Tuesday, March 28, 2006

DaVinci Code discussion in Staten Island

On Sunday I spoke at an IPC meeting on Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the DaVinci Code at St. Francis Church on Staten Island. The discussion was reported in the press yesterday.

I'm thrilled to see from participants' comments in the article that my two-fold approach in the talk seems to have been successful. First, through a handout with expanded paragraphs from the Gospels of Philip and Mary describing the relationship of Jesus and MM, one can see what the implications of Dan Brown's shorter paragraph choices are. That doesn't mean that we need to abandon investigation of the relationship between Jesus and MM.

So I turned to a presentation and discussion of medieval typological depictions in the Biblia Pauperum of MM at the tomb in John 20 through the lens of the bride searching for and finding her lover in the Song of Songs. Its easier to look at illustrations from the Bible of the Poor than it is to read interpretations of MM at the tomb as the bride in the Song of Songs searching for and finding Jesus in writings of Cyprian or other church fathers. Besides, a picture speaks a thousand words.

No one seems to have found this discussion undermined their faith. And it enhances appreciation for questions raised by the DVC.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A History of Slavery in New York

We went to the New York Historical Society exhibit, Slavery in New York
open until March 26th at the New York Historical Society.

From the 1600's to 1827, it reconstructs the slave trade and its impact first on the Dutch in New York, and then the British, arguing that as many as 20% of New Yorkers were enslaved African-Americans. During the colonial period, 41% of the city's households had slaves, compared to 6% in Philadelphia and 2% in Boston. Only Charleston, South Carolina, rivaled New York in the extent to which slavery penetrated everyday life. By 1775, in New York there were 3,100 slaves, accounting for 30 percent to 40 percent of the city's workforce. While the exhibit does not clarify this statistic, the website notes that each slaveholding New Yorker usually owned only one or two persons. Its also important to note slavery was less central to the economy and social order in New York than it was in Virginia or South Carolina (let alone Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica or Saint Domingue, where the vast majority of the population was enslaved). Thus, it was easier to abolish slavery in New York than it was in the South: in the wake of the American Revolution, every state north of Delaware initiated the abolition of slavery, whereas none of the Southern states did.

One other quibble: the introductory video included a quote from Aristotle about slavery being normative. But slavery in classical Greece was not at all the same thing as slavery in the New World. It would have been good to clarify different kinds of slavery.

The New York Times review notes that the exhibit tends to overlook this broader context. However, the exhibit is provocative, the information is new, and no one comes away unaffected.

We were able to hear the Abyssinian Baptist Church Sanctuary Choir (director Dr. Jewel T. Thompson) perform spirituals including "Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham." For the first time I heard it as an interpretation of the Lucan parable of Lazarus and the rich man from the point of view of slaves. I'll never hear it in the same way again.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Truth and Fiction

Now that closing statements for the copyright hearing in London are underway, it seems appropriate to note Dan Brown's own witness statement of Dec 21st, 2005. Paragraph 192, for example, makes it clear that the paragraphs from the Gospel of Philip and Mary cited in the DVC as (the only) ancient evidence for the marriage of MM and Jesus derive from secondary sources such as Elaine Pagels' book, The Gnostic Gospels.

Paragraph 217 clarifies that DVC as a novel is a work of fiction that uses verifiable material such as Da Vinci's paintings, the Gnostic Gospels and Hieros Gamos. These facts are interpreted by fictional characters in DVC in ideas that Brown believes have merit but the reader is encouraged to come up with opinions about religion and faith assessing the evidence for themselves.

An opinion piece by Viv Groskop in the Observer for March 19th makes the point that critics of Brown are having a field day since revelations of the trial like Brown's witness statement above make it fashionable to sneer at popular money-making novels. Groskop rightly notes that all this is beside the point. I agree and in public always say that anything that promotes discussion of ancient Christianity or ideas in the DVC such as recognizing male bias in ecclesiastical tradition is all to the good. No matter that DVC rests on our fascination with conspiracies. The timing of its phenomenal success has to do with, I believe, the scandal of pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church that is far from over.

Religious leaders need, for example, to take note of widespread interest in the argument of DVC that the church has suppressed the feminine whether in ecclesiastical imagery, theology, or office holders. What is the evidence? How might it be interpreted? The argument of the Catholic League that Ron Howard should add a disclaimer at the beginning of the DaVinci Code that the movie is fictional rests on the notion that we faithful cannot think for ourselves. Religious leaders have yet another opportunity to discuss many issues the book raises including the sources of women's spiritual authority when the movie is released in May.

The paragraphs from the Gospels of Mary and Philip cited in the DVC need to be read in context of the gospels from which they derive. Not even gospel writers thought that Jesus' cursing of the fig tree (reported in Matthew and Mark and interpreted in Luke) had anything to do with a fit of pique. The notion of a kiss in the Gospel of Philip, for example, is that it is the means by which "the perfect" conceive and give birth. Perhaps this is the way initiates join a community of "perfect" in Philip: initiates come into being through the generating activity of that community whether by sacramental acts or other types of initiating rites. Any interpretation of a kiss in the Gospel of Philip must start with its notion of sacramental reality.

Of course its not easy to understand ancient texts like Philip and Mary especially since they stand outside a 2000 year old tradition of interpretation. But new editions and interpretations of these texts and others like them are published all the time!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Women's History Month

March is Women's History Month! (Its also Colon Cancer Awareness Month but that's for another post). There's so much to celebrate and so much still to do....

Those of us who are well off might consider a donation to worthy causes. One of mine is news about women around the world including cheers and jeers of the week.

This month on March 21st at the seminary Prof. Amy-Jill Levine from Vanderbilt lectures on "Jesus and Judaism: the Connection Matters." From the point of view of historical accuracy, what could be more important? Amy-Jill is always lively and engaging so come along! Its free!

Other things to do:-
  • ask your local place of worship to hold an event featuring a woman speaker
  • ask your local bookstore to feature women authors signing books
  • ask your community center to host an event celebrating women in the local community
  • write a letter to the editor of your local paper explaining why its important to mark this month
Last month in the New Yorker magazine, Joan Acocella wrote an article on Mary Magdalene. Current interest in her centers around the London trial in which Dan Brown is being accused of plagiarism. Here's my take on the Acocella piece, particularly the conclusion:-

Joan Acocella in “The Saintly Sinner” reserves to the gospel of John the spiritual implications of Mary’s encounter with a gardener/resurrected Jesus. But Mary’s fragmentary vision of the ascent of the soul in the Gospel of Mary is woven of the same cloth: death, despair and weeping followed by revelation and commission. This vision clearly pertains to the “matters of the soul” Acocella prefers to attach to John. But the issue is not which text contains more spirituality. The issue is why Mary’s vision in John comes to represent gender conflict. This is not a Gnostic problem. There’s more to Mary Magdalene’s story than a pitch for the priesthood of women based on authority in matters of the soul; what’s at stake is the authenticity of all women’s religious vision, in every religious tradition.

Happy Women's History Month!