Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Decoding Da Vinci

From chapter 4 of Decoding Da Vinci – the challenge of historic Christianity and fantasy, by N T Wright, published by Grove Books 2006.

If the canonical Scriptures were written, or read, to curry political favour, they were ill-conceived – and dramatically unsuccessful. Those who were thrown to the lions in the second and third centuries were not reading [The Gospel of] ‘Thomas’ or Q or the ‘Gospel of Mary.’ They were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the rest, and being sustained thereby in a subversive mode of faith and life which, growing out of Apocalyptic Judaism, posed a far greater threat to Roman empire and pagan worldviews than Cynic philosophy or Gnostic spirituality ever could. Why would Caesar worry about people rearranging their private spiritualities? And when Constantine, faced with half his empire turning Christian, decided to go with the tide, what was the church supposed to do? Protest that it would be more authentic to remain a beleaguered and persecuted minority? Let comfortable western Christians think about what the church had suffered under Diocletian in the years immediately before Constantine – and what the church is suffering many parts of the world today – and ask themselves who has compromised, and with what.

In fact, the contemporary myth gets things exactly the wrong way round. It is not the case that the canonical New Testament is politically and socially quiescent, colluding with empire, while the Jesus who we meet in the Nag Hammadi texts and similar documents is politically and socially subversives, so dangerous that he had to be suppressed. It is the other way about, and this may be among the most telling points we have to recognise for today.

You may salve your own conscience by embracing gnosticism, by telling yourself how very wicked the world is and how you are going to escape it once and for all by following the path of spiritual self-discovery and enlightenment. But if Caesar takes any notice at all, all he will do is sneer at you and go on his way to yet more triumphs of sheer power. And if that happened in the second century, we can be sure it is precisely what is happening today. The theologians of the 1930s who tried out various gnostic-like theories to explain early Christianity (the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and the theologian Rudolf Bultmann) could not prevent Hitler. The great postmodern thinkers of the last generation, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and their numerous disciples, cannot do anything to stop the new empires of today. Certainly those who are advocating a new kind of do-it-yourself spirituality, and claiming that Jesus is somehow in or behind it all, cut no ice on the political front.

The challenge comes, therefore, at the level of worldview. Yes, of course the church has often got it wrong, including in its views of women (where it has, basically, failed to see what was there in the New Testament itself). Yes, the Constantinian settlement was deeply ambiguous; but they knew that at the time, and it was only with the Middle Ages that things went so badly wrong. Yes, Christianity has – especially in the twentieth century – pretended that it is a ‘faith,’ unrelated to history. But its historical roots are rock solid, and the faith that is based on theme is not a loose, ‘whatever-works-for-you’ postmodern construct. This faith, and the worldview it generates, are the heart of the challenge.
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