Monday, May 22, 2006

Another false spirit

I find myself caught up in the whole Da Vinci Code thing. Having spoken at a clergy event about it (see previous post), I preached on it yesterday. The sermon can be read at this link: and, if we are able to sort out some technical difficulties, listened to as well!

We are going as a family to see the Movie on Wednesday, and then I am attending some seminars taken by Ben Witherington in Singapore before taking part in a seminar myself organised by my Diocese. Reading and listening to the reactions to the DVC, I am impressed that we are managing to combat the many errors in the DVC. People like Ben have worked so hard and scholars like him are worth their weight in gold. May God bless him in his ministry. We desperately need more like him: scholars who also have a passion for ministry.

The more time I spend on this, however, the more worried I am becoming about what is happening in the Church. Dan Brown seems to have tapped into a feeling that is growing amongst Christians themselves. It is 'the history is written by the winners' myth. Dan Brown repeats this like a mantra and many Christians believe it. This allows people to argue that there were many Christianities around in the first three centuries and what eventually became Orthodox or Catholic Christianity suppressed all the rest. Some even take it further and argue that the books we have in the Bible are the winners' version of the original event.

This myth is far more dangerous than DVC itself as it is supported by many in positions of authority within the Church. It sounds plausible enough in theory, but what is the reality? At the end of the day, what were the alternative Christianities that were suppressed? And what were the alternative books that were left out of the Bible? The alternatives are all gnostic. I wonder if any who are arguing this myth at a popular level have read any of the gnostic gospels. Are we really being asked to believe that the gnosticism of the second and third century should be seen as a viable alternative to Orthodox Christianity? Are we really to believe that the gnositicism of people like Valentinus was a reasonable interpretation of the teaching of Jesus?

What is going on is much more insidious. Having argued the theory that there were other Christianities and other books, those who take this view are then reading their own version of Christianity back into the second and third centuries so that it becomes their version of Christianity that was suppressed. A few gnostic phrases are thrown in to gain credibility, but gnosticism as such is quietly forgotten. Undermine Orthodox Christianity with a scholarly sounding argument and the use the doubt to win converts to a version of Christianity which was never up for consideration. Those who argue thus are able to present their very 21st century version of Christianity as really being old and original.

In the meantime people's confidence in the Bible is undermined and people's faith in orthodox Christianity weakened.

Orthodox Christianity has survived worst things, of course, and it will survive this attack, but this attack is all the more dangerous coming as it does from within. It is gaining ground by stealth. It needs to be exposed for what it is before it does real damage.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Da Vinci Code 2

Well it’s about to happen: ‘the movie event of all time’ - if the publicity is to be believed. The Da Vinci Code will soon be on general release, and it is one movie that is guaranteed to be a hit. It stars the well-known actors Tom Hanks and Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf), and is directed by award winning director, Ron Howard. Just wait until the DVD comes out! All this is on top of the continuing sales of the book, which, in 2004, outsold the Bible in the USA, and which will get a new lease of life with the film.

I preached on a theme in the book not long after it came out and one or two in my congregation wondered why. Now they are urging me to preach on it more. Whatever you think of the Da Vinci Code it is an incredible modern phenomenon. What’s all the fuss about? After all, it’s a crime novel and not a particularly well-written one at that. Why get so worked up over fiction? The fuss is that it combines a sensational story with a message about Jesus, Christianity, and the Church that writer Dan Brown claims to be based on FACT. And despite the fact that he gets elementary facts wrong, people are reading it and believing it. It has touched a worldwide nerve. The question is: can Christians keep theirs?

Essentially, the claim made in the novel is that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered a child by her. This bloodline was preserved in France where it still continues. It is Mary Magdalene who is the Holy Grail and not, as used to be believed, the Chalice from the Last Supper. The story involves a conspiracy to keep the secret quiet, hidden codes, secret societies that have included Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton as their members amongst others, and a radical reinterpretation of Christian history that has orthodox Christians cast very much as the villains of the peace. Oh, and Opus Dei, a Catholic organisation, is portrayed as a bunch of murderers.

The story of the Da Vinci Code combines a fast moving plot with historical lectures given by characters in the story. These characters claim that the Church has suppressed documents; that it has hidden alternative Gospels that tell the truth about Jesus; that Christianity is a amalgam of older religions, and not a very good one at that; that older religions were more in tune with the sacred feminine; that people have had to risk their lives to protect the bloodline; and that you have clues for all this in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper! If you haven’t read it, you should, and you should see the Movie. Members of our congregations certainly will.

There are, I think, two questions, in particular, for us as priests:

1. Why has such a novel had so much more impact on people than we have?

2. What is going to be our response?

In answer to the first question, I think we should say, firstly, that on a positive note, it shows that people remain deeply interested in Jesus, so interested that they are prepared to listen to theories about him. As a Christian of the orthodox type, I believe that the real Jesus is far more interesting than the one who comes across in this book. But it is an indictment of those of us who think like I do that we have not been able to convey our view of Jesus in a way that interests and attracts people. We have to accept that Dan Brown has been more successful in interesting people about Jesus than we have been, no matter how much we may disagree with or disapprove of his understanding of Jesus.

I believe that part of the problem is that for many years now the Church has not only tolerated, but has encouraged a very sceptical brand of scholarship. It is a scholarship that has been more about questioning the historical reliability of the Gospels than understanding them. Look at any standard commentary and you will find a lot of space devoted to so-called critical issues. Fair enough, but it has paved the way for the sort of views expressed in the Da Vinci Code by undermining confidence in the Church’s traditional view of its founder and history. Having called in to question whether the Biblical version is right after all, we should not be surprised that others try to present an alternative version even if, ironically, it is one even less based on historical sources than the one it seeks to replace.

Sadly, while clergy have proclaimed their doubts from the pulpits, people have continued to long to know more about Jesus and now they are hearing about him not from us clergy, but from writers like Dan Brown.

Secondly, and following on from this, the Da Vinci Code illustrates that there is a real spiritual hunger in our world. Obviously, many are reading the novel because they find it to be a good read and many more are now reading it out of curiosity because of all the publicity. This alone, however, cannot account for the huge interest in it. The Da Vinci Code raises spiritual questions and answers them in a way that appeals to where people increasingly are at. It is a singularly post modern view of the truth where questions are more important than answers, and the journey is more important than the destination. By calling into question more absolute views of the truth, it allows people to be spiritual without that spirituality making any demands on them.

Thirdly, from all this Jesus emerges as a Jesus for our time. He is person that people can identify with and relate to: a Jesus who has real relationships, who falls in love, gets married, has sex, and fathers children. It is a Jesus who affirms people in their search and in their lives, and encourages them on their journey. The Church’s Jesus has seemed remote either because he has appeared too divine, and so unlike us, or too intellectual, and, therefore, capable of being known only if you take a university course in theology. Dan Brown’s Jesus seems much more real and relevant. This is a Jesus who connects. The problem is he is no different to us and the good news he offers is that there is no good news just good questions.

The second question, then, is: what, as clergy, is going to be our response?

I must confess that I was, at first, a little worried that in talking about the Da Vinci Code, I might give it more publicity and encourage people to take it more seriously than they should. I think we are past that stage now! People are not only reading it, they are taking it very seriously indeed. Young people are getting their only knowledge of Jesus and Christian history from it. We have to see the Da Vinci Code as both a challenge and an opportunity.

Firstly, a challenge. What do we personally think about Jesus? What is our understanding of Him? Does it matter if Jesus was married, had sex, or fathered children? I recently heard one Christian leader say that Jesus could not have had children and, if he had, it would create serious theological problems. If that is true, in what sense can Jesus be said to be ‘precisely like us?’

We need to get our facts straight and then communicate them. There is a new myth of Christian origins that is doing the rounds and which Dan Brown has tapped into. It is that the orthodox were the bad guys and heretics, like the gnostics, were the good guys. On this understanding the orthodox suppressed the truth, which we now only have access to through the gnostic gospels: gospels such as the recently published Gospel of Judas, for example. I sometimes wonder whether people who argue like this have ever read the gnostic gospels. But it plays well on television!

However, such a myth has only been able to gain credence because of our intellectual and spiritual laziness. We need the courage and energy to combat such falsehood in the way the early Christians did when the gnostics were first around.

Finally, though, and on this I close, more than anything else we should see the Da Vinci Code as a wonderful opportunity. Dan Brown has himself argued just this. People are at least talking about spiritual issues and asking questions. This is the time to talk to people about Jesus and introduce them to the real Jesus. I shall certainly be preaching on the issues raised by the Da Vinci Code in Christ Church and taking part in whatever discussions I can in the hope that I can present an alternative to the Da Vinci Code. More than anything, however, I hope that in some way I can help people find the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible, for themselves.

Christians claim that in Jesus of Nazareth God became human and that we see God in the face of the Jesus of history. It is because the Da Vinci Code raises historical questions that we must engage with it. There can be no hiding behind our faith. Dan Brown, rightly in my opinion, has said that the real enemy of religion is apathy and that the antidote to apathy is passionate debate. Let the debate begin!

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

There is no escaping it! It opens here on Wednesday a day earlier than most countries and the publicity is incredible. It's everywhere. Originally, I was worried that preaching and talking about DVC might just serve to give it more publicity, but I don't think I need worry. It has all the publicity it could ever need. So I think it's better to take the opportunity it presents to speak about the issues it raises. So next week to coincide with the launch I am going to be preaching on it and talking to whoever will listen! I imagine many clergy will be doing the same.

I don’t know how much friends in the US have followed the recent case in London in which Dan Brown’s publishers were sued for copyright infringement by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The judgement went against them, but, in the course of the trial, Dan Brown gave evidence and the Judge in his judgement sums up his evidence and describes the writing process. He also makes comments on the themes of the book along the way. While the conclusion of the judgement has been reported, most people will have missed some of the comments that the Judge makes. I would recommend anyone interested in responding to the Da Vinci Code to read the judgement. It is available at this link:

I would particularly draw attention to paragraphs 345 and 346. The judge writes concerning Dan Brown’s evidence:

'His failure to address these points in my view shows once again that the reality of his research is that it is superficial. This in my view is the explanation for his evidence. He has presented himself as being a deep and thorough researcher for all of the books he produced. The evidence in this case demonstrates that as regards DVC that is simply not correct with respect to historical lectures.'

It is quite fascinating because, in the course of the trial, the way in which Dan Brown wrote the book and the sources he used all come up for scrutiny and description. The Judge is worried that his comments may be used out of context, but it is fairly plain what he thinks of the research, or rather lack of it, behind the book. I must confess to having been surprised myself. It seems clear that Dan Brown relied heavily on the whacko brigade without doing much in the way of original reseach himself.

This is all very well if it is just a crime thriller you are writing, as the Judge himself acknowledges, but Dan Brown wants his novel to be read more seriously than this and makes FACT claims for the material it is based on. I wonder if he has read any of the orignal writings that he wants reassessing: the various Gnostic Gospels, for example? Perhaps he has. But having read the judgement, I do wonder.

Unfortunately, to a certain extent it does not matter. The book is now out there, as the Movie will be next week, and then the DVD! Our job as Christian teachers is to deal with it, not just by trying to discredit it and its claims, but by giving the positive case for Christianity. In fairness, that means not engaging with Dan Brown second hand, but actually researching the material for ourselves.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lego Christianity

As someone part of whose role, at least, is to teach the Christian message, I am rather worried that the Christian message is itself being seriously redefined in many of our churches. In many churches we now have Lego Christianity. Lego, as most people know, is made up of small plastic bricks with which you can build any different number of things. You can make different model cars or buildings or ships or whatever your imagination fancies - all using the same blocks.

We are taking the building blocks of the New Testament message, but are making them into a very different shape, conveniently leaving out one or two that don't fit into how we think the new shape should look.

Let me explain what I mean by asking what the Christian Gospel is according to the New Testament. Then, like now, there were different emphases and beliefs, but for all the diversity, there seems to have been an essential unity. The fundamental structure was the same even if there were differences in detail.

At the heart of the Gospel, as the New Testament writers understand it, is the belief that God is going to judge the world, punish sin and sinners, and that to escape this judgement, we all alike need saving for we are all alike sinners without excuse. God himself has made salvation possible through Jesus Christ whom he sent to die for our sins. Jesus died on the Cross, but was raised by God from the dead. Salvation and forgiveness are offered through the Holy Spirit to all who have faith in Jesus. As St Paul said: 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.' (Acts 16:31)

There is a tremendous amount more that could be said and should be said: about the Holy Spirit, Christian living, Creation, the Scriptures, and so on. But my point is that whatever else can be said and should be said, this much at least was said by all the New Testament preachers and evangelists. You wouldn't have found anyone then who would disagree with this. It may need explaining or elaborating, but, fundamentally, it is clear enough.

This is not, however, what many Christian preachers want to say. It is too embarrassing. To change the metaphor: we take the words and make them mean something different to what they mean in the New Testament.

Peace, for example, has now becomes a message about human conflict or psychological well-being - 'peace of mind' - instead of a message about the relationship between ourselves and God: a relationship which has been broken by our sin and which can only be restored by him.

Forgiveness once meant that we first admitted we had done wrong, took responsibility for it, and accepted the blame. In other words that we confessed our sins and confessed that they were ours. Nowadays forgiveness is a term which means more like saying something doesn't matter, couldn't be helped, and wasn't our fault. It is more like overlooking or ignoring what is wrong. It is an absolution that we are quick to grant ourselves.

Jesus himself is seen differently. He is someone always there to help us and listen to us. Someone who always accepts us, never condemns us, and who would never dream of correcting us. He is our companion and friend, rather than our Saviour and Lord. The parts of the Gospel where he condemns sin, speaks of God's coming judgement and the need for us to lose everything if we are to find eternal life are, of course, conveniently ignored.

The New Testament message was a message of salvation. It was about our need to be saved and the good news of how this could happen. It is a message that is addressed to each one of us. And while it is true that we need to hear this collectively, and that it applies to society in general, it means, more than anything else, that you and I as individuals need saving. And, it needs to be said, not saving for in the first place, but saving from:

- saving from the wrath of our Creator who is angry with the way we have behaved and destroyed his creation
- saving from our sin which entraps us, ruins us, and makes us miserable
- saving from death, which is the just punishment of our sin and rebellion against God

There will be plenty of time to talk about what we are saved for once we are saved. Once, that is, we have admitted that we are sinners who need saving and have turned to God to save us. There will be plenty of time to discuss the meaning of all this for how we live and for society in general, once we have discovered for ourselves what it means to call Jesus our Saviour and Lord.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Called to preach?

I remember where I was when I first felt called to preach and how old. I was in Liverpool in my early teens. Life, as they say, has never been the same since: it has been one of constant frustration.

I hoped, naievly, that once ordained I would be able to devote myself to preaching and teaching. The problem is, of course, that once you are ordained you soon discover that there are so many other things that you have to devote yourself to so that you don't have the time or energy to prepare for preaching and teaching. Secondly, congregations don't particularly want preaching and teaching anyway. They want entertainment. They don't mind speakers who tell jokes and amuse with some simple thoughts thrown in, but sustained exposition of a passage with a wrestling of what it means for today is just not on anyone's wishlist.

To be a succesful speaker today you need to be reasonably good looking, tell jokes, know how to keep it simple and short, and be able to convince people that you know more than you do. This last point makes the congregation think you are an expert and relieves them of any responsibility to think for themselves.

Naturally enough, those of us who preach want people to want to listen and so the temptation to give people what they want to hear is very great. I know we need to become all things to all people, but surely this is so that what we have to say becomes easier for them to understand. What happens if they don't want to understand it?

Maybe we preachers just have to accept that there is a declining market for serious thinking and teaching amongst the majority in our congregations and be thankful for those few who still want to work hard to study the word of God together.

I once heard it said of a particular scholar that he never published much because he always felt that anything he wrote could be improved upon. I confess to a similar feeling when it comes to blogs. I have wanted to try for ages, but have been nervous about getting it right. Will it sound crass? What about the grammar? And so on ... But given that the 'perfect is the enemy of the good', I now begin.

The next question is, 'Will anyone read it?!'