Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Apocryphal Writings

Heather over at A Deconstructed Christian has been posting bits from the various apocryphal writings the last week or so. That in turn was sparked off by a comic over at ASBO Jesus. Both have me thinking about the canon, but I haven't waded into the discussions there for a variety of reasons. I don't want to pick a fight. I don't want to just sound like I'm parroting the orthodox position. I haven't actually read the apocryphal writings. But I haven't been able to quite shake it, so I'm posting a few thoughts.

1. As someone over at ASBO pointed out, some of the writings, including the Gospel of Thomas, portray Jesus and God in a problematic light. Vengeful. Capricious. Using his divine power simply for his own convenience or amusement. I am firmly commited to the belief that scripture gives us a consistent picture of the nature of God. If there are things that seems contradictory to us, well, that indicates areas where our understanding needs to grow. But I am glad not to be trying to wrestle together more puzzle pieces than scripture has already given me. If the wisdom of the church says that I don't need to worry about the Gospel of Thomas, well--good.

2. Many of the apocryphal writings are understood to be Gnostic in nature. And Gnosticism, believe it or not, is one of those heresies that has kept cropping up throughout the history of the church. The writings of the Gnostics were put forth to serve their own purposes. They were meant to seem reasonable, seductive, etc. But if we don't read them with an understanding of their agenda, we read them at our own peril.

3. Believe me. I understand the appeal of mysticism. We are called believe in a reality that is bigger than us. More than we can see, more than we can touch. One that has battling angels and demons. One in which we are being remade. I love fantasy literature. One of the reasons for that is that I believe that it echos the truth back to us that this world is stranger, deeper, more perilous than the safe, flat, American culture that we are stuck living in. But . . .

4. The best fantasy literature has a coherence to it that is wonderful but it doesn't answer all the questions. The worlds of Tolkien, Bujold, McKillip, Donaldson, Gaiman, introduce us into worlds that just get weirder the deeper that you get into them. The give you glimpses of things that are not fully explained, or indeed, explainable. You get the sense that the author does not themselves know all the answers nor care to go looking for them, and in that these worlds mirror scripture. In hack fantasy, we get too many answers. The readers pester the authors for explanations and the authors manufacture them, inadvertantly shrinking their worlds, because the answers that are concocted can't match the questions for inspiring magic and awe. (Which then indicates a good rule of thumb for secondary world building--don't answer a question unless you have to and unless the answers produces more questions than the original question did.)

5. Except, sometimes, authors "answer" questions with a lot of mumbo-jumbo and hand waving. And this is what those quotes I've seen from the apocryphal texts remind me of--things that are worded in such a ways as to make it impossible to actually pin them down for meaning. Things that are so vague that one could legitimately read just about anything into them. The bit that Heather posted today from the Apocryphon of James reminded me of nothing so much as the raving madmen's "prophecies" in David Eddings's supreme hack work, "The Belgarion."

6. Compare this to real scripture. It is never intentionally vague. I may not understand it, but I always have that sense that the writers know exactly what they are talking about it. And that they're not trying to hide or disguise anything. Quite the contrary. They are trying to help me understand. There's just something interfering with my putting all the pieces together. (Usually my own sin.)

7. Jesus likewise. Okay, so there was that time that he quoted Isaiah, "though seeing, they may not see, thought hearing, they may not understand." (Lk 8:10) That's after the parable of the Sower. But then what does he do? He goes on to *explain* the parable to his disciples. In the gospels, Jesus brings us clarity and healing. Not confusion or mumbo-jumbo. He gives us the respect of giving us real answers, even when we might not understand them.

8. I quote myself, from a discussion on ASBO Jesus about the passage in which Jesus says that there will be no marriage in the new kingdom: " The whole incarnation was and is a complete anti-scorn. Drawing near to us. In that passage I think we get a glimpse rather of utter respect. There are times, as a parent, when my children ask a question and I *know* that they’re not going to understand the answer. But I will not lie to them, nor will I tell them that their question is not worth answering, and so I find myself explaining molecular chemistry to my first grader. Or the sacrament of communion. Or malapropisms. And I know that she’s mostly not going to get it, but I can at least show her, in all seriousness, that the answer is bigger than the questions that she knows to ask. And it has the effect, among other things, of somewhat deflating her oversized seven-year-old ego. Because as the brightest seven-year old in her first grade class, she’s *sure* some days that she’s got the whole world figured out. And I think that’s Jesus and the Saducees. They’re *so* sure of themselves and Jesus tells them, “You don’t even know the right questions and you wouldn’t understand the answers if you did. But I’m going to show you the respect of giving you a bigger answer than you can handle, because what you need is be yanked out of your own self-righteous self-assurance.”

8. And when something reeks not of being an answer that wouldn't perfectly clear if only we knew how to understand, not of being an answer that gives rise to bigger, more wonderful questions than the little questions that we know how to ask, but rather smells to high heaven of being a lot of pseudo-spiritual *&*@!%^ primarily worded to obfuscate the fact that they don't know what the hell they're talking about, then that's not something that I need in my canon.


Heather said...

It seems my posts have found their objective - creating meaningful thought and dialogue about the non-canonical texts. :-) That's exactly what I was hoping for when I started the series.

You are of course perfectly entitled to your opinion, that the texts included in the Canonical bible are complete and perfect in themselves. I agree to a point. I am enjoying reading these non-canonical gospels though. Most of it I do doctrinally disagree with. However, there are some portions that resonate with me quite strongly. Some raise questions that are healthy for me to ponder. Most of these gospels also agree in part with the canonical ones too - many of the parables are nearly to identical to those referenced in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

I would love people to think about these historical documents further and formulate their own opinions. You'll note I don't put my opinions in my posts - I want people to tell me what they think. Yes, perhaps they are partly gnostic in nature. Perhaps some of them were not actually completely written by the apostles and followers they are attributed to. But I think they're worth looking at for their historical value at least. And also very interesting for those of us (like me) who is a little fed up with believing something just because somebody else says so.

Oh I'm such a rebel. :-P

Sara said...

Thanks for your feedback! I would never argue that we do not need to interact with all sorts of texts. I've found devotional material in everything from the writings of JI Packer and CS Lewis to, as I alluded--Neil Gaiman and Spider Robinson--thorough going modern pagans, as far as I can tell. I just interact very differently with texts that I feel the freedom to take or leave as I choose. My view of Scripture is a pretty conservative one. That all of it is God-breathed in the form that God perfectly intended, and . . . well, I suppose that's another post.

As for the canonical texts being complete--well, completely what? Obviously, God's full revelation of himself cannot even be contained in all of creation. The Creator is bigger than that.

I guess I have more confidence than you do in how the canon was set. No, I haven't examined it myself, thoroughly--but my husband has, and he's given me the short course on it. And the canon was effectively settled in the 4th century, not the 16th.

I guess for me it comes down to several things. One, I think that the spiritual discipline of submitting ourselves to scripture is a necessary one. I've known too many people who feel free to pick and choose from the canon the same way you talk about doing from the non-canonical texts--taking what fits their preconceptions and tossing what doesn't. And when we do that, we tend to try to make God in our own image rather than letting ourselves be made in the image of God. And for that, it is crucial that those texts that we submit ourselves to are the ones that we are absolutely sure of. Two, in terms of finding things that would resonate. Well, I'm sure I would--but would it be any better than the things that I resonate with across a wide variety of other texts? Maybe not. Three--worth looking at for historical value? Absolutely. But the work of doing history--as valuable as it is--is different than the work of God making us into the women he would have us be. Four, thanks to the DaVinci code and other half-baked stuff out there, there are many in the church who do not have a very clear idea of how or why we respect the authority of scripture. The western church is so theologically and historically illiterate that I am wary of doing much to muddy the waters. When we're stuck doing Remedial Biblical Facts 101 for those who have been members for decades I can despair of people even being capable of interacting with these things intelligently.

In regards to your being "fed up with believing something just because somebody else says so," I'll admit that there's not much I believe that I haven't argued to my own satisfaction. :) I'm appreciating your "rebellious" thought-provoking perspective. And I think that much of the church would benefit from being "deconstructed" as you have talked of being. Which then necessitates the horrible question, "okay, what are the nuts and bolts of trying to *do* that in a fairly typical, staid, Presbyterian church?" which is what God has handed my husband and I . . .

oh, and by the way. It's an encouragement knowing that there are those like you out there, really grappling with these questions.

Rob said...

I think it's worth noting re #7, that that's not actually what Jesus was talking about. That's judgment language in Isaiah, and it sort of is in the gospels as well--he's basically saying that the parables function as a gateway, separating those who are happy with the surface (the crowds) from those who really want to know what Jesus is saying so they can follow him (the disciples).