They call it Zeitgeist - the spirit of the times. And like any phantom, it's insubstantial, difficult to grasp. You can sense it, but you can't force it to do anything or to be what you want it to be. The best you can hope for is to be (dimly) aware of it. Millions aren't. They assume that they know what the Zeitgeist is, but it has already passed them by, moved on, and is beginning to express itself in odd places, out on the fringes, far from the mainstream.
I've had a few Zeitgeist moments recently: a radio interview about the Baby Boomer generation, an email from my collaborator in New Mexico, a Facebook status put up by a fellow writer in British Columbia, a book about Native American science, metaphysics and philosophy ... But one of the most stirring and satisfying of these glimpses was reading The Lives of the Apostates by Eric O. Scott.
The Lives of the Apostates is a novella which will be published very shortly - later this month, in fact - by Moon Books (it's already available on Kindle). It's short enough to be readable in one sustained sitting, but don't let the length fool you: there's plenty of food for thought in those pages.
Set in the American Midwest, the book is a first-person narrative. On the one hand, the narrator - Lou - is a pretty normal college student, sharing accommodation with a scruffy friend, longing for his childhood sweetheart and earning a few spare dollars by keeping a night-time eye on a couple of adult males with special needs. But Lou is also a second-generation pagan - his parents raised him in the Wicca tradition. Studying religion and philosophy at college, Lou finds that he is being subtly forced into accepting and reiterating a Christian view of history.
Lou's room-mate has gravitated towards paganism, even though his mother is a practising Christian and 'Grimalkin', as he prefers to be called, was brought up attending the very church where Lou's college tutor is also the pastor. And so the stage is set for something of a showdown between different worldviews.
Given that this is a first-person narrative, the author inevitably runs the risk of being wholly one-sided (and I daresay that many Christian fundamentalist or traditionalist readers will claim that the book is just that). In fact, I felt that Scott was pretty fair. The narrator's increasing frustration at feeling quietly coerced into participating in the ongoing rewriting of history - the complacent assumption that Christianity, and all that it entails, was and is the only logical development and conclusion of mankind's beliefs; the perennial misrepresentation of what pagan beliefs are, and what pagans actually do - and the subtle persecution of people who can't and don't subscribe to the conformist position, these things are handled with care and sensitivity. And there is much more to the book than a simple debate about different belief systems. It is well-observed and written with wit and verve - and courage, too, given its Midwest setting.
Personally, I was much taken with the narrative thread which concerned Lou's determination to write a college paper about the Emperor Julian. The Christians called him the 'Apostate' or the 'Traitor'. Why? Because he was a pagan - the 'Last Pagan', as certain authorities have had the temerity to assert. Julian is a fascinating historical individual (as even Lou's Christian tutor admits) - his family was slaughtered by a supposedly Christian Emperor, who assumed that Julian would reign as a sort of puppet. Julian in fact proved to be an effective general and, were it not for one of those accidents of history, he might have altered the direction of European (and World) history. But it wasn't to be.
Lou's attempts to write a fair appraisal of Julian bring him into conflict with his tutor, who insists that Lou present Julian in the way that generations of Christian writers have sought to portray him - regardless of historical accuracy. In that regard, The Lives of the Apostates is not an example of church-bashing so much as an earnest appeal for honesty - about history, about other people's beliefs - which is both long overdue and absolutely what is needed in our fractious, fragmented age. The frustration at being persistently denied this, at being bombarded, time and again, with one side of the story and told to believe it or else, is a major part of what drives the narrative.
I've been writing about the Emperor Julian (whom the Christians hated) and the Emperor Constantine (whom the Christians adored, to the extent of forging documents about him) in my book about the Grail - also for Moon Books - so there was a pleasant sense of recognition, and of writers in different continents beginning to ask similar questions of the past. It's that Zeitgeist thing. Maybe - hopefully - this is where we're at, with an increasing number of people desperate to see the truth about our mutual history told. The partisan approach to history favours division and social control. It's a form of brainwashing. But if we are to achieve tolerance, the values enshrined in the US Constitution, and wise, informed, sensible solutions to the problems we all face we must stop telling lies about the past. Understanding the truth about today requires a true understanding of the past. Conversely, lies about history become lies about the present - and our problems simply become more entrenched and intractable, while our capacity to address those problems is handicapped by the falsehoods we have been taught to embrace.
Don't get me wrong - Eric O. Scott's Lives of the Apostates is a thoroughly enjoyable read, deceptively easy to get through. And that might be the book's greatest achievement. There are big issues in there, big questions and no easy answers, but they occur to you after you have read the book. And I can offer no higher recommendation than that.