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By John Wilson
Stranger in a Strange Land
Guy Davenport tells a story about the filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who grew disgusted with newspapers and stopped reading them altogether. Instead, at the breakfast table, he read aloud each morning to his family from the Roman historian Suetonius. On November 22, 1963, they had arrived at Suetonius' account of the death of Julius Caesar.
Elsewhere in this issue there's a window into a parallel universe where Bono is president of the United States and Warren Sapp is his secretary of defense. In this alternate America, the cabinet also includes a secretary of history, Books & Culture's own Mark Noll.
In the familiar world we inhabit, this cabinet post is unlikely to catch on. That's a pity. Imagine the president meeting every two weeks, say, with his historian. Everyone else around him is focused relentlessly on the present, not least on the ever-proliferating opinion polls. When his advisers venture into history, they generally do so in the spirit of a raid—to rip from its context a precedent, an anecdote, a jeweled phrase that will serve some partisan purpose. But for a half-hour every fortnight, the president simply listens to his historian telling him about another time, with its enigmas and ironies intact—yet also, always, a tale of choices made for better or worse, hence bearing on the choices to be made today.
And in that parallel world, resentment burns against the Cubs' dynasty, the cost of medical insurance is rapidly declining, and Richard Dawkins—following his dramatic conversion— preaches at the largest Pentecostal church in the UK.
Christianity, of course, is the ultimate alternate history, with a premise far more fantastic than anything imagined by Harry Turtledove and other masters of the genre. The Creator of the universe sends his son, who is also God himself, to Earth to be born of a virgin. The son grows up, is crucified, and rises again from the dead, somehow conquering death itself. Then he ascends to heaven, sending the Spirit—who is also God (there are ...