Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Flea the Obvious

In one of my personal ironies of history, the period of ancient times that I find least interesting is the one I’ve been reading most about. Part of that is based on my lack of coherence when it comes to selecting reading material. I take recommendations seriously, so when a friend suggested Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen, I figured I’d better read it. I had fairly recently read Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars, about the nearly unbelievable shenanigans of post-apostolic Christendom, and so I felt up to taking on the Plague. Justinian’s Flea is about the fall of the Roman Empire. At Gorgias Press, where Justinian’s former prostitute wife Theodora was subjected to revisionist history that made her a lifelong saint, I learned to discount most of what went on during this time period. I was, it seems, a bit too hasty. Justinian and Theodora’s reign is quite interesting, and it is, as intimated, largely because of ecclesiastical politics.

Rosen begins his study by laying out the background to Justinian’s imperial days in Constantinople. In describing the disputes between what specialists now call various Christianities (formerly true believers versus heretics), Rosen notes that Christians had particular disdain for Gnostics, largely based on interpretations of what Jesus’ death might mean. At one point he writes, “Monotheistic religions are famously intolerant of apostasy, even when they disagree about what constitutes it.” Here he hit the flea on the head. “I doesn’t know what it be, but I’m ag’in it.” This attitude of religions has long been the motivation behind massive campaigns of bloodshed and intolerance. Often in the name of religions that claim peace and tolerance as the highest goods. So it was in the early church; heretics were routinely martyred for their “wrong” belief.

Not to throw in a spoiler, but the first great wave of the Plague does nearly draw an end to the ailing Roman Empire. Justinian’s expansions were mere band-aids trying to hold together a Frankenstein’s monster of many nationalities. So riding home on the bus I was surprised first of all that the driver engaged a passenger in conversation (generally frowned upon) and second of all, that he ranted for many miles about politics. It isn’t very comforting in the stressful traffic around New York City to hear your bus driver cry out, “the Roman Empire collapsed—maybe it’s time America did as well!” The prospects of getting home seldom looked dimmer. And I had just been reading about that very empire’s last days. I try to stay away from predictions because I dislike being proven wrong—the end of the story hasn’t been written yet. Rosen, however, has given us a great cautionary tale; if the humble flea can help bring down the world’s mightiest empire—one ruled by a leader overwhelmingly concerned with religion—maybe it’s time to canvass what the infidels like to take in their coffee.

Fighting Jesus

Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, accomplished something no other book has ever done for me—it actually made the doctrinal debates of Late Antiquity interesting. An historian of religion with wide interests, Jenkins produces fascinating books on what might appear to be esoteric aspects of religious life. I remember yawning through theology classes where we learned of crusty, if utterly convicted, monks and bishops arguing over single prepositions in their efforts to define exactly who Jesus might have been. When Jenkins turns his attention to this dusty, unwashed phase of Christianity’s gamy early years, new avenues on regulated belief structures open the way to understanding just how little most believers know of their own traditions. On its way to feel-good evangelicalism, Christianity frequently paused along the way to brutally murder some of its own for disagreeing about whether Jesus shared the same essence as his dad.

Today many Christians are taught by their clergy that their faith differs little from that of the earliest Christians. All who are taught this should be compelled to read Jesus Wars in order to get a grip on what really happened. From the very beginning Christianity was deeply divided about who was truly a follower of Christ and who was not. Even within a generation of the death of Jesus his various groups of followers could find little that they all agreed upon. As Jenkins demonstrates, over the next few centuries that sad history was worked out with extreme cruelty and cudgels and swords. The side with strongest force of arms got to decide on doctrine. Nor did matters improve with the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformers lapsed into what would have found them tied to a stake for heresy, had they been fortunate enough to have been born in the early centuries of “the Christian Era.”

The one figure that seems to have been lost during the Jesus Wars was Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, human constructions of who Jesus might have been became the source of great suffering. Bishops beating bishops to death, saints having women murdered, monks forming an unwashed militia—it’s all here along with the debate over how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Jenkins does an excellent job of demonstrating that what is now known as “orthodox” Christianity was often a matter of political accident. In the case of Theodosius II, the future of Christianity literally rode on the horse that stumbled, tossing the emperor to his death. No doubt, there will be those of one or another brand of Christianity who will see the divine will behind the ultimate outcome. That outcome, however, will always insist that all others are wrong. For those seeking a bit of balance, Jenkins will make enlightening reading. For others it may give the lie to doctrines made what they are by mere mortals. In any case, the words attributed to Jesus about loving your neighbors and enemies will nowhere be found amid the debates of who he might have really been.

Scared Mittless

Once again Time magazine has presented an article where the intelligent are left scratching their heads about religion. Jon Meacham’s Commentary, “An Unholy War,” details how evangelical concerns about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has an undue weight in regard to his presidential candidacy. For many years the media industry has considered religion passé and without teeth. Sure, the street-corner preacher can still give you a good gumming, but it is rarely fatal. What those who’ve never felt the utter urgency of religion can’t appreciate is, well, its utter urgency. In a day when Buddhist monks and Catholic nuns are wired up to electrodes and told to find that spiritual sweet spot, it is easy to forget that these aren’t just laboratory fictions. For many people in the world, their religious experiences are very important and of sometimes deadly—sometimes eternal—consequence. The sophisticated, the educated, laugh it off as so much hoodoo, and try to get on with human progress. For those raised religious, however, escape is neither easy nor desirable. Those in positions of actually influencing the public need to recognize that religion is not a luxury, a trapping that might be cast off. It is a life choice cast in iron.

Just as serious as the analysis of religion is the incredible influence of religious teaching itself. Take a young child, barely old enough to understand death, and tell him or her that the worst thing they can imagine just can’t compare with the torment God has cooked up for those who step out of line. Repeat. At least once a week. When said child becomes an adult, these early ideas are deeply embedded. Since the 1980s elections in the United States have been restyled as religion popularity contests. With eternal consequences riding on the ballot, political analysts ought to be required to have had taken at least Religion 101. Probably a few upper-level courses would also help. Despite the optimism of scientists and academics, religion is not going away. The reluctance to take it seriously will not diminish its power in people’s lives.

As became very clear reading Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs, it has only transpired that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints has been recognized as un-culted for less than a hundred years. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism was a “cult” until it had survived long enough to gather a band of respectable followers, such as Mitt Romney. Many Christian groups, particularly evangelical ones, have not released their perception of Mormonism as a cult. Romney, in their eyes, is effectively as pagan as Obama. Their votes, as the eight-year nightmare of the Bush administration demonstrates, can decide elections. Still, we the sophisticated laugh off the country rubes who still believe in God. And although we don’t believe in it, we already have, and may well once again, come to suffer through Hell to show just how educated we are.

Mystic Messiahs

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.

Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.

In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.