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Shocking Discoveries about an Ancient Faith

Shocking Discoveries about an Ancient Faith?

    One of the unanticipated bonuses of retirement has been the leisure to read.  In the hectic orbit of the local parish, where there are more demands for personal attention than the pastor can every satisfy, I only occasionally cracked a book out of curiosity.  Mostly, my reading was the Bible, the newspaper, newsmagazines, and, once a year, a newly composed "must read" novel, like Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities."  But in the past year and three quarters, I have followed my intellectual interests with an intensity borne of an impulse stalled for fifty years. 

    Browsing through the Book Review section of this Sunday's New York Times, I found on the best seller lists four books I've lately read.  Two of them are by the same author, Dan Brown.  You may have read the same novels.  Everywhere I turn I hear of discussions inspired by "Angels and Demons" and/or "The Da Vinci Code."  Neither novel will win the endorsement of the Vatican.  One plot line imagines a conspiracy by an overzealous papal insider which leads to the murders of four cardinals and several others who get  in the way.  The other hints at an ancient conspiracy by the one true Christian church to hide a second and equally authentic Christian witness to the Gospel, by Mary Magdelene, who was probably Jesus' wife.

    Dan Brown's novels read as if they were composed with a movie in mind, short chapters, dramatic events, featuring a "hunky" Harvard professor with a specialty in ancient symbology1.  The stories are page-turners, and, wonder of wonders, the subject, about which the author has considerable knowledge he rarely is embarrassed to display, is Christian church tradition.  That he blatantly thumbs his nose at established Christendom also does not hurt in the selling of his books. Most of us enjoy juicy gossip, especially when it hints at the hypocrisy of the righteous. 

    Two other books I have recently read, each by the same author, are indirectly connected to Brown's melodramas.  Elaine Pagels, author of "The Gnostic Gospels" and, something of a sequel, "Beyond Belief," is an historian at Princeton University. She has reported on her findings in a study of ancient parchments found in Egypt in the middle 1940's.  They are what we knew in seminary as pseudepigraphical2 writings, books about Jesus claiming to have been written by his disciples, including, for two among fifty or more, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene).  These witnesses to Jesus' earthly ministry were rejected by a church council in the fourth century after Christ.  They did not measure up (canon means "measuring rod"), according to the council, to the standard of telling the truth about Jesus.  Some are clearly fanciful, like Jesus the child molding clay birds, then clapping his hands, and the birds fly away.  Or Jesus, the apprentice in Joseph's carpentry shop, cutting a board an inch too short and remedying his mistake by pulling the board to the proper length. 

    But other rejected books contain many passages that sound very much like the four biographies that made the final cut.  I have been, for instance, fond of quoting the Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus offers another beatitude, "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing."  Dr. Pagels finds these outlawed writings compelling in this modern multi-cultural world. Dan Brown, especially in "The Da Vinci Code," wraps his plot around the claim in the Gospel of Mary that she was Jesus' main confidante, and probably his wife.  Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper, containing certain tantalizing hints of this theory, is offered as evidence that a tradition counter to the catholic/orthodox tradition survived into the sixteenth century, and maybe beyond.

    So what's new!?  That Jesus was married and that Mary Magdalene was his wife is a thought suggested in the movie of Kazantzakis' novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ," sixteen years ago.  And even earlier Time magazine, among others, reviewed a book calculated to scandalize the faithful, about how Jesus, like every male Jew of the first century, would have been married. 

    Fifty-one years ago, as required reading in college class on the English novel, I read "The Man Who Died," by D. H. Lawrence; and if you want to expose yourself to a far more outrageous rendering of Jesus life and times, pick up a copy of this slim volume.  Enough to say, that after his resurrection, the Galilean prophet, in Lawrence's imagination, returns to live his life following the sexual precepts of the English author.

    And the Rosicrucians have been around for nearly seven hundred years.

    The point: Brown and Pagels have not stumbled upon something new and startling.  They are retrieving themes and thoughts that have lingered in the shadows of Western civilization for a very long time.  What is new is the moment into which they are presenting their stories and studies.  Pagels remarks often on the contemporaneousness of the concerns she has found in these ancient and, to the orthodox church, discredited documents: themes like the equality of women; a vision of Jesus as the universal, but not exclusive, savior; an encouragement to each soul to find faith within itself, and not from a magisterium; and a very democratic, non-hierarchical, assumption about church authority.  This last emphasis, Pagels explains, led in Constantine's Roman Empire to the burning of "Gnostic" papyruses and those who believed them, ushering in more than a fifteen hundred years of orthodox (for which read, "suffocating") control of thought and practice in the Christian church.

    Dr. Pagels takes a personal approach in "Beyond Belief."  She reports that she was reared in a strict evangelical church, rebelled early against it, and went into her adult life something of an agnostic, at least where the church was concerned. When her young child developed a terminal illness, she found her way very hesitantly to the warmth, caring, and support of a fellowship of believers, the Church of the Heavenly Rest (Episcopal) in New York City.  I suspect she balks at saying the creeds, as is that denomination's wont.  But the spiritual dynamic she discovered in the church in her maturity has apparently persuaded her to reconcile her past with her present.  If I read her correctly, she finds that reconciliation through her study of the early church and the great diversity of thought and practice there, as evidenced by the Gnostic Gospels.  In other words, the church of Paul and James and Peter and Mary Magdalene was not all that different from the confusion and breadth of witness to Jesus to be found in 21st Century Christendom.

      I repeat my earlier exclamation: so what's new?!  I grew up in a theologically liberal environment.  My Sunday School teacher in high school, the pastor's wife, taught from a book on the world religions in which Jesus was represented as one peak, albeit the tallest, among many in the mountain range of spiritual heroes.  I never memorized the Apostle's Creed until I was a pastor.  The bread and cup of holy communion were for me purely symbolic.  Therefore, when I came to the orthodox rendering of the Christian faith it was, well, a discovery.  I was captivated by the truth of it, how its doctrines illuminated this life of mine in ways in which a liberal, vaguely Pelagian3, faith did not.  That is, orthodoxy was not for me the requirement of an outside authority; it was a freely embraced framework by which I could understand the grandeur and the grotesqueness of this mortal life.

    Which is to say, Dan and Elaine, in the words of my religion professor, "You pays your money; you takes your choice." For my money I'll stick with the Council of Nicaea4 and the canon of the past seventeen hundred years.



1. The study of symbols and their interpretations.

2. "Pseud" (false) "epigraphical" (ascription of name)

3. Pelagius, a Christian theologian (ca. 354-418), believed, to state it more bluntly than he would have, in the natural faithfulness of human beings.  This belief is counter to the orthodox claim that human beings are hopeless within themselves to find their way to God.

4. A convention of representatives from Christian churches everywhere in 325 AD in Asia Minor (Turkey), summoned by the Emperor Constantine, to consolidate and make uniform the understanding of the Christian faith.  It formulated the Nicene Creed.


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