When I was a child I thought as a child, sometimes, but mostly I thought as a nerd. I was a person who knew things. I have a magpie brain, it picks up shiny new facts and dates and anecdotes without me even consciously realizing it. When I was a kid I would just blurt these facts out sometimes. The other kids called me “Encyclopedia” for a couple years. (This was not a compliment, allow me to assure you.) But I did build a lot of my sense of self-worth around Knowing Things. This continued all the way into grad school, when a professor of mine, momentarily blanking on the name of the founder of the Shakers, murmured my name, and from the back of the class I opened my mouth and the words “Mother Ann Lee” tumbled out, which shocked me—because even I didn’t know I knew the founder of the Shakers.
The problem with this, other than that it can lead to an insufferable arrogance, is that when you don’t know something you seize up. (The other problem is that I tend to memorize facts rather than get better at analysis—I feel eternally under-critical.) I’m saying all of this as a preamble to telling you that when I got to The Transmigration of Timothy Archer in my TBR Stack, I had no idea what it was about.
I didn’t know that it was based on the life of James Pike, former Episcopal Bishop of California. I didn’t know that the Bishop was close friends with Dick (in fact, PKD married the Bishop’s mistress’ stepdaughter; Pike officiated the marriage), I didn’t know that Pike had been profiled by Joan Didion, or that PKD mocks said profile in this novel. I didn’t know the book’s fated ending. Once I found out that this was essentially an alt-universe version of real events I did my best to read it with blinders on, and only researched our timeline’s version of events after I finished the book.
I would say that the book itself works best more as a portrait of a very particular time and place than it does as a novel, or even as a character study. Though the characters are fascinating: Bishop Timothy Archer, his son Jeff and daughter-in-law Angel, his mistress, Kirsten, and Kirsten’s son Bill Lundborg. The story is told by Angel, who, on the day of John Lennon’s murder, goes to a spiritual seminar and tries to makes sense of all the things that went on between the Bishop’s closest circle 13 years earlier.
As I said, this is technically a work of alt history, but it only becomes truly speculative in the second half of the book, and even then Dick dances between allowing space for the uncanny and rationalizing it away. I’ll talk a bit about it in general and warn you when I’m about to get into spoilers.
The book is a breathless character study. Angel Archer talks about the years with her husband Jeff, and the close relationship that formed between her and her father-in-law. She’s the one who introduces him to Kirsten, the woman who becomes his mistress, and she seems to be the only one who can clearly see the damage the relationship will do to Tim’s reputation and career. Things quickly spiral out of control in a very NorCal way, as everyone falls in love with each other, pinballs between smoking grass and downing dexys, and, mostly, argue with each other about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the true nature of Christ, Beethoven, the relevance of the Beatles, the ordination of women, whether the guy who runs the Bad Luck Restaurant in Berkeley is a secret KGB agent here to assassinate all the faithless Cal socialists…and, seemingly, literally every other topic on earth.
Angel is forever demanding that someone put a particular record on. Timothy Archer is forever pulling his favorite translation of Goethe’s Faust down from a nearby shelf, or consulting an Early Christian Desert Father on some fine point of theology. If you enjoy listening to these kinds of (usually stoned to hell) conversations, rendered with fine accuracy by PKD, you’ll enjoy this book. I generally enjoyed it, but I went to a tiny super progressive liberal arts college in West Central Florida, so even if the book isn’t really that speculative, reading it felt like an act of time travel for me.
The main plot comes in the form of the discovery of the Zadokite Documents, a cache of writings dating to around 200 BCE, that seem to cast the history of Judaism, and the foundations of Christianity, in a new light. Bishop Archer becomes obsessed with the documents, and along with Kirsten travels back and forth to England to assist with translations, much to the distress of his son Jeff.
We’re about to get a little autobiographical. Strap in.
The Way I Got into Religion, Being also an Accounting of the One Way in which I Resemble Wes Anderson
A billion years ago, I went to a sale at my local library. My local library was TERRIBLE, which is why it was shocking to find pile upon pile of New Yorkers. (Issues of the magazine, not like, Brooklynites.) I wanted to be sophisticated, they were each a dime, I had a few bucks, I cleaned them out. My mother was un-thrilled. I didn’t read most of them, I soon got overwhelmed by choice, decided I wasn’t smart enough to read them, but also refused to throw them out. My brain is delightful. (Apparently Wes Anderson had a similar experience of discovering New Yorkers at his school library in Texas, and also became obsessed with them, which is why he made The French Dispatch, which is fantastic.)
One of the ones I read, though, had a long long story on a religion scholar named Elaine Pagels.
I’d been studying religion casually for a few years by then, but this was the first time I’d read about what a religion scholar actually did. Much like the forewords to Stephen King books, where he made it clear he was a human who wrote books for money, this was the first time I genuinely understood that religion could be a job. In Pagels’ case, what she actually did was learn a couple different languages and help translate a treasure trove of ancient writings called the Nag Hammadi Library. These were a number of texts that were found hidden in a cave in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. (Kind of like the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were also found in a cave, but which are thought to be mostly the writings of a Jewish group called the Essenes.) Once they made their way through various black markets and scholarly auctions, scholars realized that many of the writings reflected the beliefs of a group called the Gnostics. “Gnostic” is an umbrella term for a lot of different groups with similar beliefs, some Christian, some pagan, the definitions get kind of blurry. Some of the works in the NHL have Jesus as a character, some of them are about an entity called Sophia, and if you’ve seen articles about “The Gospel of Judas” or “The Gospel of Mary” this is probably where those gospels came from. The NHL is also where we get our most complete version of my personal fave, “The Gospel of Thomas.” There are a lot of gospels beyond the four that made it into the canon of the New Testament, is the point.
The reason I mention this is that this was my entry into studying religion more seriously. I bought Pagels’ books, I bought a copy of The Nag Hammadi Library, I read as much as I could. I just wrote about Gnosticism AT LENGTH in an essay about The Eternals, and I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to do it over again. But now here I am, up to my eyeballs in Philip K. Dick.
I had no idea that this was a large part of Transmigration’s plot.
The idea of Judaism and Christianity being rocked to their respective cores by newly-discovered documents mirrors the upheavals caused by the Dead Sea Scrolls (which Dick’s fictionalized “Zadokite documents” seem to be part of, but he only speaks of them in relation to Early Christianity) and my beloved Nag Hammadi Library. In the NHL’s case, the documents were most likely hidden because their ideas went against what was considered canonical Christianity—as I said above, there are a lot of gospels, parables, collections of wisdom sayings, etc., and not all of them made the cut. There was probably a thread of oral tradition that was never written down. Some early writings were probably discarded as gospels like Matthew and Luke became popular, and were considered more complete narratives. Some writings were popular at specific times and then disavowed later, and some were popular in certain communities but not in others. (With Christianity specifically, the reason Paul and his followers wrote all those epistles was simply that early Christian communities were widespread, and it was possible that one town would have only have a copy of one gospel, and another would have a copy of a different gospel, plus maybe a respected prophetess, and everybody just worked with what they had. Paul was trying to get everyone on the same page, metaphorically speaking.) In the In the case of the NHL, it seems likely that the writings were hidden when the Bishop of Alexandria officially condemned the study of non-canonical books in 367 C.E., because a lot of the early centuries of Christianity were spent arguing about what counted as “canon” and “apocrypha.”
There are also ideas about something called the “Q” documents, Q standing for Quelle, which is German for “Source.” There are four (4) canonical gospels that are accepted as the core writings of Christianity: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. (I always say Mark first because it’s oldest gospel that archaeologists have found, so far.) Mark, Matthew, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels because they share many of the same stories despite most likely having three different authors. (I’m only talking about human authors here—I’m not even getting into any other Authorship claims.) The idea is that there may have been a collection of sayings and parables attributed to Jesus that predated Matthew and Luke, and possibly even predated Mark. When the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, they drew on Mark, and on this other “Source” collection, which is why those two gospels share quotes (e.g. Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” also shows up in Luke 16:13) and basic narrative moments, as in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which make a lot of the same points and use some of the same phrasing. (John is written in a very different style and tells the story from a different angle, which is why it isn’t included as a synoptic.) The reason I’m explaining this, other than that this stuff is fucking cool, is that in Transmigration PKD uses the idea of the Q documents to posit something called “Ur-Quelle”, which are part of his Zadokite documents. In Dick’s story, the Ur-Quelle casts serious doubt on the role of Jesus in early Christianity, and that doubt becomes a giant plot point for one of the characters.
None of you will ever know how much time I spent trying to come up with a good Steve Urkel/Stefan Urquelle pun for this essay.
My larger point is, as religious documents are discovered, and verrrrry slowwwwwly translated, there are periods when people think they’ll have a huge impact on organized religion, and mainstream publications like The New Yorker or Time Magazine write about them in breathless tones, but what’s happened (so far) is that the documents give modern historians new perspectives on, say, Second Temple Judaism, or what Christian monks were thinking about circa 200 C.E. I’m guessing more people know a scrap of The Gospel of Thomas because it’s quoted in the (slightly inaccurate!) 1999 horror movie Stigmata than because It Changed Everything, Man.
In Dick’s alt-universe, however, the implication is that these documents would be pretty earth-shattering.
From here, I’ll have to discuss spoilers for the book, and also the Netflix series Midnight Mass. If you haven’t already fled, and wish to: flee! And for those remaining, if you haven’t already strapped in as I previously advised, do so now.
OK, so, transubstantiation.
It’s kind of at the heart of a lot of Christianity. I think it’s fair to say that the rite of Communion is one of the biggest things that sets “believing Christian” apart from “person who thinks Jesus was a great moral teacher.” And yes, of course, there’s way more to it than that, but the core of it, for a lot of people, is do you think that this person was more than a person? Do you think that this rite/belief frees you from the finality of death? Because of that importance this core element has taken on an enormous weight in media that deals with Christianity/faith/heresy/death/etc. In Transmigration, the question of what exactly communion is becomes the fulcrum for the plot.
(deep breath) The Zadokite papers talk about “anokhi”, which the researchers interpret as the “I AM” of the phrase “I AM the Lord thy God.” Bishop Archer becomes convinced that anokhi is actually a physical substance, namely a mushroom, that a figure called the Expositor administers the anokhi to followers who experienced a concrete form of immortality, and that Jesus came along 200 years later to parrot the teachings of the Expositor and the Zadokite cult. The true knowledge of Sein, or the “Being” of God, came through this physical mushroom, baked into bread and simmered into broth, rather than being a purely spiritual process. Thus, having lost the mushroom, the modern believer has lost the true connection to God. Dick’s description of the anokhi mushroom are largely borrowed from real-life archaeologist John Marco Allegro and his 1970 book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity Within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East, in which he uses a unique interpretation of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls to claim that the early Christians were a mushroom/orgy cult.
Bishop Archer becomes obsessed with what the anokhi means to his understanding of his religion, and what it might do to Christianity as a whole. He and Kirsten lose themselves so entirely in their research that neither of them notices that Jeff is falling into despair—when he commits suicide, Bishop Archer quits the church and becomes a spiritualist, as multiple tragedies and upheavals buffet him, Angel, and their inner circle. Finally, the Bishop comes to believe that he’s fated to an early death—distraught and frantic that he’s doomed to die unless he can find the True Christ, he wanders off into the desert looking for him, er, Him.
This is where I have to wonder if this was also a jumping off point for Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass series, which featured a priest who discovers a very particular form of immortality while lost in a desert and brings a special Sacrament back to his isolated island community. There, too, questions about “immortality” and “transubstantiation” become central to a story of people who are trying to reconcile faith with lives full of hardship. In Transmigration, however, the story is rooted in fact: Bishop James Pike actually traveled into the desert, and in fact died of exposure after getting lost. In the Bishop’s case it seems this wasn’t a quest for mushrooms or any sort of mystical convergence, but rather a (somewhat dramatic) attempt to feel closer to the historical Jesus (a kettle of worms I am NOT opening in this review).
Where the book finally tips into something closer to specfic is in the constant question of whether Archer’s spiritualism is real, and, in the end, if he finds a way to defeat death after all. While I liked the book, I found myself wishing it had gotten to this point a lot sooner—I was much more interested in watching Angel navigate the possibility that her friend had come back despite her own lack of belief in that possibility, than in the more meandering conversations about the Zadokite documents. As much as I appreciate Dick’s character studies, I felt like the book snapped into a whole other level of focus as soon as he started floating an uncanny possibility in the midst of hi characters’ reality. And of course, given that he wove this story largely from his own life, and the lives of his friends, the idea that he’s introducing this uncanniness into his own reality adds a meta layer that I found incredibly exciting, and wanted to stay with longer than the book allowed.
End of spoilers!
I don’t know if this book always completely works as a novel, but I loved reading it. I loved spending time in PKD’s mind, and listening as his characters spun out about theological minutiae, and I enjoyed hanging out in his version of California. Especially in light of Didion’s take on Bishop Pike—given Didion’s status as a chronicler of California, it was fun to see Dick’s take on the eternal students of Berkeley, as people wandered from record shops to mediums to houseboat-hosted spiritual seminars, all while speaking of the ‘60s in hushed, reverential tones, but never seeming up to the task of continuing the social work they all claim to believe in.
The fact that Dick made an argument about “communion” the fulcrum of the book was especially interesting to me. If you read between the lines you can see Angel Archer hinting that maybe “communion” could be found in the love this group of friends shared, if they all could have just listened to each other a little better, and stopped in their frantic reaching for more fame, or sex, or status. But one of the strengths of the book is that Dick allows his characters to be themselves, to fuck up, to make titanic mistakes and outlandish claims, and the result is a fascinating book.
Leah Schnelbach may have said, with noticeable outrage, “No, that’s the fucking Gospel of Thomas!”, out loud, in the theater, during Stigmata. Apologies to the rest of the audience, and to Patricia Arquette. Come bring forth what is within you on Twitter!