April 9, 2006

The Gospel of Gazebo

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at April 9, 2006 3:42 PM

I had a bit of writer's block with regard to the blog the last few days, so it's been quiet. But when I need inspiration, I can always turn to Jesus—or rather, writing inflammatory posts about Jesus. Specifically: everyone seems to be talking about this Gospel of Judas that has been discovered, and is now being promoted by National Geographic. This is of course not something that has much relevance to me personally, but it's interesting to see some of the reactions.

Consider, for instance, this post by conservative blogger Stephen Bainbridge:

If you don't read the news accounts relating to the much ballyhooed Gospel of Judas carefully, you might come away with the impression that it is a legitimate alternative to orthodox Christian theology. Indeed, National Geographic is essentially billing it as such. In fact, however, what we know about the document suggests that it is yet another example of the Gnostic heresy.

The Gnostic heresy! Sounds pretty sinister. But if Bainbridge is worried about mainstream publications promoting heretical ideas, there is a much larger example of this that someone should bring to his attention. After all, Protestantism is chock-full of doctrine declared heretical by the Catholic church, and it gets a lot more media attention than Gnosticism.

But it's easy to see why Gnosticism is actually a more dangerous heresy than anything Martin Luther came up with. After all, Protestants may differ from Catholics on certain bureaucratic issues and arcana like transubstantiation, but they still use basically the same Bible and interpret it the same way. On the other hand, Gnosticism is a radically different interpretation of Christianity that actually makes a lot more sense. Well, that's not really true: there were lots of variants of Gnosticism in the ancient world and the various corresponding doctrines are mostly impenetrable. However, one of the general themes is that the world we live in is a flawed world created by an evil god, referred to as the demiurge. So already they've addressed the problem of evil. But in a stroke of brilliance, at least one Gnostic variant associates the demiurge with the god of the Old Testament, and has the god of the New Testament as a different god who will save humanity from the flawed world.

This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do). Until Jesus comes along he's all about the smiting and the plagues and the wars, and afterwards he's suddenly a god of love and salvation and forgiveness. (Ok, and the lake of fire for nonbelievers, so some things haven't changed.) The Gnostic interpretation makes the New Testament god more plausible by disassociating him with the Old Testament, correctly judges the Old Testament god to be evil, allows one to throw out all the silly tribal laws associated with the evil god, and explains the problem of evil. If I were a Christian I'd convert to this instantly.

So one can understand why the church would worry about this. On the other hand, just because some interpretation of the Bible is more plausible doesn't mean it'll catch on. After all, my preferred interpretation is more plausible yet than the version above, but somehow the notion that it's all a bunch of made-up stories doesn't seem to be very popular in this country.

Tags: Catholicism, Christianity, Religion, The Bible

I still salute Jim Luongo at NCHS for teaching it as literature in Literary Heritage. Besides, for some believers that may be the first time they had read or heard long sections of the Bible and forced to use their own mind to interpret it.

Posted by: Katie | April 9, 2006 3:55 PM

I understand National Geographic is working on a sequel: THE GOSPEL OF DAN BROWN.

Can't wait.

Posted by: JSpur | April 9, 2006 4:17 PM

Katie: Mary Smith also taught the Bible-as-literature in AP English. It's amazing how little of the Bible the typical churchgoer has read.

JSpur: The Bainbridge post I linked concluded that National Geographic is in fact "peddling heresy" in order to capitalize on the upcoming release of the Da Vinci Code movie. I guess heresy is trendy now? (I was into heresy before it was cool!)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | April 9, 2006 6:12 PM

Gazebo wrote: This neatly solves a big literary problem in the Bible where the god of the Old Testament has a vastly different character from the god of the New Testament (as well as changing his mind on a number of issues, which is an odd thing for an omniscient eternal being to do).

Response: Maybe he's (or she's) just bipolar?

Posted by: Mason | April 9, 2006 6:59 PM

Interesting stuff. I'm rather amused at the very concept of "heresy", of course. :-) Agreed that this one makes more sense than any other religious variant I've seen. These Gnostic dudes were cool for another reason, too. The concept of heavenly intermediaries under the name "Archons" seems to originated with some flavor of Gnostics. Wikipedia doesn't say anything about the Lantern or Hound forms we know so well from D&D though.

It's a pity that the Council of Nicaea, several dynasties of Byzantine Emperors, and various crusades and inquisitions in the west were so successful at quashing "heresy" in it's multitude of forms. Life would be more interesting if there were lots of oddball variant sects out there, instead of just the Mormons. And as AG noted, it's interesting that "making sense" does not seem to have been a significant survival criterion for religious doctrines...

On the Dan Brown tangent, I'm not perfectly clear on why Catholics are so pissed off. My impression was that the Da Vinci Code stuff would be fairly compatible with mainstream Christianity.

Posted by: Justin | April 9, 2006 8:43 PM

My comment was pure attempted drollery of course.

I have no doctrinal issues with Dan Brown.

My quarrel is with his use of language. And his sales.

Posted by: JSpur | April 10, 2006 4:24 AM

Hey, I grew up in one of those oddball variant sects! Oddball cults still exist, they're just quieter, since nowadays "cult" is associated with live human sacrifice and ritualistic satanism. Sadly, my childhood didn't have any of that; it mostly involved looking down on Catholics and getting very confused when people asked me what church I went to.

Interestingly, we believed a legalized version of the bipolar God idea: that God had to be a hardass in the Old Testament because when Adam screwed up, he gave dominion over the earth to Satan, which meant God had to play by Satan's rules. Then after the whole Jesus thing, the Laws were once and for all done with, and God was free to be nice and loving and stuff (but the Earth is still Satan's, thus God can't just reach down a fluffy hand to save drowning people). Hence, the Old Testament is mostly irrelevent to modern life, and is just there as interesting historical accounts. I always found it a reasonably plausible explanation, plus it deals at least partially with the Problem of Evil. Of course, it's only plausible if you believe in invisible all-powerful beings in the first place.

Posted by: Lanth | April 10, 2006 12:41 PM

Justin: The Da Vinci Code portrays the Catholic church rather unflatteringly as repressive and patriarchal, and Opus Dei in particular come across as maniacs. All of which is accurate, but they don't like having it pointed out.

As far as doctrinal incompatibility, I think the idea of a sacred feminine at an equal level with the masculine is a problem for Catholicism insofar as it would like to remain repressive and patriarchal. You can't go saying that women might have equal access to the divine, otherwise you'd have to ordain women priests or something. :)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | April 10, 2006 12:56 PM

AG: right, I forgot to take into account just how much the Catholic Church and I disagree. It didn't even occur to me that (a) Catholics are one of the sects that doesn't have female priests, and (b) the very idea is still somehow controversial. *sigh* I knew all that, of course, but it's so wacky that it's easy to forget...

Speaking of Opus Dei, did we ever get an answer to the question of how many US Supreme Court Justices are members? I remember that coming up during the Alito nomination.

Posted by: Justin | April 10, 2006 2:07 PM
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