Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter and Nonsense About Jesus

In a world where people love conspiracy theories, it’s not surprising that the life of Jesus and how it is told should be, itself, the subject of conspiracy theories.

From the Telegraph:
The Archbishop of Canterbury today attacks society’s obsession with books such as The Da Vinci Code which, he says, encourage people to believe that the Christian faith is a series of “conspiracies and cover ups.”

In a strongly worded Easter sermon being delivered in Canterbury Cathedral this morning, Dr Rowan Williams says that there is a tendency to treat Biblical texts “as if they were unconvincing press releases from some official source, whose intention is to conceal the real story.” Fascination with “bringing secrets to light,” he said, evoked All the President’s Men, the 1976 film about the investigative journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who exposed the Watergate scandal.

“We have become so suspicious of the power of words. . . the first assumption we make is that we’re faced with spin of some kind, with an agenda being forced on us. So that the modern response to the proclamation, ‘Christ is risen!’ is likely to be, ‘Ah, but you would say that, wouldn’t you? Now, what’s the real agenda?’”

The Da Vinci Code, by the American author Dan Brown, tells of a Church-led conspiracy to suppress Christ’s marriage to Mary Magdalene and his fathering of a royal bloodline. The novel has sold more than 40 million copies and was the subject of an unsuccessful plagiarism action in the High Court this month.

The Archbishop also pours scorn on the recent discovery of a leather-bound papyrus written around 300 A.D. believed to be “The Gospel of Judas,” which claims that it was Christ himself who asked Judas to betray him.

“Anything that looks like the official version is automatically suspect,” says Dr Williams. “Someone is trying to stop you finding out what ‘really’ happened, because what really happened could upset or challenge the power of officialdom.”
We certainly encourage our students to be skeptical of organizations with vested interests -- including ecclesiastical ones.

The problem comes, however, when the skeptics fail to use their skepticism in an even-handed way. Might the Church have a vested interest in a particular view of history? Certainly.

Might a big-bucks publisher and an author out to make a killing just invent a wild fantasy paying essentially no attention at all to cannons of historical judgment and accuracy? Absolutely.

Might an organization like National Geographic hype a proprietary “find” of theirs, claiming huge significance for a rather mediocre Gnostic writing that has no plausible claim to historical accuracy? A manuscript that was not only written long after the events it claims to describe but contradicts all the best early sources?

Yes.

As an editorial in the Telegraph put it:
The ease with which supposedly sophisticated people fall for the fantasies of books such as The Da Vinci Code is surprising and depressing. A large portion of that book’s readers claim to believe its contention that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had a child by her, and founded a dynasty of French kings. The infallibility of Dan Brown is rather less plausible than the reality of the Resurrection . . . .

It is further evidence of the aphorism attributed to G.K. Chesterton, that “when a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” The Da Vinci Code is not an inane apologia of evil or a senseless cult of Satan - but it is extremely silly. We hope its baroque fantasies will soon be forgotten.
No doubt this kind of theorizing about what “really happened” is a lot of fun.

If wacky 9/11 theories implicating the United States government can gain fairly wide acceptance, why not wacky theories about a whole secret history of Jesus and ancient events surrounding his life?

But at some point, it’s really desirable to come back to earth and start thinking like an intellectually serious person.

On these issues, what you were taught in Sunday School (or in catechism class) is, quite simply, vastly more reliable than the current pop culture fantasies.

Yes, we know we are sounding like a real spoilsport.

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