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Deadly American Beauty – Book Review

DeadlyAmericanBeautyby: John Glatt

Publisher: St. Martin’s Paperbacks

Copyright: 2004, ISBN: 0312984197

Cover: Photo AP/Wide World Photos

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes. November 28, 2004

Summary: Not Much Depth, Not Much of Interest.

Kristin Rossum was convicted of killing her husband by poisoning him with fentanyl. The rationale for the murder was Rossum’s addiction to methamphetamine. It was the rationale but not the reason. At the time, November 6, 2000, she was involved in an extramarital affair with her boss at the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office and she wanted out of the marriage to husband, Greg De Villers.

 

There is nothing new gained from reading John Glatt’s book. His emphasis upon Rossum’s desire to please her parents on the one hand and her own assessment that she was a failure comes through loud and clear. The emphasis is legitimate, though it appears that the focus of Rossum’s life leapt past issues of mere self-esteem to the more fundamental issues of character and integrity. She developed neither. At round 14, she tried crystal methamphetamine. She became addicted. Any farther character development ceased from that point on.

 

Unlike Jerry Bledsoe’s DEATH SENTENCE (reviewed August 2003), which is an excellent recounting of the life of another woman, Velma Barfield, who murdered by poison, John Glatt’s work is confined to the narrow scope of circumstances leading up to the murder to Rossum’s husband. But center-stage, indeed the stage upon which those circumstances played out was the methamphetamine addiction. Like Velma Barfield’s addiction to a host of proscription drugs, Rossum’s addition to methamphetamine was undoubtedly the foundation upon which her decision to kill her husband was based. Methamphetamine erased from her any constraints by which to make rationale, albeit self-centered and self-delusional decisions. Without the methamphetamine re-wiring the circuits of her brain, Rossum would have simply been one of those unpleasant, superficial people “in search of themselves”. The methamphetamine allowed her to believe she had found herself moment by moment.

 

The portrait Glatt draws of Rossum’s husband, Greg De Villers, is sketchy. De Villers apparently rescued Rossum from one of her stints of methamphetamine immersions some five years before they got married. The relationship continued from that point on. He may or may not have become possessive of her by the time they married in June 1999. Rossum is reported to have testified that the way you get rid of a husband is that you leave him, you do not commit murder. Her actions prior to the murder indicate that she was in fact planning to leave her husband. Then the murder occurred.

 

This is one of those rare instances in which the book would have been much more interesting if the life of the victim were chronicled rather than that of the murderer. The fact that Greg De Villers was blind to the desperation and eventual murderous intent of the woman he said he loved speaks volumes about him, not her. But he’s dead and she’s an American beauty. We can live with that. No choice really.

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Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code – Book Review

DaVinciCodeTruthAndFictionby: Bart D. Ehrman,

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Copyright: 2004, ISBN: [0195181409]

Cover: Kathleen M. Lynch

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, November 25, 2004

 

Summary: A history book about a fictional work.

 

Tip-toeing Through the World of the End

Brooding Prince Hamlet must chose between justice for justice’s sake or to act out of pure revenge. In doing a book review or even in writing a rebuttal on a subject as sensitive as the divinity of Jesus Christ, the writer also faces choices of self-gratification or seeking a higher goal of truth.

Truth is neither self-evident nor derived from consensus. Truth is not the indecision of an “open mind” nor manifest as an instantaneous conclusion or action. An illustration: Toward the end of Bart D. Ehrman’s rebuttal, TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE, he relates an innocuous little vignette in which he assigns Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ” as required viewing for students in his class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1988. Some of the students thought it sacrilegious to see the film and voiced protests. Mr. Ehrman rescinded the requirement to see the film. Unwittingly, Mr. Ehrman had discovered a truth. He could have used it for the entire eight chapters of his book. This is not a negative regarding the merits of “Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code”, but rather a cloud hanging over it. If you don’t look up, it shouldn’t bother you.

Ehrman’s book should be read because it is really is a rebuttal to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”-the other side of the dialog you might say. Ehrman quotes extensively from the characters in “The Da Vinci Code” to make his points. His points are a combination of historical fact and an assessment of historical analysis tools. There are some things historians just don’t know about the life of Jesus Christ–is this surprising?-and Ehrman is happy to point them out. But of course, not knowing something should not hinder anyone from making conjectures, sort of like the ones Dan Brown has his fictional characters make and the writers of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” make. (See the November 2004 review of the latter work).

While Brown has his characters lecture dear Sophie on the celibate, un-married Jesus Christ as a fabricated propaganda tool of the Catholic Church, Ehrman points out that Jesus Christ was living in an apocalyptic age teaching an apocalyptic message. He was celibate and un-married because the “natural” way of the apocalyptic prophets was un-married celibacy. So there! Of course Ehrman doesn’t have any historical basis to say Jesus was or wasn’t married, only that based on the historical circumstances, it makes sense that he was not married. Is this any different than Dan Brown’s characters saying or the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” contending that Jesus was married and begot children? A case of conventional wisdom versus wide-eyed speculation?

Where Ehrman’s work shines is in his defense of the Roman Emperor Constantine. It is also his potential Achilles’ heel. Brown’s characters leave the very distinct impression that Emperor Constantine was responsible for the creation of the Christian Church-that is to say, the Catholic Church. He quotes the clever character Leigh Teabing as saying,

“…Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that me Him godlike…” Ehrman calls the statement more fiction than fact. He then proceeds to lay out the history of how the Bible, specifically the New Testament, came into existence. In so doing, he makes this rather curious statement:

“As significant as the differences among Christian groups are today, however, they pale in comparison with the difference among Christian groups that we know about in the early centuries of the church.”

Along comes Constantine, the Council of Nicea and the “powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, . . . [who] wrote a letter to the churches throughout Egypt under his jurisdiction, in which he laid out in strict terms the contours of the canon of scripture”. His list was adopted by the Council of Nicea, which was convened by authority of the Emperor of Rome, and every Christian sect since uses the list as its bible. Brown says apples. Ehrman says raisins. Sounds like apple pie to me.

Bart D. Ehrman’s rebuttal, TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE comes teasingly close to up-ending the conventional view of Jesus Christ in a number of places in the book. For instance, on page 138 he writes, “In many ways the picture of Jesus that emerges may seem strange to modern ears. For Jesus appears to have been a Jewish apocalypticist anticipating the end of this present evil age within his own generation.” More significant, when comparing the various Gospels not included in the official bible, Ehrman draws from both sources to make the statement, “The dead Jesus does not save; the living Jesus saves. So-called believers who don’t understand are not the beneficiaries of Jesus’ death; they are mocked by it.” It is a statement at the core of sectarian Christian belief system. However, Ehrman does not take the next step and place the reason for the statement within the context of world religions. Along with the end of the world belief, the belief in a physical world and a spiritual world and the interaction between the two, are the distinguishing tenets of Christianity. The end of the world belief system and the linking of that event with a belief in Jesus Christ as the sole link to the spiritual world is the belief element that sets Christianity apart from other world religions-including Judaism.

As an armchair historian, this reviewer once wrote that America came into existence because there were those who did not believe Mankind needed the Catholic Church as an intermediary between the individual and God. The next step in this “evolutionary” process may be the full realization of the message provided by all world great religious teachers–that each individual is a part of God, including Jesus Christ. More germane to the purpose here, Bart D. Ehrman’s book as well as Dan Brown’s, “The Da Vinci Code” highlight a truth: it is easier to accept and understand the messengager than it is to accept and understand the message. And that’s the truth, Lily.

TRUTH AND FICTION IN THE DA VINCI CODE is a definite must read.

 

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Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail – Book Review

HolyBloodHolyGrailby: Michael Baigent and Leigh and Lincoln

Publisher: DELL Book

Copyright: 1982, ISBN: [038534001X]

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, November 12, 2004

Summary: Origin for the idea behind Dan Brown’s DA VINCI CODE novel. This history is much more enjoyable reading because you can have a spirited argument with it.

 

 

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

From Hamlet (III, ii, 239)

 

The line is from a play within a play, an analogy drawn here to Holy Blood, Holy Grail through a rather torturous train of logic, befitting, I believe, an equally torturous train of assumptions. Indulge me as I start from the beginning.

 

A friend recommended reading Dan Browns’ The Da Vinci Code (see September 2004 review). This friend, a very astute and learned gentleman, also recommended Holy Blood, Holy Grail as background material. Given the plethora-one of my favorite words-of rebuttals to The Da Vinci Code, it is no small matter that the foundation work, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, also produced a few rebuttals. Alex Burns wrote one such counter-fact, focusing on a side-issue (the medium and the messenger) which has a relative importance of five on a scale of ten. (For Burns’ article, see http://www.disinfo.com/archive/pages/dossier/id96/pg1/) . For our purpose here, a critique of a rebuttal must consist of two parts. The overall “value” of the rebuttal and, most importantly, an assessment of the rebuttals’ relevance to the work it is trashing, or rather, criticizing. Alex Burns’ rebuttal focuses on the messenger and the medium and not the message itself. Does Holy Blood, Holy Grail make a contribution to our understanding of the history of Christianity? The snap judgment will be that any work which challenges the core of a religion can not contribute anything of value, ergo, the work can be dismissed on any grounds. As a snap judgment, I think such a dismissal quite legitimate.

 

Bart D. Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code (to be reviewed in November 2004) rebuttal to The Da Vinci Code comes awfully darn close to be a definitive rebuttal in every respect-except one. In general, the rebuttals to Holy Blood, Holy Grail have been off the mark. But we are not doing a rebuttal here, we are doing a review.

 

As was stated in the review of The Da Vinci Code, the author went out of his way to state rather clearly that whether one accepts Jesus Christ as of divine origin is a matter of faith. It is here, in ignoring this rather simple and prosaic proclamation, that rebuttals to The Da Vinci Code are falling all over themselves in an embarrassing way. The rebuttals to Holy Blood, Holy Grail are rather more straightforward, focusing on the conspiracy angle splashing and swooshing within the confines of its pages like a bowl of cold chicken soup.

 

Now, back to Hamlet.

 

The Mother Of All Conspiracies

 

While the author of The Da Vinci Code allowed his characters to recognize religious faith as a distinct adjunct to religious history, the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail plunge right into the history and make no detours. This is fitting. Michael Baigent and company are talking history. Unfortunately, they jump out of the gate by making an assumption and precede stretching it to a plethora of presumptions. Bad sign.

 

The story of Holy Blood, Holy Grail is basically this: In 1891, Berenger Sauniere, a parish priest in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, starts a restoration project on the village church. He finds four parchments sealed in wooden tubes. Two of the parchments appear to be ciphers or codes spelling out seemingly incoherent messages. Some of the messages however, such as “To Dagobert II King and to Sion belongs this Treasure and he is there dead”, make plenty of sense, but to what end? Sauniere, with the Bishops’ blessing, takes the parchments to Paris for study. The rest, as they say, is history. Or it would be, except Sauniere meets up with some folks who are heavily involved in esoteric thought and occult-oriented philosophy. Sauniere spends three weeks in Paris, purchases some paintings from the Louvre and returns to Rennes-le-Chateau where he continues restoration of the church. Then, in 1896 “he began to spend in earnest on a staggering and unprecedented scale.” By the end of his life in 1917, the restoration project alone amounts to several million dollars-an enormous sum for the day. That essentially is the story.

 

Now, the questions. Where did Berenger Sauniere get the money to do the restoration of the church? Did the encoded text in the parchments reveal the secrets to some hidden treasure-for instance, the treasure belonging to the once powerful Knights Templar-the first bankers of Europe? Did the encoded text contain a secret concerning Jesus Christ?

 

The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail spend the next fourteen chapters providing answers to these and other questions. The history is rather obscure but well documented in notes and references. Can’t argue the history. But pile on top of the history a plethora of assumptions and you have Holy Blood, Holy Grail and a slew of other works trailing after.

 

The authors maintain that Berenger Sauniere unearthed a secret in addition to a possible treasure. It is the secret, which they surmise is religious in nature, that accounted for the source of vast sums of money the village priest expended on the church restoration and which, upon his death, he gave to his house keeper of thirty-two years, Marie Denarnaud. From this assumption, that there was a secret associated with Sauniere’s activities, the authors launch into a rather engrossing though highly dubious expose of murder, cover-up and intrigue on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. The key to reading this historical conspiracy is to keep in mind that the association of facts is based upon the underlying assumption that Sauniere had a secret (don’t know what it is) and that it would turn western civilization on its head if it were revealed.

 

To be fair, the authors are rather explicit in saying when they are making conjectures. So the burden really does fall on the reader to shift sense from non-sense.

 

Building a viable assumption is no easy task. The authors devote four paragraphs in chapter one of Holy Blood, Holy Grail to laying out the foundation of their theory-that Sauniere was blackmailing the church , aided by a secret society in which prominent members of European society were involved. The secret society of course is the Prieure de Sion (Priory of Sion). The authors name the former Grand Masters of the society, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, and Jean Cocteau. These names as well as the purpose of the society itself are based “a corpus of material” that is “too dense, too confusing, too disconnected, most of all copious”. The authors do not add “of dubious value”, but we’ll do that here. In describing the association of the former “Grand Masters” with the Priory of Sion group, you get the very distinct feeling that you are in the realm of floating mirrors in which any perception is possible.

 

Michael Baigent and company must be given credit for producing a highly coherent theory-that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdala and they had children who eventually became the well-spring of the Merovingian bloodline. As coherent as the theory is, despite all the surrounding facts supporting the theory, it is missing a factual link joining their base assumption (Sauniere’s secret) to the entire edifice upon which they build the theory. But hey, this is a good read. The facts they do present are manna to any armchair historian.

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