The Sermons of the Refuter

Illustration by Mark Scicluna

by Christian Larsen

Burge loved Klugman Hall like he loved an old friend. Smelling of generations of varnish, oil and lead paint, it was one of the few places that made him feel young, because goodness knew, he was older than just about everybody else on campus. The old building hadn’t changed in all the time he had been at Evans College, and he had been there as an undergrad, a graduate student, it’s where he wrote his thesis, became a doctor of anthropology and a professor, and finally, a professor emeritus. The old building breathed. The creaky wooden floors shrank and expanded, the untreated mold made the air smell musty and academic, and the furnace was as old an antique as the HVAC guys in engineering had ever seen in person. It was the building God might have attended in his youth.

Older than dirt. Older than Burge.

The frosted yellow sconces on the wall watched him yellow with age as he shuffled up and down the ancient hallways–he, going from a horn-rimmed freshman with his hair tapered just so from weekly trims at home to a long-haired rabble-rouser, a belligerent peacenik with a dishwater blonde ponytail that through the years had turned bone white as the horn-rimmed glasses got thicker, the eyesight more watery, his grip a little weaker. When he was younger, he thought he didn’t need a wife and kids getting in the way, that his legacy would be his work, but while it was good work, solid enough to guarantee an office for life and a plaque on campus, it would be forgotten soon after he was six feet under, built-upon and usurped by the next generation that was already making a name for itself. Now that he was a man of a certain age, all his ‘reputation’ accomplishments were far behind him, and that’s why, in his golden years, he had devoted himself to the few surviving friends who remembered him from when he might have really been something. Or something. Friends like Meredith.

“Mr. Pettigrew, as I live and breathe,” she said from behind a desk, crenellated with stacks of dusty books. Books, in this day and age of downloadable files and reading tablets. It made her seem like a relic of another age. Of Burgess Pettigrew’s youth.

“Mare, how are you?” he asked his fist still wrapped around the brass doorknob. “I came as soon as I got your voicemail.”

“Burge, come in! Come in!” Meredith took off her glasses and smiled, crinkling her face into a thousand delicate creases, particularly around the corners of each eye.

Those eyes are still come hither, thought Burge, half expecting to see Meredith in that smart black suit she always wore to fundraisers, the one that hid the obviousness of her age in the square-tailored cloth that served only to underscore it. The eyes of a young woman. Sexy wells to a sexy soul. Jesus was spot on, though, when he told Peter the spirit was willing but the flesh is weak, because its my spirit that has a raging hard-on for this woman.

She stood up, slight and knobbed about the joints–the cruel specter of arthritis making her old age something less than the victory lap she envisioned when she was cruising through a brilliant career as a linguistic anthropologist. Her hair, once black and then silver, was the color of driven snow, and not the kind that made good snowballs. Her hair was fine, delicate–like everything about her but her spirit, and thinking of her spirit brought to Burge’s mind the sweaty, rollicking evenings they’d capped their work with a romp in this very office.

“Don’t look at me like that unless you mean it,” said Meredith, smiling wider. She sat back in her wooden office chair, a practical throne with the pillows pinned under her. Her breasts sagged under the lettering on her Evans College sweatshirt. But they were still recognizable as something more than frump and fat. Burge wondered if they would be to anyone else and when, exactly, finding old women sexy became normal for him.

“I haven’t meant it in years,” said Burge, shuffling across the threshold in his Birkenstocks worn down at the heels. “Well, maybe I’ve meant it, but … the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

“Quoting scripture now?”

“Sorry, Biblical archaeology is more your thing,” sniffed Burge, moving a stack of books and sitting in a conference chair. His phone buzzed like horsefly and he fuddled with it, not entirely comfortable either with the device or what it was telling him.

“What’s the matter?”

“Ever since the Dayton Scandal, it seems like all bets are off. Deals made by the previous administration, even benign ones like our respective retirements, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and–I don’t know–without this place, it’s just … it’s the only place I’ve ever felt like I wasn’t out of place, you know, Mare?”

“What about my place?”

“That was before your hip surgery,” he said. “And my bouts with cancer, which are going to catch up with me one of these days.”

“Don’t be so grim, Burge,” said Meredith. “You’re not good at it.”

“Who’s good at being grim?”

“Try Poe. Or Emily Dickinson. Or Muddy Waters, for crying out loud. But not Burgess Pettigrew. Not after a lifetime of cheerful optimism.”

“Well, cheerful optimism leads to disappointment,” he said, tracing the strokes of sunlight slanting from Meredith’s window to the sheafs of paper on her desk. “Time catches up with everybody, I guess. Not trying to be grim. Just–sober, maybe.”

“I’ve seen you sober once or twice, Burge, and what I show you ought to clear you up some. You remember that dig I went on in the Levant over the summer with the archaeology graduate students? I was just hanging around, trying to feel young again, hoping I wasn’t really as useless as I felt. And that my hip would hold out.”

Burge wasn’t with her on the trip, but he knew the feeling, both in the field and on campus. Once you retired, it was like everybody patted you on the head and smirked the the old coot behind his back, he thought. Like you really were useless. And the worst part was, you figured that maybe all those young turks (and at his age, pretty much everyone was a young turk) were right about you, a washed up mustache pete.

Meredith looked at him like she could read his mind, and after so many years on and off together, maybe she could. “You think we’ve had it?”

“What do you mean?”

“That we should pack up for the rest home and ride out our remaining years in rocking chairs with woolen afghans on our laps?”

“God, I think I’d rather let cancer have at me.”

“Me, too, Burge,” she said, standing up and shuffling a sheaf of papers in her knob-knuckled hands. “But I found something out there. Something that’s going to put folks like you and me back in business. Look.”

She handed him the papers with a look of joy and wonder on her face that Burge didn’t think people their age could have, and even with that look, Burge was skeptical he could even still fake that look. He’d consulted with the Vatican and the cable news outlets on the legitimacy of the Shroud of Turin, the James Ossuary and the Secret Gospel of Mark. He’d even written several books on the subject of biblical antiquities. He could make a good case, but like most debates, there was fodder for both sides. Faith and logic. It was all very interesting, but this late in the game, hardly seemed worth actually arguing about any more.

The papers were divided into side-by-side panels. On the left were full color scans of a nearly-intact Aramaic quire written on papyrus. On the right were translations of the text, but Meredith wouldn’t have needed that. No, she was the one who wrote the translations, and presumably the title, which was not one of her own invention. It dated back to Rome’s siege of Jerusalem, maybe earlier, and was considered a lost gnostic document, a heresy in the eyes of the church. It was written by Simon Magus, who was vilified in the book of Acts for trying to buy the power of the holy spirit. It was Simon Magus’s lost Sermons of the Refuter.

“Holy shit,” breathed Burge. “You have a copy?”

“Found it during the last dig,” answered Meredith. “I kept it to myself–I suppose because I didn’t want to share the spoils with the college. Oh, there were a few graduate students who helped me translate it and format it like that, but you’re pretty much the only one who knows.”

“Holy shit,” repeated Burge. “If there were a Richter scale for biblical antiquities, this would be way up there. Maybe not as high as an intact copy of the Quellum Gospel or the original cross, but pretty damned close, if you’ll forgive my language.”

“You’d have thought I just showed you an intact Homo gautengensis.”

“More like a living Homo gautengensis. I may be a physical anthropologist, but, to have a copy of Simon Magus’s work … that’s history whispering in your ear. Meredith, what does it say about the early Christian church? About Jesus of Nazareth?” And then his thinking shifted to skepticism. “Is it even real? How do you know it’s not a hoax–like the Gospel of Andrew? Have you had the papyrus carbon-dated? Where was it found? The things around it?”

Meredith propped her elbows on her desk, and her chin in the hammock of her knotted fingers, looking something like a grad student herself. “Oh, it’s real alright. I haven’t had it dated yet, but I hardly need to. It’s genuine.”

“But how do…” started Burge, but his phone rang, and for some reason, when he saw it was the university president calling again, he decided to answer it. Looking back, he didn’t know why–it was almost automatic. Meredith listened to his half of the conversation with something akin to bemusement, but bemusement assumes interest, and she was most certainly not interested in what the Evans College president had to say, because what she had to say was much, much bigger, even when she overheard that she and Burge along with the rest of the emeritus professors were being evicted in a a purge brought on by the Dayton scandal, but dressed in equal parts as a budget cutback.

“He says we’re keeping our pensions and benefits, but we have to leave campus right now, that they’re coming to move our stuff to the curb, like deadbeats or something,” Burge heaved as he ended the call. “What shall I help you bring to your car?”

“We’re not going anywhere, Burge.”

“Are you thinking of turning this into a geriatric sit-in?” asked Burge. “If it were just the Dayton scandal, I’d be right there with you, but with the economy the way it is, nobody’s going to back us up. We’ll be the senile coots who’ve outlived their usefulness. People will pity us.”

“Not us, Burge.” said Meredith. “I told you the manuscript was genuine, and remarkably intact. I found it in a sealed jar on the dig last summer, and after we separated the pages and scanned, read, and translated them, well, shit, Burge–this is the closest thing to a first draft eyewitness account we have of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.”

“What does it say?”

“You know that famous passage in Acts that talks about how damnable Simon Magus is because he tries to buy the power of the Holy Spirit so he shall lay hands and heal, that kind of thing?” She paused as Burge nodded. “Well he tells the exact same story, but the payoff is more of a donation, a willing donation, like the Widow’s Mite. He wanted to give the church everything he had, and they rebuked him. Do you know why?”

“No, why?”

“Because they were jealous. Jealous of his power. Jealous that he had more power and authority than they did, even though he never met Jesus, while they were following him around in the desert for three years euchring meals out of prostitutes and tax collectors.”

“What kind of power?”

“Jesus said you could move a mountain if you had faith.”

“Simon Magus wrote how to move a mountain with magic?”

“Not exactly, but he does lay out pretty detailed instructions about how to do some pretty amazing things.”

That the campus police were heading toward Klugman hall with empty file boxes for his lifetime of work was not even vaguely on his mind now. “What kind of things, Meredith? What does he tell us how to do?”

She reached for the sheaf of papers and shuffled them until she found the page: “I shall make myself visible or invisible at will, shall pass through rocks as if they were clay, throw myself down from a mountain unhurt, loose myself when bound; I shall animate statues, make trees spring up; I shall throw myself into a fire without harm, shall appear with two faces; I shall change myself into a sheep or a goat. I shall make a beard to grow upon little boys. I shall ascend by flight into the air, I shall exhibit abundance of gold. I shall make and unmake kings. I shall be worshipped as God, I shall have divine honors publicly assigned to me, so that an image of me shall be set up, and I shall be adored as God.”

“How heretical.”

“Not for the first century. Caesar and Jesus said the same things, as did a host of other would-be anointed ones. It was the first claim anyone who aspired to a position of influence said back then. The Jesus legend just had legs for some reason.”

“Yeah? Fundamentalists will say it’s because it’s true.”

“Bull hockey. It’s because the early church fathers were better publicists than most, and they were more ruthless. Like the most effective mob-funded car salesmen of all time. Simon Magus was a victim of this. The apostles ignored him and the early church fathers labeled him a heretic. Instead of doing the same thing back, Simon tried to donate all his money and merge the churches, but the apostles new he was the true successor to Jesus, and they wanted that power for themselves, so they made up the story of him trying to buy God’s favor.”

There was a knock at the door followed by a polite but firm inquiry. “Professor Barnes?”

Burge could see the shapes of two campus police officers through the frosted glass and it all came rushing back, their inglorious excommunication from Evans College. He sighed and wrapped his hand around the doorknob, but it wouldn’t budge.

“Door’s jammed,” he said through the glass.

“It’s not jammed, Burge, and they can’t hear you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let go of the door.”

Burge stepped back toward her desk and watched the door as if something miraculous were going to happen. And in a way it did, but it looked so mundane, even through cataracts and thick bifocals.

The door opened, and the campus security officers stepped inside with empty boxes in each hand, hardly big enough to carry anything of importance. The older one, the one who would never be a cop and took it out on the younger one, squeezed his CB. “No one’s here.”

“Well, make sure the door’s locked,” crackled the radio in response. “Leave Ellery there outside the door in case she comes in. No one from the university has been able to find Barnes for a week, or get her on the phone.”

“Is she missing?” asked Ellery, the officer who still had the chance to be a cop.

“No,” answered the vet. “She’s been at the coffee shop on Sheridan every day this week. Multiple witnesses. Its just–every time we want to reach her, it’s like she just up and disappears. We’ll empty her desk for her if we can’t find her by the end of the day.”

Burge looked back and forth between Meredith and the campus cops, his jaw creaked open in astonishment. “Is this for real? We’re right here.” He waved his hand at them, but he knew they couldn’t see him. That is, they could see him if Meredith hadn’t done something.

Something Simon Magus taught her.

“Try to touch on of them,” she suggested.

He reached for Ellery with his index finger, but passed through him like he was a ghost. Or at least like one of them was. “Are we dead, Meredith? Is this what the afterlife is?”

“Don’t be melodramatic. We’re still alive and so are they.”

Burge looked at her again and saw her as she looked fifty years ago. “You’re young again? Can you make me young again, too?”

“We’re both old, still, Burge. But we can look young. And with what Simon Magus wrote in his Sermons of the Refuter, we can do almost anything. Go anywhere. We can retire how we want, without the treaty-breaking charity of the university to depend on.” She opened a drawer and fished out a bottle of Manischewitz wine. “I thought this would be appropriate–the closest thing to the blood of Christ on such short notice–not the most authentic Jewish wine, but…”

Burge took the bottle from her as he stepped around the desk. “It’ll do, Meredith.” An awkward moment passed in which he wasn’t sure if he should kiss her or shake her hand. In the end, she bailed him out by giving him a hug–but not the sterile hug that he was used to, either.      He was glad to know that, at that moment, his flesh didn’t seem so unwilling after all.


Christian Larsen writes short science-fiction, horror, and dark fantasy stories appearing in critically-acclaimed magazines and anthologies such as Jersey Devil Press, Diagonal Proof, and Midnight Screaming. His short story, “Bast,” was published in What Fears Become (Imajin Books) and placed second in the 2011 Preditors & Editors™ readers poll for best short horror fiction. Mr. Larsen received his bachelor of science from the University of Illinois and studied secondary English education at National-Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @exlibrislarsen or visit

Mark Scicluna is one of the freshest and most original faces in local Maltese illustration. Inspired by the local culture, music and other art forms, he varies his distinctive style from retro style graphics to enigmatic visuals, combining a mix of both traditional and digital media.