Delicious Heresies or Junk Food for the Soul.

DaVinciCode

NOTE:  In 2003 I gave a talk at Saint Johns Memphis, Tennessee about the DaVinci Code the page turner by Dan Brown.  The piece below explains the adventure.  I came across this on the internet recently and thought it might be worth sharing.

I wrote this in 2006

Dear Friends

Below is an article I wrote for ExploreFaith.org. It remains topical two and a half years later.  Three years ago this November a quote from an interview I gave about the Da Vinci Code published in the Commercial Appeal was subsequently quoted by Dan Brown on his website, DanBrown.com. This citation opened a “minor career” on matters Da Vinci. Calls have come from La Monde Magazine, Paris, France, The Guardian, Sidney, Australia and even talk radio in Sacramento, California.  Now the movie is about to be released and I have agreed to respond to questions from the Commercial Appeal readers.  All this says a great deal less about my “authority” than about the ubiquitous nature of the Internet. Below you will find an article I wrote for the web page, Exploring Faith.  It continues to reflect my sense of the Da Vinci Code phenomena.

In November (2003) I led three conversations about issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier, while browsing in a bookstore, the cover of the novel caught my eye, and because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought the book to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there, but it was a good page-turner.

DaVinciCode 2

Then something interesting happened. People old and young, male and female, began to ask me could it be true, as the Code contends, that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. This and other questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment.

I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the local newspaper and I was asked for an interview. The resulting lead article once again indicated a high level of interest, but the turnout the night of our first gathering was completely unexpected: Six hundred people packed the pews.

What is it about Dan Brown’s novel that enticed hundreds of people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendants? However intriguing the notion there seems to be no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all.jesus-magdalene

The idea has prompted people to ask, “What am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.” One of the challenges for the searcher is the interpretation of discovery. What does a new idea or experience I have encountered mean? Is it true? If it is true how is it true? If it is true how does it apply to my life?

In an age of anxiety it is tempting to reach for certainty. If we can be certain then we can be safe. If we are safe then we are in control. However, certainty is illusionary. There is no certainty. In fact certainty is contradictory to faith. As Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

For me at least, notions that promise certainty are suspect. For Christians faith is the posture in the face of mystery. What God has revealed in Christ Jesus is a mystery. How could the birth of one man in one moment of history make a difference for all people at all times within history? Many have found this preposterous. And yet that is the core belief of classical Christianity.

What is there to find that is unique about the classical Christian understanding of Jesus? Over centuries Christians came to believe that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is. That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out.

Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option—clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose,” is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion, thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality.

N Frye

Northrop Frye

As Northrop Frye writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and the Arian (the belief that Jesus was not god but the highest creation of God) and Docetic (Jesus only appeared to be god but was in fact only a virtual god) statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.

The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many exotic flowers in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.

All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. Even in the church there is a desire for certainty. That is the human condition. The courage to face paradox is the most authentic expression of the Christian life. I believe that this is the life for which people unconsciously search. That is why I suspect that six hundred people showed up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.

Now the movie opens and questions abound.  I don’t think that this novel threatens anything. It’s existence provides a teachable moment and as Christians we should be in words of the Apostle Peter be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). We must be about the business of our Lord and the culture is prepared to talk. That’s a good thing.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

Quote

“A teacher is one who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows.”  — The Great Code – Northrop Frye

Quote

duck in flight

When I rise up

Let me rise up with joy

like a bird

fallen leaf

When I fall

Let me fall

Without regret

Like a leaf

Wendell Berry

This short prayer, one of the Sayings and Prayers of the Mad Farmer, by Wendell Berry is a favorite of mine.  I have quoted it at many funerals in the past thirty-eight years of my priesthood.  It re-framed walking through the dead and dying leaves of fall.

Quote

Over-the-horizon

Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say over thirty-five – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort that was that of finding a religious outlook on life.  Carl Jung – Psychotherapist of the Clergy (1923)

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 15, 2019

commodities-sheep-meat.html_PHOTO

 

JOHN 10 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

 

The Feast of the Dedication (Hanukah) commemorated national deliverance from the pagan Syrians. The Feast and buildings filled with meaning by prophecy would be a great place to launch the revolution. Some of his detractors could have become supporters if he played to their fears and ego inflation. He turned his back on variety of revolution when the Devil first suggested it back in the Wilderness.

Jesus passed on starting the popular revolution. Those who longed for violent revolution never understood what Jesus was about. These are the Sheep deaf to the Shepherd’s voice. There were sheep who did learn the language of the Kingdom. These Jesus knew and cherished. Granted many sheep did not clearly hear the Shepherd’s voice until after the resurrection. But they that did hear his voice followed (and do so today). What we do know for sure is that our self-absorbed egos do need to die. When we die to self-absorption it is amazing how clearly we can hear the voice of the Shepherd.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

 

TUESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 14, 2019

jesus-and-the-pharisees

The Pharisees Confront Jesus – James Tissot

JOHN 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

Why are you keeping us in suspense? What they should have said was, “Ok, we didn’t buy what you told us. That was ridiculous! Try again.” “Actually, I did tell you,” Jesus said.  Your problem is that you do not believe.”

Not believing is a problem. I’m concerned by what is meant in our own day. To believe is to assent to the truth of some fact about someone, something or an event.

Washington exhibit

George Washington Madame Tussauds

For example,
I believe in George Washington.
I believe that George Washington lived from 1732-1799.
I believe that George was a pretty good man.
I believe that George was the “Father of his country.”
If I am in Virginia, I might go to Mt. Vernon and see where he lived and is buried.
I might go to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
I even carry a few copies of his picture around in my wallet.
I can take George’s name in vain and say “By George” in conversation but such talk is cheap.

 

BUT, that doesn’t have too much to do with how I live my life in 2019 or any other year.. My point is that I can be culturally Christian in much the same way. I can believe all sorts of things about Jesus without being transformed, without living in the Resurrection. No wonder people do not take us seriously. We believe the doctrine of faith, while people seek a way of life. I’m hungry for that myself. Let’s have the manners to pass the bread, having eaten some first.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

MONDAY OF EASTER II

Diognetus 3

April 29, 2019

JOHN 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Yesterday we faced our fear.  Today we face our peace.  Facing peace is not much easier than poking our head from under the covers when something goes bump in the night.

What is peace if it is not, “not fear?”  In Greek the word means, “peace of mind; quietness or rest.”  This is not too far from “not fear,” and very acceptable to Ego.  Peace of mind for Ego is everything under control, including people, all living things and inanimate object.  Then, and only then, can Ego take a breather (but only for a minute).

Hebrew peace is, similar, but different in crucial way.  Not defined in the negative, peace, points toward wholeness, complete, but not perfection.  This is peace as progressive maturing integrity. The is the sort of peace that sees the lights of the highway patrol, glancing at our speed, relaxed as the officer speeds toward another motorist.  This peace is a matter of intentional discipline; inebriated recklessness is not our practice. It doesn’t mean that our speed is always spot on as we drive because 90 mph is appropriate if a passenger is bleeding out.

I do not wish you “not fear,” I bid you peace.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

EASTER II

APRIL 28, 2019

JOHN 20:19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

It’s interesting, the “water-cooler”* definition of fear is anxiety/ reaction to danger, while peace is essentially, NOT fear.  If fear is reaction to danger, then the “fear-scale” for reactivity varies from the edge of pleasure to nuclear winter.  My therapist once said, “Your problem, John, is you don’t know the difference between scared and excited.” Definition by absence is rarely helpful.

The reaction of the disciples is surely understandable. Lackluster with Jesus, without Jesus, they had no luster at all.  Their leader had offended every power broker in the country.  If they murdered Jesus what would they do to them?  Lock-down mode was prudent.  Leaving the guys huddled by the fire with the curtains drawn, let us consider fear. 

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain. – Paul Atreides

From Dune by Frank Herbert

george herbert

Frank Herbert

I recall no need to exegete science fiction before, but then Frank Herbert was specialized in comparative religions.  Actually the litany of fear is pretty good advice.

First:  I must not fear.  Not very realistic. What if we said, “I must not become my fear.”   (Suspect that is his intent).

Fear is a mind-killer, tolerated long enough will destroy.  I knew a woman that as soon as her family departed each morning began running horror movies in her head of what awful things were befalling them all day.  This continued until they returned.

We face our fear, name it and allow it to pass over and through. Avoid psychic stickiness.  When it is gone past, in the rear-view mirror I see there is nothing. Dreams are not corporeal, there is no trace. Only I remain.  This is the discipline of the mind, taught by the Spirit.

It interesting where we find spiritual resources, even speculative fiction.

*unsubstantiated opinion

In hope, in spite of the facts

John

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER WEEK

April 24, 2019

Emmaus Debbie Salt

Walk to Emmaus – Debbie Salt

LUKE 24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, 16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. 22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The account of the walk to Emmaus is reserved for services on Easter afternoon or evening. It is one of the most beautiful of the post-resurrection accounts. Cleopas married Mary, sister of the mother of Jesus. Family gatherings must have been very confusing. So, Jesus’ uncle by marriage walks the few miles to Emmaus village. Perhaps, he and Mary lived there. He is accompanied by an unnamed companion. I like to think it was his son, Simeon, who figures largely in the earliest church. Jesus’ family is largely on the margins in the Gospel accounts. Humans just love dynasties, so James, his brother, is the first Bishop of Jerusalem. The second bishop is Simeon, Jesus’ first cousin.

The risen Jesus joined them and seeing their mood, asked what was wrong? Cleopas exploded, “How could you not know about the ruckus in town about Jesus. A great young man, murdered by the priests because they felt threatened. What a shame, he was so young.” His voice trailed off into the silence save for the sound of a stone dislodged by a foot rolling away from the path.

Jesus then began to explain how Messiah must suffer and die and rise throughout all the Old Testament. This must be the first time that prefiguring types in the Hebrew Bible are restated as antitype in the life of Jesus with greater clarity and power. As they neared the village, dusk was falling quickly into the true dark (electricity changed that). They invited him to stay and he did. Having refreshed themselves with cool water and washed their feet, they sat down to table.

Acabas Emmaus

Jesus took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them. Before the bread reached their mouths, he disappeared. Ever since that night in Emmaus, when Christians gather for Eucharist they know, that seen or unseen Jesus is there. It’s so, I’ve felt him often. You?

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John+