Joshua Pederson’s The Gospel of Thomas (Pynchon): Abandoning Eschatology in Gravity’s Rainbow arguments challenges the eschatological (things that have to do with final matters such the final Judgment or death) interpretations of Pynchon’s novel. To support his argument, Pederson frequently cites the Gospel of Thomas (which is a record of Jesus’ preaching, but it is not a part of the Bible). While the Gospel of Thomas is only referenced once in Pynchon’s novel, Pederson makes multiple connections between the uncanonical gospel and Pynchon’s own “rocket gospel.” They share similarities in which both texts denounce apocalyptic thinking and distinctions between the blessed and condemned (or Elect and Preterite). Pederson primarily concerns himself with the argument that Pynchon has been trying to draw his audience away from reading his novel eschatologically. It is not meant to be an apocalyptic novel where the reader is left guessing who will be saved and who will be damned, instead it is supposed to mock characters (and even readers) who may search for such a climatic religious end to the novel, in which the characters will finally be judged as Elect or Preterite.
As opposed to the canonical gospels, Thomas’s gospel argues that anyone has the power to become God’s elect, which suggests that everyone is the same, that there are no distinctions between humanity after all. According to Pederson, Pynchon follows the same idea as Thomas in his novel, making the line of distinction between the two groups very fine and oblique in which it is sometimes unclear which group a character belongs to. Typically, anyone who is a part of Them or works for Them is considered to be elite, however even these exclusive members are subject to fall from their previously high statuses. Pederson refers to several characters in the novel, among this “elect” who fall into the same level as the preterite such as Miklos Thanatz who falls off the Anubis and is left behind, Pirate Prentice who stays with the Preterite when he no longer works for the White Visitation, and Duane Marvy who is accidently castrated in Slothrop’s place. Pederson describes this fall of the elite as a social gravity “which pulls all of these characters down to the same plane” (Pederson 148). All of these examples show that the distinctions between the two groups are malleable and can be subject to change. By uniting all the characters under one Preterite category, there isn’t a point for the audience to try to distinguish between the Preterite and Elect categories. Thus, Pederson concludes that Pynchon draws the readers’ attention toward the sanctity of the present world.
According to Pederson, everyone is capable of being saved, because not only are they equal but they also already inhabit the divine kingdom, which is located on earth. In the Gospel of Thomas there isn’t a heaven or hell, instead the “kingdom” is in the present world, but most people are blind to see it. However, anyone is capable of recognizing the kingdom on earth (this achievement is known as gnosis). Characters’ search for an external spiritual truth is pointless, because there is nothing to search for. The truth is in them. Therefore any truth, knowledge, or enlightenment which we may think may be revealed to us in the afterlife can only be found in the present world. Pederson argues that Pynchon expresses his disapproval of apocalyptic thinking by parodying characters who fantasize over mass destruction, thinking it will lead to some kind of revelation or salvation in a new world. Pederson’s prime example to support this argument is the story of Franz and the dodoes. While exterminating completely harmless creatures, Franz rationalized that the mass extinction was a form of conversion and that he was in fact saving the birds or bringing them to salvation by eliminating them. This is one of Pynchon’s more ridiculous examples of the irrationality surrounding eschatological thinking, but it is nevertheless a prevalent representation of more serious events that happen throughout the novel by people consumed by this delusional thinking.
One portion of the essay that interested me was when Pederson said: “the boundary between the groups is always malleable, sometimes invisible, and frequently breached. So delicate is the line that separates the two groups that one begins to believe that, as in Thomas, it might be entirely imaginary” (Pederson 147). Implying that the distinction between the groups “might be entirely imaginary” reveals that the distinctions between who is Elect and who is Preterite would be solely humanly manufactured. It is simply an illusion. Yet these distinctions became a part of the social norms of society in which a majority of the people believe there has to be someone who is rewarded and someone who is punished. It is these societal norms which drive people to a paranoiac state of self-policing themselves. As we talked about in class They utilizes the power of monitoring to control the Preterite. Even those who are not monitored by Them may still believe they are being and then conform to the Elect’s rules.
To expand upon Pederson’s essay further I think may have analyzed the following passage: “It must change radically the nature of our faith. To ask that we keep faith in Their mortality, faith that They also cry, and have fear, and feel pain, faith They are only pretending Death is Their servant –faith in Death as the master of us all” (Pynchon 549). Here the speaker is asserting that in order to combat Them we must have faith that They are susceptible to the same weaknesses we are. When applying this thinking there really aren’t many differences between Them and Us. This faith places the Elect and Preterite on an equal playing field, which Pederson suggests is what Pynchon was trying to do all along. Perhaps this quote is supposed to be read by those who believe in such distinctions to show them that these distinctions are only self-made, not predetermined. Hiding behind the distinctions which the elect established, They also pretends that they control death over the Preterite, but in truth this is not the case, because Death is the shared fate of everyone. Even those who think they are invincible will inevitably be pulled by the gravity of their mortality.
For me, Pederson’s essay clarified the significance behind the theme of Elect vs. Preterite. It explained a new perspective on the relationship between the two categories beyond the typical 1% elite controlling the Preterite majority. While the theme of Preterite vs. Elect is important in the novel, its significance does not lie with who falls into which category, but in the realization that these categories don’t matter, because everyone is inevitably placed on the same equal level, challenged to understand the world around them.
Pederson, Joshua, “The Gospel of Thomas (Pynchon): Abandoning Eschatology in Gravity’s
Rainbow,” Religion and the Arts 14 (2010): 139-160.