says its two thousand years old.  This is extremely difficult to reconcile.  For one thing, Calcagno’s words are translated from Italian in the program, so he might not have made nearly as strong a statement as the program indicates about the age of the artifact.  It could very well have been selective editing, where he had a bit where he was saying, “People say it’s probably this way.”  That would completely change the quality of the statements.  He could easily have been saying that some people believe it, he doesn’t, but it would be really cool to find out that it was an item used at the Last Supper.  Or he could be a true believer trying to work past his own training as a historian to keep the whole belief thing going.

The problem is that we just don’t know.  I just have a name and the name of a school.  I don’t have a works cited page.  I don’t have footnotes.  I just have to take the Discovery Channel’s word that they’re being honest.  But, of course, being honest doesn’t always make for good TV.  And these programs are generally made by third parties, then sold to the channel, anyway.

The weird thing is, though, that the program repeatedly touches on the real story of the Holy Grail without actually exploring it.  It’s that issue of pilgrimage and money.  Relics were (and still are) big business.  Possession of relics with extreme spiritual significance and/or healing powers could mean a church got an awful lot of money from the faithful.  Most relics were the bones or earthly possessions of the saints or similar such things.  But with the Crusades there came a glut of objects that were supposedly connected to Jesus himself, primarily bits of the true cross and the Holy Grail.  Most were just found bits of detritus that seemed old and were, therefore, plausible to the credulous, uneducated medieval world when connected to a good story.  In a lot of cases, too, they were deliberate frauds fabricated by enterprising hucksters.  The glass plate in Genoa probably fits that particular line.

There’s good money in lying to the gullible.  There always has been and always will be.  It’s how the healing water in the spring at Glastonbury has gone from having those qualities because of ancient gods to the blood of Christ to the deep vein of crystal water.

Moreover, reporting on that controversy sells.  That’s why they had Michael Baigent on the program.  He wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the speculative history upon which the ideas of The DaVinci Code were largely based.  According to Baigent, Jesus had children and the Holy Grail was Jesus’s blood line and the Vatican has been actively engaged in trying to cover that up ever since.  The fact is that if there actually was a historical Jesus there’s a good chance that he did have children.  But Baigent’s story of conspiracy and cover-up is, in its own way, just as silly and pointless as the legends that the Knights Templar found the Grail and took it to Rosslyn Abbey.  And it’s got its own special variety of crankery.

But people watch this shit.  I mean, beyond folks like me who are watching it with a combination of amusement and horror.  It’s why the program ended in a storm of pabulum about how maybe there is and maybe there isn’t a real Holy Grail, but, really, maybe the true Grail quest is an internal one.

If television were in the habit of definitively de-bunking the random crap people believe in, those same people might stop watching the programs.  For that matter, they probably wouldn’t have the patience to sit through the sort of program that could properly de-bunk the Holy Grail.  And we can’t have that now, can we?

It's extremely difficult to profit off of universal ignorance these days in the way that medieval vicars could.  Information is readily available to those who want it and it's a lot harder to find a good illiterate horde.  But that just means that those who wish to make money off the credulous must be careful.  For ignorance might not be the default state, but it can certainly be cultivated.


*At which point if you’d been sitting in my living room you would have heard a few choice words…

**They had three primary historians on the program, a Juliette Wood from the Univ. of Cardiff, Simon Kirk from the Univ. of Bristol, and Gerald Morgan, who was simply labeled “historian.”  There were also two writers: a Michael Blackburn who wrote a book called The Knights Templar that I cannot find on Amazon, and Michael Baigent, author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which you don’t need to hear about in this footnote.  I get the impression that Wood, Morgan, and possibly Blackburn were on the up-and-up.  Kirk claimed that he believes that the Grail is buried under Rosslyn Abbey.


Emet L. said...

I went to a Catholic grade school and the nuns thrilled us with stories of relics. Several years ago I enjoyed reading Constantine's Sword by James Carroll. Your blog reminds me of "the seamless robe" of Jesus, which according to tradition, was found by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great around 327ce and is housed at the Cathedral of Trier. I realized then that I am very history deficient. I’m thinking about auditing some history classes at the community college or taking some online courses. Any suggestions on where to start?

Michael Mock said...

Actually, the Sangreal is sitting on a shelf in the back of a small secondhand shop on the north edge of Tulsa. It's on the left side as you enter, second shelf up; the price tag says $4.99.

Which is nowhere near as interesting as where the Golden Plates of Moroni ended up, but there you go.