Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus' Brother-in-Law

So, in the last few days the whole "Jesus Wife Fragment"/"Gospel of Jesus' Wife" episode has taken another twist. Christian Askeland's article title this time is a bit too not nice to use but I had to come up with something. Anyway, here's the story: the mainstream press articles haven't said much about the context of the JWF, but those who have followed the story more closely know that it arrived with several other fragmentary texts supposedly from the same collector. Well, one of those has been now shown to the world, and it is a bit of the Coptic Gospel of John, in what looks like the same hand as the JWF, and on papyrus of comparable age.

And according to some scholars, it looks to be forged, in the same manner that the JWF is thought to be forged.

The problem is this: the text matches that of the Qau Codex. But not only does it match, it even follows the set of line breaks of a specific modern edition in an eccentric manner, to the point of having a glitch at a page break, and this edition is (like the Gospel of Thomas edition thought to have been used to compose the JWF) available on-line. This, however, presents another problem: the Qau Codex is in a dialect of Coptic which, by the date this appears to have been written, had died out.

So why should a churchman care? Well, on one level, all of this fuss ought to be immaterial. Whether the JWF represents a modern forgery or an ancient gnostic text, it stands well outside the orthodox canon; in a sense, the question is whether it is a modern or ancient forgery. It's all about the world-changing hype. King, whose baby this is, has connections to the Elaine Pagels/Jesus Seminar/"we can learn about early Christianity through the gnostic material" people. But this fragment has now been cut loose from this because of its late date, to the point where its importance in that wise would be indicating a significant survival into a time around Charlemagne's reign. The mainstream media is looking, for whatever reason, for another Coluphidist "well, that just about wraps it up for Christendom" wildly overstated story, and Harvard and Company played off this desire and got an endorsement of King's claims that was emphatically undeserved.

If you want a non-hyperventilating mainstream story reviewing the whole thing you can try this one from the Weekly Standard. And if you want a larger perspective on the novelty of these claims, you can see this column by David Jenkins that came out after the first round of JWF stories. But you can just as well ignore the whole thing, and dismiss anyone who tells you that this or that find challenges orthodox doctrine. Sure, you'll get called a traditionalist (as if that were a bad thing) and accused of burying your head in the sand, but you'll save yourself a lot of grief sorting through the nonsense.

Friday, April 18, 2014

TRECing to Calvary: Part 2

OK, so here's the real imagining problem: we're stuck with a social model of the denomination which is forty-some years out-of-date.

Or maybe the problem has been with us longer, for courtesy of Joe Rawls I read these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer back around 1930: "The theological atmosphere of the Union Theological Seminary is accelerating the process of the secularization of Christianity in America." He complained about the lack of understanding of dogmatics, the trivialization of sermons, the obsession with the fundamentalists, and so forth: his complaints are all so familiar. But the current driving mindset of the denomination has added to it a schizophrenic quality stemming from a far more recent social conflict.

The core of this can be found in how conspicuously inaccurate the old "Republican Party at prayer" line has become. Republicans these days are Methodists (at least that's what the Valpo maps imply) or Mormons or Southern Baptists or megachurch evangelicals, but given that, for the first time, the Supreme Court has no Episcopalians on it and that the last really prominent Episcopal politicians were George Herbert Walker Bush and the Rev. Sen. John Danforth, both well outside of the Republican mainstream today, it's extremely safe to say that the policy connections between the political party and the political church are basically nonexistent. At the same time, however, that sense of establishment prestige and entitlement lingers.

And we are still wealthy, and (by some standard at least) well-educated. But it is not the moneyed upper class which is our core, but the upper middle professional class. And most strongly expressed are the sentiments of one corner of academia. Let me be quite blunt about this: there is nothing about the current cant which passes for ECUSA theology that I don't recognize from my days as a college student in the late 1970s. The obsession with sexuality, the politically correct radfem monkeying with the God-language, the dabbling in leftist progressive politics: I heard it all, first, at the University of Maryland College Park, coming out of the various leftist activist groups and their professorial sponsors. But it predated even that, as anyone reading about the fads of 1960s "mainstream" theology is aware; before that, one must remember that fundamentalism is the reaction to modernism, and not the other way around.

In any case, the driving forces of Episcopal Church theologizing, for some decades now, have been stuck in this boomer time warp, and caught between the pretense of outsider "prophetic speech" and the reality of church establishment power. This church is a political power center for advancing leftist progressive causes, while at the same time dabbling in fashionable skepticism about our own teachings and equally fashionable credulity toward secular spirituality. And it's no great secret that deviations are winked at or just ignored, if not even exalted by our guardians of the faith, while commitment to age-old tenets is dismissed and deemed irrelevant.

In the context of such juvenile attitudes it is hardly surprising that one sees a movement towards a more juvenile liturgy, in which solemnity is fled from and in which anything that might be found burdensome or offensive to some hypothetical person is omitted or bowdlerized. Meanwhile the pattern of textual revision brushes aside ancient theological concerns in favor of a kind of linguistic totalitarianism in which it is believed that if patriarchal language is taken from the congregation's mouths, they will be forced to take a more feminist view towards their fellow humans, so that we come to church to find that the words of scripture cannot be spoke for fear of offense. The effect is of meddlesome older siblings who nag like the parent they most assuredly can only pretend to be.

I am not the only churchman to see this. Robert Hendrickson said much the same in his Assize Sermon reflection. And the observations cut across the conservative/troglodyte-progressive/heretic battle lines which defend the field of discourse. And there is some hope of a turn-around to be seen in the outcome of the last GC, in which Communion Without Baptism was rebuffed and the proposed Holy Men, Holy Women was sent back for more work. But of course, it is a sign of the times that everyone know that CWOB will continue with the tacit approval of many bishops, and that unbelievers and apostates will continue to be lifted up here and there as Christian exemplars, because their politics were Just. That's what rebellious college students do, after all.

But that time is past. It is time to take up the mantle of adulthood in full, not just its powers, but its responsibilities, and particularly those to what has been passed down through the ages. It's time to admit that the ancients did actually know something. It is time to admit that there is no establishment to rebel against any longer, but only ourselves.

And most of all, it is time to admit that the church's job, first of all, is religion. Social action is important; social justice is demanded by faith and scripture. But even the heathen do as much. Only the church can administer the sacraments; only the church can evangelize; only the church can worship. And only the church carries the anamnesis, that which it remembers of old and (if the rubrics be followed) repeats and reaffirms each Sunday.

Today, the cross stands before us, not shining in brass and silver, but crudely, brutally, the rood of the glorious sacrifice cloaked in earthly shame and agony, unto death. Once again it is given to us to turn away from the world and sacrifice the approbation of our supposedly more enlightened peers, and to speak back to the world the truth of Christ crucified. Will we? Can we? Or shall we turn away, like the rich young man, because we hold the social wealth of the world?

Monday, April 14, 2014

TRECing to Calvary: Part 1

I must confess that I have paid exactly no attention to the whole re-imagining the church restructuring project. "Re-imagining" alone is enough to put anyone of even vaguely traditionalist leanings off their feed, with its promise of jargon-laden platitudes. Besides, Anglo-Catholics, and probably most of us central churchers of sufficient age, do not have to re-imagine the church: what we do is recollect the church that was held as an ideal of old.

The emphasis on "re-imagining" instead of recollection (or, heaven forbid, repentance) points at the real difficulty, but Derek Olsen's first thoughts about TREC's first outputs point at the issue from a different direction. He writes:

As a liturgical, sacramental Christian, my main need from the Episcopal Church is a functional worshiping community. Thus, I primarily need:
  • A healthy clergy person educated in the teachings of the faith and in the proper conduct of its liturgies
  • A sound liturgy with roots in the apostolic and catholic and Anglican tradition shared in common with other worshiping communities
Well, I have the same needs. But as anyone can read here, these expectations aren't being met even now. When I travel, I have to sift parish websites as to whether the priest is going to deliver an orthodox sermon in the context of a prayer book liturgy, and even then it's fairly likely that I will be subjected to some greater or lesser aberration unless the parish makes a point of proclaiming their traditionalism.

What is "re-imagining" likely to do to make this better? I have to think, "less than nothing." If re-imagining doesn't mean repenting of the theological deviance and litigiousness which have characterized the national church of late, then I don't want any part of it. I imagine a church in which its clergy and people stand together each Sunday and unite in stating the Creed without reservation. I imagine a church where I don't have to go over the service leaflet in order to decide whether I will be able to take communion in good conscience. I imagine a church which has the confidence in its liturgy and music to not change everything for fear of offending some unnameable person. I imagine a church that can speak truth to liberal as well as conservative power. I imagine a church whose preachers can speak knowledgeably and confidently from Anglican tradition. But I don't imagine that I'm going to get that any time soon, except through benign neglect.

And that doesn't even begin to address the structural questions. Susan Snooks has, in a series of blog posts, stepped up to the financial consequences of the suggestion to reduce the national church asking to 10%; in her concluding post she describes the proposal as "utterly unrealistic" and brushes up against many of the other ideas being floated along the way. For example, she mentions the notions that the number of delegates per diocese be reduced and that retired bishops be taken out of the voting in their house. Well, OK, and she points out that neither of these proposals would save much, nor would they reduce the unwieldiness of GC. So what would they do? Well, she raises as a question the likely consequence: it would be easier to push innovations through GC because smaller margins would be needed in the Deputies. One must also assume that part of the reason to unseat the retiree bishops is to reduce their ability to slow change, not they they are effective in that wise now.

Excessive inertia is part of the church's problem, but it isn't church structures that cause that. The real inertia is how we are stuck in a certain 1970s mindset, which I will discuss in the second post.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jesus's Wife Resurrected from Dead

In honor of the subject I'm stealing Christian Askeland's title and one of the net's favorite memes. As everyone who hasn't stuck their fingers in their ears on the matter is aware, Harvard Theological Review, just in time for Holy Week, has published an issue dedicated to the authenticity of the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife", a parchment fragment purporting to be from a gnostic text from antiquity. The first time around on this, after the first few breathless days in the major media, the scholarly community issued forth with a great deal of skepticism and indeed confidence that this scrap was a modern forgery. After that, a great silence ensued.

But now the issue is back, courtesy of radiocarbon testing and who knows what else. Laurie Goldstein at the New York Times at least was circumspect enough this time to couch her article so as to reveal the continuing doubt in the scholarly community and to give the facts baldly enough to where someone who remembers the original claims can judge what has changed. Others were not not careful, leading to many articles giving the impression that these tests vindicated believers in authenticity against skeptics.

The reader of these articles, however, needs to be aware of those old claims. Most important is that the original claim was for a fourth century parchment. This has been undermined by the tests, which gave dates ranging over nearly a millennium and a half. This is important because, of course, the historical context is utterly different in the two periods: the late date puts it as a testament to gnosticism under the caliphate or late in byzantine history, not a glimpse into early Nicene Christendom or perhaps earlier, and the earliest dates would imply that an ancient author must have used a papyrus several centuries old.

But the big issue continues to be that the initial doubts did not rely upon the authenticity of the medium upon which the text is written. Leo Depuydt's response, which has been reprinted with some additions in HTR, states that "I find nothing in these documents that could change in any way the fact that I am personally 100% certain that the Wife of Jesus Fragment is a forgery. I have otherwise never deemed ink or papyrus tests necessary or relevant in light of the evidence set forth below." Francis Watson's initial response to the test reports states that "It has never been doubted that the Jesus’ Wife fragment may well have been written on a piece of genuinely ancient papyrus, using ink whose composition followed ancient practice."

The basic problem beyond a general suspicion of so convenient a document is that the text itself shows signs of being a composite of phrases from the Gospel of Thomas, excepting the few words which have attracted all the media attention, assembled by someone with an imperfect knowledge of Coptic grammar and syntax. Indeed, one error in particular has suggested to some scholars that the forgery is dependent upon a particular scholarly edition of Thomas. Doubts have also been raised about the possibility of fitting the fragment into a larger text written on a page. Indeed, a number of scholars object to referring to any "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" given a complete lack of any evidence of any such larger work.

But even ignoring all these problems with the authenticity of the text, the big offense in all of this is the hype. Even with the seemingly carefully hedged statements from Dr. King it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that this affair has been managed by both her and her university to attract maximum publicity from media outlets who are credulous and sensationalist. Goldstein's headline, given enough page space, could more accurately have read "Unimportant Gnostic Text Apparently Written On Old Parchment; Textual Problems Unresolved". Even if the text is genuine (and I'm going with those who think it's forged, for now) it has no implication for orthodox Christianity. It's just another oddball Gnostic text. The takeaway, no matter how the authenticity debates wind up, is in what this tells you about the biases of the major media outlets who are culpable of promoting this.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Limitations of Being ‘Spiritual but Not Religious’

Rabbi David Wolpe nails the fundamental weakness of the "spiritual but not religious" notion:
Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world.

To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good. If we have learned one thing about human nature, however, it is that people’s internal sense of goodness does not always match their behavior. To know whether your actions are good, a window is a more effective tool than a mirror.

No one expects those without faith to obligate themselves to a religious community. But for one who has an intuition of something greater than ourselves to hold that this is a purely personal truth, that it demands no communal searching and struggle, no organization to realize its potential in this world, straddles the line between narcissistic and solipsistic. If the spirit moves you to goodness, that is wonderful. For too many, though, spirituality is a VIP card allowing them to breeze past all those wretched souls waiting in line or doing the work.