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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Verbal Shell Games

“Everyone misses it,” Teabing said. “Our preconceived notions… are so powerful that our mind blocks out the incongruity and overrides our eyes.” “It’s known as scotoma,” Langdon added. “The brain does it sometimes with powerful symbols.”
Ignatius Press is upset at my recent observation that Christian apologists in general, and Ignatius Press in particular, have been tilting at windmills in Dan Brown’s famous novel. Specifically, most Christian apologists have been promoting the false idea that Brown’s novel is Gnostic. Carl Olson has attempted to defend Ignatius Press from these charges. Sadly, he inadvertently demonstrated how Ignatius Press, like so many others, have scotoma. As Dan Brown doesn’t point out in the quote above, scotoma is just the Latin word for “blind spot.”
These blind spots typically arise when people aren’t thinking about the words they use in conversation. For instance, a Catholic-Lutheran conversation on “justification” will quickly bog down if the two sides don’t realize how wildly different each side’s definition is. When a Lutheran uses the word “justification” he is most assuredly not espousing Catholic theology or philosophy.
Similarly, though Catholics and Lutherans both use the word “baptism” in a similar way, Mormons do not. Indeed, while Catholics accept Lutheran baptism as valid, the Mormon “baptism” is so entirely different from Catholic usage that Mormon baptisms are entirely rejected by Catholics.
A Mormon may speak of “baptism,” he may practice “baptism, but he does not thereby demonstrate that he is a Catholic or a proto-Catholic or even a quasi-Catholic. The words are the same, but the meanings, the underlying realities, are not. People who don’t realize this get caught up in a verbal shell game; they can’t see which meaning is under which word.
Many Christian denominations fall into this trap when they claim their theology can be found in early Christian practice. Baptists, for instance, sometimes make the claim that the 12th century Albigensians are their spiritual forebears. As even the most trivial study of the Albigensian theology demonstrates, the claim is as nonsensical as it is common.
Hysterical Historians
As one might expect, historians are more liable to verbal shell games than most. Like Smeagol in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, historians are always grubbing around in the dark, trying to find the “roots of things.” They make their house payments by making connections between events, even when there are no connections to be made, and this is the source of all kinds of trouble.
A wonderful historian once confided to me that in thirty years of reading history, he had only once met a book in which the author stated his theory and then discovered that the facts of history proved him wrong. In every other book he had ever read, the historian-author always managed to demonstrate that his own pet theory was right. Amazing.
But that, dear friends, is the history of Gnosticism in a nutshell. There are historians who speak of the Gnosticism of the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons, or the “modern gnosticism” of newly-minted 20th century “goddess worship,” radical feminism and the like. As Sir Thomas Crapper, renowned re-inventor of the flush toilet, might remark, it’s all crap.
Gnostics believed in a Godhead made up of a pleroma, a multitude of spiritual aeons with a few archons thrown in for measure. Gnostics taught that the created world is evil, brought into existence by a stupid female demi-urge who traps immortal souls in the slime of the material world and holds them imprisoned. According to Gnostics, Jesus was an aeon, part of the divine pleroma. He was pure spirit, a being without a body who could therefore not be crucified. He pretended to take flesh and walk among us in order to give us the secret knowledge, i.e., the “gnosis,” necessary to be freed of the prison that is our bodies.
Since created matter is an evil prison, the act of procreative sex is evil: it traps immortal souls in this torture chamber we call the universe. Marriage is evil because it leads to procreative sex. Women are spiritually lower forms of life because they actually incubate the prisoners; they cooperate with the demi-urge by the very nature of who they are. This is why the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas says women cannot be saved unless they become like men. These teachings form the white-hot core, the beating heart, of Gnosticism.
How the Trick Was Played
So, how many of these ideas appear in Dan Brown’s novel? Well, none of them, actually. Brown not only says absolutely nothing about pleromas, aeons, archons or demi-urges, he insists sex and marriage are sacred – his teachings are directly opposed to Gnosticism.
The Albigensians of the 12th century were the last Gnostics. Almost none of the things that are called “gnosticism” today are actually gnostic because none of them teach what the original Gnostics taught.
The modern “Gnostics” claim inspiration from the Gospels of Judas or Thomas or Mary Magdelene for the same reason some Baptists lay claim to the Albigensians: it provides the aura of ancient belief without the burden of any demonstration. For them, the words “Gnostic” or “Albigensian” are really just synonyms for “Dude, what we believe is like really, really old and stuff. Trust me.” The emphasis is on the “trust me.”
If Dan Brown had written a novel that invoked the names of Albigensian documents, quoted a sentence or two, and then went on to discuss the superlative merits of modern Baptist theology, Carl Olson would have shot the whole thing down in a New York minute. He certainly would never have entitled the first chapter of his debunk book, “Albigensianism: The Religion of The Baptist Code.”
In fact, he would not only have debunked Baptist theology; he would have take pains to point out that Albigensianism has nothing to do with Baptist belief. But Brown wrote a book that invoked a couple of Gnostic documents, and then went on to describe how sex is holy, marriage is holy, and women should be treated like goddesses and Carl fell for it.
It’s understandable why Carl would make this mistake. Look at the list of expert historians he brings forward in his article. Now, as any college survey will show, nearly all of today’s historians are at least agnostics, if not atheists, and most are mildly to violently opposed to religious belief. In short, most historians who study religion are not terribly reliable guides. They earn their pay by demonstrating that all religious beliefs are essentially the same: they are all bunk.
So, as one might expect, it is unusual to find historians who are willing to attack an anti-Christian book. But, we must remember that historians are people too. They have relatively few chances for dances of glory in the media limelight: Brown’s book was so bad it afforded a wonderful opportunity to dance this dance of joy.
In that sense, it’s hard to fault Carl for being led along by the nose by the “experts.” We all like to be liked, and the historians seemed to be On Our Side for once. So, when the historians fed Christians their standard nonsensical patter, Carl fell for an absurdity he never would have entertained in other circumstances: he bought into the idea that Dan Brown’s novel is Gnostic.
The central idea in a theology is its concept of God. The central idea in a religion is its ethics and rituals. Brown’s theology says nothing of the Gnostic idea of God, actively opposes Gnosticism’s ethical teachings, and rips off rituals from Wicca. Wicca, by the way, was invented in 1939 by an adulterous English civil servant who liked to prance around in the nude. Any guesses on why Wiccan spirituality emphasizes nudity and ritual sex?
The Historian is Quicker than the Ear
So, Philip Jenkins and company may natter on about the “syzygy” of male-female spirituality which forces “modern gnosticism” to make Jesus and Mary Magdelene both deity, but that hardly matters. After all, aren’t we all angry with Danny because he keeps insisting Jesus was just an ordinary man, not deity at all?
Similarly, good Catholics cannot use the fact that Robert Langdon knelt at Mary Magdelene’s tomb in order to charge Brown with goddess worship. After all, any good Catholic might also kneel at Mary Magdelene’s tomb in a fit of reverence. And, while Dan Brown makes soft mewling noises about the “sacred feminine,” he simply never calls Mary Magdelene a goddess, despite Carl’s mistaken belief that he does.
So, whether we judge Brown according to the actual Gnostic standards of the second century or under the invented shell of twenty-first century “gnosticism,” it doesn’t matter. Dan Brown simply isn’t gnostic.
Let’s hammer down the coffin nails. Feminists may refer to Gnostic texts, but that doesn’t make those feminists Gnostic any more than Carl’s use of those texts makes Ignatius Press Gnostic. The feminist idea of a triple-aspect goddess - maiden, mother, crone - is a purely modern invention that has no correspondence to any ancient belief system. The feminists who claim Gnostic influence and manufactured Horned Gods were and are just silly women repeating the mantra, “Dude, what we believe is like totally old and stuff. Trust me.”
Equally useful are the endorsements the Ignatius Press book has gotten from the media. It surely must be comforting to know that all those MSM reporters who seldom or never attend religious services have given their imprimatur to the Ignatius Press take on gnosticism.
And speaking of imprimaturs! While Cardinal George is an outstanding man whom I deeply admire – anyone who takes on Chicago for as long as he has without retiring to a monastery should be deeply honored – he isn’t an historian nor is he immune to their ways. Because bishops are men like the rest of us, bishops can be and frequently are fooled like the rest of us. For excellent evidence of this, one has only to look at the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia. It not only has the praise of a good bishop, it even has his imprimatur, yet it’s article on schools is essentially heretical, as I demonstrate in painful detail in on schools Designed To Fail: Catholic Education in America.
In short, Carl’s lengthy defense of Ignatius Press merely demonstrated what I have been pointing out all along: an otherwise orthodox Catholic press inadvertently bought into a portion of Brown’s implicit claim to Gnosticism.
In fact, what Brown teaches – what all the “modern gnostics” teach – has essentially nothing to do with real Gnosticism. The whole charade is just a verbal shell game played by historians looking for collegial respect and feminist theologians searching for authenticity.


Casablanca Fan said...

In my opinion, non-scholar that I am, Carl provided enough information to make your arguments weak at best, and non-existent at the worst. Besides, even if your logic was fool-proof, it still wouldn't change the fact that you tied your tongue in several places on your previous postings, and many of your comments were just rude.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

OK - so you don't find my arguments convincing. Fair enough.

Certainly I tied my tongue in several places. Find me a writer who hasn't and I'll fall down in worship. The only one I know of is God in Scripture.

As for being rude, perhaps I was. But so what?

Jesus didn't exactly get points for a winning personality when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. John the Baptist wasn't all smiles when he asked the Sadducees who had told THEM they could escape the coming destruction. And the very word "jeremiad" is based on the dulcet tones of the Book of Jeremiah.

So... do you have a point?

Jordan Potter said...

I've now read the online version of your response, and read most of Carl Olsen's comments. He makes some valid criticisms of your recent statements, but all in all it appears that your basic criticism is correct. Olsen even unwittingly seems to help prove your point by listing all the anti-DVC books that discuss Gnosticism. Nothing Olsen says changes the fact that Gnosticism is not the religion of DVC, and that both DVC (deliberately) and Olsen and Miesel (unintentionally) have increased the common ignorance and misunderstanding of what Gnosticism was. It also appears that Brumley and Olsen are pretty thin-skinned. One wonders how they'd have reacted had they fallen into the crosshairs of St. Jerome. You've used some mild sarcasm and taken a jocular tone, but they seem to take themselves way too seriously. I think you should graciously acknowledge that you've made some misstatements or hasty generalisations, but continue to stand your ground on your main point.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Yep, I don't disagree.

Patrick said...

On cable television, between the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel, the idea of what is Gnostic has been completely relegated to any text not used after the books of the bible were approved. So far, a single special actually explained gnostic beliefs and showed which of the unapproved books were/were not gnostic. I even heard one say that all of the Dead Sea scrolls were gnostic - patently false. I think that type of thinking is so common that everyone has bought into it, including many in the church. The thought that an idea is so tantalizing that it had to be kept secret is just too good to pass up for modern media followers.