When these holy days roll around, segments of the media, as reliably as clockwork, roll out the latest alleged debunkings of historically recognizable Christianity. There was, for instance, an item a few days ago about a climatologist who opined that back in the old days Galilee experienced cold snaps, so maybe Jesus didn't walk on water but was standing on a block of ice. This, it is suggested, will force Christians to reconsider the foundations of their faith. It does raise a new question about why St. Peter stripped before jumping in to join his Lord on the ice.
But the big news this time around is the discovery of a fourth- or possibly fifth-century copy of what may be a second-century "Gospel of Judas." Christians will be surprised, we are assured by the New York Times, that there are more than four gospels, and I suppose Christians who know little about the origins of Christianity will be surprised. The National Geographic Society disgraced itself by puffing this latest discovery. Elaine Pagels of Princeton, an advisor to NGS who has for years been touting sundry gnostic gospels, wrote an op-ed in the Times saying that the latest discovery will make her Easter ever so much more mysterious.
There is nothing at all mysterious about people who want a designer Christianity tailored to their own predilections. That's how we got all those deviant Christianities in the first place. The apostles and their successors in episcopal office spent the first several centuries sorting through the various writings and teachings to establish what became orthodox faith and the canon of the New Testament.
According to Pagels and others, the apostolic community to which Jesus promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit was dominated by power-hungry masters of the patriarchy who were determined to deprive people of delicious variations by labeling them as heresies. As it happens, the Church's task of sorting out continues to this day and will not end until Our Lord returns in glory. The propensity to come up with new Christianities conformed to human tastes and fantasies will always be with us. Witness the Da Vinci Code, to cite a current instance of a fabrication that has confused many of the uncatechized faithful.
The people over at Catholic World News have their own take on the latest flutter in the market of fakes. Here's an excerpt:
New Gospel Discovered!!
Newark, Apr. 8 (CWNews.com) - Archeological researchers in Ridgewood, New Jersey, have discovered an ancient Christian document that offers a radically new account of the founding of the Catholic Church.
The newly discovered document, which scholars have named "The Gospel of Skip and Muffy," was found in an abandoned rowhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, which had formerly housed a Rutgers sorority.
Theologians and anthropologists agree that "The Gospel of Skip and Muffy" is likely to cause intense debate among Christians, forcing a complete re-examination of all Catholic teachings.
There is no possible debate, however, about the authenticity of the document. "It was typed on an IBM Selectric II," reported Dr. Ernest Litewaite, an associate professor of Contemporary Archeology at Kutztown State. "Using a Courier 72 10-pitch element." The document is believed to be a copy of an earlier statement, crafted by students at an East Coast private college sometime around 1970.
"The Gospel of Skip and Muffy" is an extended dialogue between two young theologians who take a startling new approach to the faith. The document suggests that young Christians of the 1970s generation did not accept Church teachings on some controversial moral issues.
B.F.D. Zeitgeist, a Professor of Serious Christianity at Dupont University, said that the Gospel of Skip and Muffy will force Christians to re-examine the nature of Church authority. He pointed to one key passage in the manuscript:
"The Church is--I mean--it's just a bunch of, like, rules and stuff," said Muffy.
"Yeah," Skip replied. "I mean, really. Hey, don't let that thing go out."
Professor Litewaite said that he had found the manuscript of the Gospel of Skip and Muffy several months ago. "The significance of the discovery was immediately obvious," he said. "But my publicist suggested that I should wait until Holy Week to make it public."
Funny. Which is not to say that there are not serious matters engaged by the discussion of the "Gospel of Judas" and other imaginative reconstructions of Christianity from the apostolic era to the present. The gnostic pseudo-gospels and related texts purport to be for the "knowers" who are equipped to deal with the "secret sayings" of Jesus and other matters unfit for the great unwashed. In his book The American Religion, Harold Bloom contends that most Americans are gnostics at heart, believing that they possess a "divine spark" that is spiritually serviced by whatever "works for me." There is more than a little to that. It results in religions, typically called Christian, ever so much less interesting than Christianity.
There is a troubled article in Commonweal on unhappy developments on some prestigious campuses. A reader writes:
The new Princeton Catholicism (otherwise known as "Catholicism") is driving our Commonweal Catholic friends crazy. Things weren't supposed to go this way, were they? Not in the heart of the Ivy League! It was the "thinking Catholics" not the "reactionaries" who were supposed to be invited into the inner sanctum of the intellectual establishment. After all, they had paid their dues. They had very publicly dissociated themselves from those "outmoded" Catholic moral teachings that offend the New York Times editorial board. They had signed up with all the fashionable causes. They had denounced the old Pope. All this, and forty years after Vatican II where are they? They are stuck at some nondescript Loyola or a regional St. This or Sacred That, while people like Mary Ann Glendon and Robert George occupy chairs and run programs at Harvard and Princeton. And plum Catholic chaplaincy appointments at the most prestigious secular universities are given to a men like Princeton's Fr. Tom Mullelly who openly (gasp!) proclaim fidelity to the magisterium and insists that anyone speaking on behalf of the chaplaincy do likewise. As though that isn't bad enough, Columbia, New York's most prestigious university, now has an orthodox chaplaincy under the direction of Polish Dominicans and with Fr. Richard Neuhaus as the regular preacher at Sunday Mass. I repeat, this is not how things were supposed to have turned out.
It is true that Commonweal is somewhat overexcited. As best I can tell, most campus ministries around the country are securely under the control of those whom Commonweal recognizes as "thinking Catholics." Among the oddities in the Commonweal article is that it apparently assumes that the James Madison Program run by Robert George at Princeton is a Catholic project. It is, in fact, a thoroughly ecumenical program, engaging also those with no religious identification at all. It is more solidly ecumenical and effective in engaging others by virtue of the fact that the Catholics associated with it are Catholic. Which certainly does not preclude their reading Commonweal regularly, and with frequent appreciation.
Wednesday morning I'm involved in taping with Tim Russert a special edition of NBC's "Meet the Press" that will be shown Easter Sunday morning. I gather he's bringing together a motley crew of "religious leaders." I will do my best to see that Christianity--as in Christ crucified and risen--gets a hearing.
On Thursday and Friday, postings here will be appropriate to the Triduum, devoted to, as Dante would have it, "the love that moves the sun and other stars."
In addition to which:
Three years after the invasion, George Weigel writes in the April issue of FIRST THINGS, some elementary truths are still being evaded. In an article titled "Iraq: Then & Now," he describes how the evasion is becoming ever more desperate. (This is the fifth annual William E. Simon lecture which was dedicated to the memory of Thomas K. Doerflinger who was killed with U.S. forces in Iraq at age 20.) The new "realism" of the Bush administration, Weigel contends, was in its readiness to "challenge the seemingly settled consensus that the Middle East was a region so politically volatile, economically important, and culturally retrograde that it could only be 'managed,' never transformed." Isn't it time for you to become a subscriber to FIRST THINGS?
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has this to say about the new book by Father Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth:
"When it comes to 'Catholic matters,' Father Richard Neuhaus' thoughts matter a lot. He unfailingly challenges, enlightens, fascinates, inspires, humors, and occasionally even vexes me. And I would not miss reading a word he writes."