Monday, November 24, 2008

Book Review: Unholy Business

The author, Nina Burleigh, of this book sounded familiar when I checked this book out but I didn't place her until, a few pages in, she had the chance to drop an event-name: Napoleon's ill-fated excursion into the Egyptian desert. That reminded me of her other book I read earlier, Mirage, about this excursion. This book's about like that book. Events told briskly with a journalistic bent -- in this case it works better because it actually is present-day journalism, but it works worse because it is painfully obvious we're only getting half of the story.

The good news is the half of the story we're getting is still good. The James Ossuary found in the early part of this decade does appear to be a hoax. This book is the story of how it's a hoax ... or at least the official Israeli Antiquities Agency's version of the story. The characters are drawn so 2-dimensionally it's hard to believe this is all there is to it.

In this case, what's here is damning. But when every supporter is painted as a buffoon and every prosecutor is presented as an enlightened crusader against forgery, even before the case is finished (it's still under deliberation!), it's hard to feel like you have the complete story. Let me be clear, I think the thing was faked. But this is such a one-sided argument for the prosecution I actually wonder why it sounds so defeated in the final chapters, essentially conceding that the trial will find that it's not necessarily a fake after all because of the slick legal defense and the inherent incompatability of science and law.

The thing that bothers me most is that the religious people who are interested in whether this ossuary is real or not are conflated without discrimination with the slimy people who make the hoaxes and collect them illegally in their apartments. The book purports to be about people "who want to believe" and are fooled, but then it's all about the people who are doing the fooling and the police and scientists who catch them. The collectors and hoaxers are clearly shown by their own statements to be agnostic or atheistic, and more interested in Israel the country than Israel the people of YHWH. There's something interesting there in how these collectors are substituting faith for pieces of rock. They come out and say it -- their lives revolve around these little idols, that have become literal idols again for them. And yet Burleigh misses the point because she's so convinced this is about faith vs. reason. (The blurb by Christopher Hitchens assuming the same thing on the back cover was my first indication something was lopsided about this story.)

Just like with the Da Vinci Code, strangely bad copyediting mistakes accompany the deeper problems. Did you know Jesus died for you on "Calgary"? Or one of my favorite verses is quoted from Zechariah 22 ... but Zechariah only has 12 chapters. Burleigh misquotes a guide saying theives broke Jesus' legs on the cross (maybe the guide got it wrong but I doubt it).

Again near the end of the book, one of the characters remarks that Jerusalem is a unique city, that "the air is different here." There's hints of more going on outside the pages of this book throughout the story. Then the air is cut off again: "All good things come by chance" remarks a head policeman regarding one of the big breaks in the case. That appears to reflect the author's bias as well, placing her firmly in the Greek philosophy camp of Epicureanism. Unfortunately that philosophy pulls a shroud over most of the motivations of the characters in this story. I wish this book was written better, because if the ossuary is the hoax I suspect it is, it needs to be denounced with more rigor than this.

PS: The "Jesus Tomb" figures in this story and is presented with appropriate skepticism. James Tabor (along with James Cameron and that Canadian guy with the hard to spell name) is behind "much of the current crop of Biblical hype." Hmmm... Where have I heard that before?

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