Delicious Heresies or Junk Food for the Soul.


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 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, 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

Wine, Anyone?

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye (A hero of mine) writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and that 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 (and safely controlled).  Certainty is the opposite of faith not doubt.

Frye in precisely right!  Whether we are motivated by fear or by laziness, to consider Jesus to be anything less than the full metaphor is inadequate and frankly, from my experience, lifeless.  I was fortunate to have professors that were also believers.  While using the critical skills of the enlightenment, they also knew that such inquiry was mute at the boundary of faith.  The wisdom of this passing age contends that   Jesus is a great teacher, traveling cynic, political revolutionary, which says more about the writer than about Jesus.  The problem arises when this speculation is accepted as the very truth of the Gospel and clergy having accepted uncritically this speculation go out into the vineyard unprepared for facing the overwhelming spiritual hunger of people.

water to wineUnfortunately,  those of us who labor in the vineyard of the Lord have degrees in viticulture, understand theories of how grape juice become wine and examine the organic structure of complex sugars; but when faced with the one who turned water into wine at that reception in Cana of Galilee are embarrassed by the mystery.  We have Masters of Divinity degrees that are religious Masters of Business Administration.  We are credentialed more than educated, produced more than formed.   The supernatural becomes superstition and we are always prepared for God to do nothing!  This is a tragedy and clergy burnout a symptom of the bankruptcy of the enlightenment.

That is not to say that a retreat into a literal fundamentalism is the answer?  Responding to classic liberalism of the early 20th Century by embracing a religious version of the No Nothing Party and hurling salvos at a failed point of view is also soul killing.  The 1950’s or the 12 Century are not the golden ages to be reconstructed.  The golden age never existed this side of Eden and will not until the day of Christ’s appearing.  The letter of the law kills.  Grace is more than a hymn is it is the energy for the healing our souls.  A retreat back toward Eden (where we are banned, by the way) is a detour we cannot afford.  The cloud leads us forward not backward.

You Will Grow BannerI have come to wonder if both extremes represent a loss of nerve.  The endless quest for certainty produces simile but shies away from the risky uncontrollable metaphor.  What is foolishness the left is a stumbling block to the right and standing or sitting they fight, fight, fight!   What people want is to experience God and nothing else will do.  They want the wine in the cup to be  what it is,   the cup of salvation.    Nothing else will do. We are too anxious, wounded and famished to settle for more junk food for the soul.

Late in the game, I have set myself the task of digging deep into the writings of the first five hundred years of the Christian experience called the Church Fathers.  I am interested in the classic faith expressed in the creeds.  I plumb the depths of 2000 years to find the practices that hold the promise for feeding us now.  Above all I see to experience God.


I  will  persevere  in getting out of the way of people meeting God.   Finally, what we need is a sewing guild stitching up new wine skins.  Our old ones are threadbare and the give is gone.   Picking grapes is ever so much more fun than a virtual harvest of abstraction.  It has come to my attention that a delivery of new wine is on the way.  The sewing guild is working over-time and well they should.  When it comes we may well be drunk but it will not leave a hangover. The experience of God has consequences but it is the salvation of our souls.  JWS