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

Easter Day 2015

Paschal (Easter) Candle - Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi

Paschal (Easter) Candle – Chapel of the Cross, Madison, Mississippi

On Thursdays since last Labor Day, my SOULWorks Group has volunteered at Manna House, a place of radical hospitality at Cleveland and Jefferson. There street folk can shower, get clean clothes and several cups of the strongest coffee in Memphis, Tennessee. I have many new friends there. I have yet to hear anyone complain about their lot. Actually, “I woke up this morning and I’m glad to be moving, today,” is the most common remark. I now know both coming and going a profound truth. Namely, having little doesn’t necessarily produce bitterness any more than having everything necessarily produces gratitude.

A young man there is tormented by voices in his head. That’s an irony as his name is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Every time I meet him, it is for the first time. He looks carefully, quizzically at my face and I introduce myself (again). Recently, I learned that his mother comes there most every day. She stands and looks at him, he looks back, but he never knows her. Yet she comes. That’s what mothers do. What she feels, she has never said.

Presentation in Temple

Presentation in Temple

Certainly Jesus knew his mother that Friday morning, as they began to crucify him. Perhaps, amnesia would have been a kindness. She stood looking up, he looking down and their eyes met. I’ve often wondered if Simeon’s words echoed in Mary’s memory that Friday noon. He had snatched Jesus from her arms over thirty years earlier, announcing to anyone who would stop and listen that this one was Messiah! His parting line, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed,” gained strangling clarity as she stood in the mid-day sun.

That strangling clarity is exactly what we avoid knowing and especially feeling. No avoidance can protect us. It is futile. It is futile because in the deepest place in our souls, we know: Suffering is the promise life always keeps. Suffering is the promise life always keeps. Never achieving your dream Suffering is the promise life always keeps Achieving your dream, only to discover it was unworthy Suffering is the promise life always keeps Marrying and family Suffering is the promise life always keeps Unwed and solitary Suffering is the promise life always keeps In spite of our ego’s best laid plans, promoting our terminal uniqueness. Regardless our wealth, family, ethnicity, race, nationality, or zip code It is a true saying and worthy of all to be received, that all humans are more alike than we are different! Therefore, beloved… Suffering is the promise life always keeps

1 AVOIDANCE OF PAIN – PURSUIT OF POWER

The unfortunate incident in the Garden of Eden never tells how evil began. The fall of Eve &  Adam explains how humanity go entangled with evil and sin. Sin and its consequences, suffering and death is lot of all humanity just as sure as sparks fly upward. We cannot not assume that all people that have ever lived on this green Earth felt joy. We can assume that every person who has ever taken breath on this green Earth has experienced pain. The strategy for avoiding pain and sorrow, loss and suffering has always been power. We have pursued power, to protect ourselves from pain. The exercise of force, can in fact, keep many species of wolves away from our proverbial doors. ‘

But then, because power is addictive in itself, we pursue it for its own sake. Naturally, as with any competition, where everybody is driving and finally diving for the prize, there must a winner and lots of losers.

How many remember who won the final-four last year? How many remember the third runner up? How many remember last year’s runner up.

Winners are empowered and losers are not. But even the winners are empowered for a short time before it all begins again. On and on it goes. As it has ever since Cain lost God’s regard that time and enraged at his loss of power, murdered his brother Abel.

Regardless then we lose or win, we have the same fear: having enough, or not being enough or, finally not being at all, that twists us into perverse caricatures of what a human should be. There we will always trust our own ego above all others and distrust anyone else.

Power has been our strategy, Control is our universal policy. We have consoled ourselves with the idea that if we worked hard enough, learned enough built technology powerful we could in our way finally achieve what our distant ancestors could not achieve that time with the tower.

Truly it is true that never in the history of our race have so many had so much for such a long time. We split the atom looking for power, last century and we found it. The irony is that while splitting the atom produced power beyond imagination, the bitter irony is that nuclear energy is lethal. Our will to power is lethal such that it will cost us our souls. The Gospel revealed by God in Christ is that something is terribly wrong in the human heart – and before the foundation of the world, God set out to do something about it.

2 THE BIZARRE OPTION

Of course no one got what God was about. That has been clear since, the Evil One gave Jesus advice on how to get the Kingdom underway that time in the Wilderness. The disciples didn’t get it either, nor his family or the priests, scribes, Romans of every station and power. And frankly, few have ever “gotten it”! Why was that? God’s plan was so outrageous, so clever that we marvel today at the elegant equation of grave. God’s secret weapon was humility.

I believe that I speak for all of us when I state that this is, in point of fact, exactly what we are not looking for!

As Woody Allen once said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

3 KILLING DEATH BY DEATH

John Behr, the Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Russian Orthodox Seminary, succinctly states Jesus’ counter-intuitive strategy of “surrendering to win,” in his recent book, Becoming Human, (I’m borrowing several passages)

  • “Christ does not show himself to be God by being “almighty,” as we tend to think of this. As moving mountains, throwing lightning bolts and so on – It is rather by the all-too-human act of dying, in the particular manner that he dies.“ BH [21]
  •  Death is, in point of fact, the only thing that men and women have in common from the beginning of the world onwards, throughout all regions and cultures of the world.
  • And thus Christ reveals what it is to be God through the only thing that we have in common. He does this not simply by dying –, he does it by the way that he has died.
  • Had Christ revealed what it is to be God in any other way – for example:
    •  by being rich and powerful (reflecting our own desires),
    •  by being poor and outcast (as we might conclude by the special place the poor have in the heart of God.)
  • Any such option will have excluded some people: for those who do not fit any such group would have had no part in him.
  • Alternatively, if it were simply because he was human, like us, that he died, but because he is also God he is able to get himself of the grave that would have been great for him, but would not really have helped others.  It is rather because he conquers death by his death that he enables all men and women also to use their own mortality to come to life in him. BH [23]
Victor Safonkin

Victor Safonkin

      Ironically, it is precisely where the world detects the most obvious example of weakness— the cross— that God triumphs over sin and death at the peak of their most deadly power. Here’s the irony: Just where the highest and holiest victim of truly undeserved suffering cries out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” victory over sin and death is taking place. This the foolishness and weakness that trump the wisdom and power of the ages! Horton, Michael S. – A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (p. 28y).

4 ALL WE NEED DO IS BE DEAD.

You do know we are all going to die? Is this not incredible? The only thing we have to do is be dead! We begin to die by repenting.

I have told this story before in this. What I lose in novelty, let me take up by way of testimony. I want to tell you of the day that the truth the way down is the way up became more than theology, more than abstraction, a nice idea but unrealistic. It happened on this wise… In the winter of 1978, I was driving on the Bluegrass Parkway in the central Kentucky. 1978 was a brutal winter over all this country. Snow was deep and the road icy and dangerous. I say that because I was literally had seen no other car for miles and hours. Well, I was doing pretty well, having experience in icy weather. That was when it happened. Suddenly, without warning the car began to spin 360° – as the landscape began to spin, time slowed & I thought, I hadn’t planned on this what and I going to do after the car turns upside down? My foot and leg and already learned that slamming on the brake was a really bad idea. Steering wildly had no good outcome.

Then I had that moment of clarity. A thought came to me, one so outrageous and counter-intuitive I would never have entertained had I any other option. But, I was flat out of options. There was simply nothing I could do to fix my problem. I could makes things worse but not better. I took my hands off the steering wheel, held them in mid-air. No longer in charge, having given up any power I had remaining was just along for the ride. The car righted itself. Now, I was headed in the wrong direction and grateful. What I learned that day in the frozen hills of Kentucky has served me well all these years and decades in two different centuries. Dealing with matters of power and faith is like driving a car on ice. Doing what comes naturally, is almost always not the thing to do.

The death of Jesus shows us what an authentic human being looks like AND the death of Jesus releases grace, the energy, to get over ourselves and our ego. I see this power at work in lives of people every day.

Every day, Alcoholics Anonymous teaches me that what can never be done with white-knuckled will power, happens whenever any of us finally take our hands off the steering wheel, raise them in the air and surrender to the power of Christ’s death.

  • In that moment we die in the death of Christ.
  • In that moment we also rise with Christ in his resurrection.

What one repents of is sin, but sin is understood as ‘a matter of trying to block the activity of God, which entrails some curtailing of human freedom. [106] The Necessary Unity of Opposites: The Thinking of Northrop Frye – Brian Russell Graham

We first give up blocking God • We limit our ego • We take up freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “here is the true Christian definition of freedom. Freedom is self-limitation: self-limitation for the sake of others.”

From Under the Rubble; Repentance and self-limitation in the lives of nations.

We are free, beloved, we are free to limit ourselves for the sake of others. Brothers and Sisters of the household of faith, I say to you this Easter day, self-limitation is true freedom.

  • The ‘particular manner’ in which Jesus died was exactly self-limitation for the sake of others.
  • And by exercising this true freedom, by pursuing humility instead of power, his suffering was transformed into salvation.
  • And now we, on this Easter Day, praise him in celebration of the downward trail he blazed.
  • We follow the way Jesus, the Christ leads by limiting ourselves, for the sake of others,
  • We do this in faith that in humility, our suffering, too, is transformed into salvation.

TO HIM, BE GLORY NOW AND FOREVER.

Alleluia, Alleluia – Christ is Risen – The Lord is risen indeed Alleluia, Alleluia

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.

painting-faith

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