Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I believe when it comes to the Da Vinci Code God has something to say to us and our families about it. In the ancient world, as described by a prophet of God, Jeremiah, in chapter 10 of his book, wooden and stone idols were set up to worship and appease their man-made gods. Let's read a portion:

Family of Israel, listen to what the Lord says to you. This is what he says: "Don't live like the people from other nations, and don't be afraid of special signs in the sky, even though the other nations are afraid of them. The customs of other people are worth nothing. Their idols are just wood cut from the forest, shaped by a worker with his chisel. They decorate their idols with silver and gold. With hammers and nails they fasten them down so they won't fall over.

There's an application here. It's a directive toward families. The admonition is to not follow the trends of the day with their 'special signs' and 'customs' (reminiscent of the 'Code') which are worthless, futile and foolish, though skillfully fashioned by 'a worker with his chisel' (reminiscent again of the Da Vinci author and film producer using modern tools to sway the public into another direction). Any type of idol is a substitution for the true.

Then the prophet makes this remarkable statement in verse 5, Their idols are like scarecrows in melon fields; they cannot talk. Since they cannot walk, they must be carried. Do not be afraid of those idols, because they can't hurt you, and they can't help you either.

Scarecrows in the garden patch! Scantly dressed and lacking substance; having a facade of reality but packed with falsehood. This is how God views something like The Da Vinci Code, The Gospel of Judas, The Jesus Papers, etc. Though disconcerting we are told not to fear. God has the last word, even the last laugh, because the LORD is the only true God, the living God. He is the eternal King! (v. 10).

When we consider the big picture these sort of things are but a blimp on the screen. I often smile at the irony of it all. Whenever the media creates a blockbluster to question or discredit the tenants of faith God steps in with one of His own, like The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (with their biblical themes), and The Passion of The Christ and busts the blockbuster. I'm waiting to see what He does with this one! Stay tuned is all I can say!

I've seen the same thing take place in other areas of the media. Television programs promoting family/faith based values like Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven, Sue Thomas, and Doc. Country music has several hits which spoke of strong sentiments: Where Were You?, Who'd You Be?, Jesus, Take the Wheel. Romance novels with Christian ideals are sold alongside Harlequin. When God comes by ....

I'm reminded too of the biblical story of Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Then framed and thrown into prison for several years; forgotten by family, friend, and foe. But through a series of strange twists of events he ends up as prime minister of Egypt. And saves the nation and his family through a famine. At the end Joseph can say to his frightened siblings, Now don't be worried or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. God sent me here ahead of you to save people's lives.

Indeed, God turns into good what others meant for evil. (Genesis 50:20)

The day Jesus rose from the dead something strange took place, even stranger than the Resurrection itself (Matthew's Gospel, chapter 28). The detractors began to set the stage to reinvent the story. The Roman guard couldn't explain the phenomena. The religious guard didn't want to face the obvious, so resorted to bribery. Pilate probably doubted the news release but expediency won the day.

In the midst of all this misinformation and lies Jesus was alive and well, He met with His followers, instructing them to carry His mission to the world. In effect He was saying, The two versions of what really happened will always exist side by side. Truth remains; the other come and go. Be aware of the counterfeits but be preoccupied with our mission. They say, but you know!

The early Christian Church instructed their congregations not to spend their time on stories that are not true and on long lists of names in family histories. These things only bring arguments; they do not help God's work, which is done in faith. (1 Timothy 1:4)

Ok, so in view of this what should our response be? Basically, three things.

We must be aware of its potential for harm but also for a witness of personal faith. Strange as it seems spiritual seekers will read the book or attend the movie because they are seeking truth.

Secondly, we must educate ourselves on it. Anyone not wishing to read the book or see the movie to be informed can click into www.discussdavinci.com or www.haventoday.org/archives.php for necessary information.

A charge put forth in the book is that the Church suppressed people, especially women. While the Church hasn't always mirrored or modelled its Founder, Jesus Christ, the closer we come to the Gospels and early teachings we realize the value and importance that women played in church life.

People tend to be tribal, associating with those like us and avoiding those who are different. Jesus breaks down walls of tribalism. He brings into His church people who are different from each other. He brings Jews and Gentiles into the family of God. Jesus calls people from every racial and national background. Jesus calls women and men, boys and girls. Jesus calls rich and poor. Jesus calls people with different political convictions. Jesus shatters social barriers dividing us. The church isn't an elite social club but a spiritual fellowship.

Lastly, we need to learn and actively engage our culture, the world of the uninterested, the seeker and the deceived. Some seek to engage through boycotts. Our culture reacts first and foremost to the financial dollar or the lack thereof. This is legitimate. I believe it is morally, socially, and political correct to protest against the misinformation and assault on our beliefs (Acts 16) I appreciate the Muslim community standing with Christians and refusing to attend the movie.

At the same time, however, we must be careful not to think of the government as the protector and defender of the faith. In our multiculturalistic society which faith would that be? That could be a messy situation. And what Caesar gives Caesar can take away.

There is a danger of buying into the cult of victimology (always being the victim) and the belief that all justice and wisdom to settle disputes rests with the government. We should put no faith in secular institutions such as the courts and legislatures to preserve our religion.

In such matters there must be a balance.

We possess more powerful spiritual weapons than the law and politics, the power of prayer. Christians should use this opportunity to engage this phenomenon and explain the truth about their beliefs.

In engaging others we need to be intentional about our approach, sensitive with our words and knowledgeable about the topic. If we wish to be listened to we must listen too. We must learn to appreciate their interest in spiritual things even when they're unorthodox, and encourage the aspects of it that can lead back to orthodox Christian faith One of the core reasons for the wild popularity of The Da Vinci Code is spiritual seeking.

In whatever form we engage our culture it must always be in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given to enable and empower us to effectively engage our culture. He is with us in this task. He lives within transforming us into Christ's image and witness. He endues us with God's power to effect change around us.

The early Christians didn't have modern media conveniences but they engaged their culture and their world and changed it with the power of the life-giving Gospel. We can do the same. We can do no less.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

THE DA VINCI CODE, based on the bestseller novel, opened May 19/06 in theaters worldwide. People do have a thirst for conspiracy theories and the controversial so while movie critics are calling it a dud I imagine the lines will stretch down the block awhile until the novelty wanes.

I will not be one of them. Nor do I intend to read the book. It isn't the kind of detective mystery that interests me. And I can find better use for my time and money. I have read much and listened to many interviews and therefore feel I can write about it with some knowledge and conviction.

Movies and books have a way of molding our thinking. Is what's presented true, not just the facts but the ideas underlying the fiction that is told as true? In Dan Brown's doublespeak he claims it to be fiction and yet repeatedly attests to its factual and historical authenticity. Scholars and historians of notable worth debunk his claim as baseless and inaccurate. It is a covert attempt to rewrite history, to reinvent Jesus Christ.

History cannot be rewritten; nor can the life of Jesus. What has been is! One can better understand history but it cannot be altered. I have no problem coming to a better understanding of Jesus Christ, who he was, what he did, and his influence upon the world today. We can discuss and debate but some things have inalienable rights to its historicity.

Because of Brown's desire to rewrite the past and recreate Jesus into a more palpable image I find such undertakings unprofessional, scandalous, blasphemous, and sacrilegious. Countless seekers will unknowingly and unwittingly buy into this line of lies on the assumption that Dan Brown is credible, which he isn't.

This is my concern. And it is to these truth seekers that I address my comments.

The Da Vinci Code is an unusual brew of a little bit of true and a lot of falsehood. Presented as a novel it contains statements as fact. We need to recognize that just because some of the statements are true not everything is true. There are a lot of errors. It is based on unhistorical assertions, falsehood, and in some cases manufactured and fraudulent documents.

While purporting to be a novel it does claim to be communicating truth. That is just not true. Spiritual opinions are being changed by it. A recent poll indicate that 1 out of every 3 Canadians has bought into what it teaches. Two million Americans had their beliefs about Jesus changed by it. Two-thirds of people in England who read the book now believe that Jesus and Mary Magdalene fathered a child.

And this is the real danger. It isn't so much about the novel or movie. It's the anti-Christ, anti-Christian, view of Jesus Christ that is being portrayed that is the crux of the matter. It isn't about coming up with theories on Jesus. It is discovering the real Jesus, the Jesus of history, the Jesus of faith, the One who holds the keys of life and death. Faith is taking a step in the direction where the evidence points.

To know more about Jesus please read my other postings. And because of the scope of Da Vinci I invite you to link into www.discussdavinci.com and www.haventoday.org/archives.php

Six things you should know before reading the book or seeing the movie are:

* Dan Brown's portrayal of the Church's understanding of women is wrong. The Church didn't do a smear campaign against women.
* His portrayal of the Church's understanding of sex is wrong. The Church did not demonize sex.
* His portrayal of Jesus as not divine, a later invention of the Church, and His alleged marriage, is wrong. There's no evidence in the New Testament, the Church Fathers, or even the Gnostic writings for such an idea.
* His portrayal of the Church is wrong, as the oppressor of people's histories.
* His view of how the New Testament came together, in the 4th century under Constantine, is wrong.
* His definition of God is wrong. Scripturally God is transcendent, being above and beyond with His personality. Brown has Him within ourselves, within the created order; a Pagan origin, the worship of Mother Earth.

Even his art history concerning Leonardo da Vinci is dead wrong.

We need to change wrong thinking shaped by a work of fiction. I hope these things will help you through the confusion into the light of day.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Gospel of Judas: A Plea for Some Sanity ...

The news wires have been buzzing these last weeks with racy headlines announcing the newly published Gospel of Judas. Various members of the academy have chimed in. Bart Ehrmann declares it to be “one of the greatest historical discoveries of the twentieth century.” Another noted scholar Elaine Pagels triumphantly declares that it “explodes the myth of a monolithic religion, demonstrating how diverse and fascinating the early Xn (Christian) movement was.”

For those who have not heard, this gospel relates a purported secret conversation between Jesus and Judas during the last three days of the Passion Week. The juicy bit is actually just one line toward the very end where Jesus instructs Judas to betray him so that his eternal spirit can be freed from his mortal body.

Coming hard on the heels of The DaVinci code, for some the Gospel of Judas raises new
questions - did Jesus collude with Judas? - and presses old ones - was Judas really the bad guy, are the canonical gospels reliable, and is Christian orthodoxy merely a later suppression of an early, free-thinking carnival of ideas?

To put the headlines in perspective, I’d like to say some things about the actual content of GJu (Gospel of Judas) and then to reflect on what this document does and does not tell us.

First, the content. Even though we have about 3000 words of text, as with most ancient documents the manuscript is fragmentary. There are places where the text simply drops out.

In general outline, GJu begins by telling us that it is a secret account of the revelation Jesus gave to Judas three days before his (Jesus’) death on Passover. It next recounts a conversation Jesus had with the twelve, but they are obtuse, work for “the other god,” and blaspheme Jesus in their hearts. Sensing Judas’ special spiritual sensitivity, Jesus separates him from the others and offers an enigmatic hint of his future superiority over the other disciples. Jesus then disappears
(apparently to another realm).

On his return, the disciples tell him of a vision they had about the Temple, which he interprets and which again reflects poorly on them. At this point, about half way through the document, Jesus focuses on Judas and launches into an extended Gnostic speculation on the cosmos which continues almost to the end when he reveals his unique plan for Judas.

The Gnostics were a diverse array of second century AD groups with an even more bewildering variety of doctrines which makes it very difficult to isolate any definitive body of teaching. Essentially these elitist groups believed the physical world and hence the body were inherently evil, and only the purified spirit good. This created something of a problem given that Genesis says God called creation good.

In order to get around this and to separate the transcendent God (or, better perhaps, Good Spirit) from evil matter, the Gnostics proposed the existence of a complex hierarchy of emanations - imagine the waves of a radio transmitter with the transcendent Good Spirit at the centre — which became more and more distorted the further they were from their origin.

Far down the emanation chain came a lesser ignorant deity called the Demiurge, whom they often associated with the God of the Old Testament, who created matter and so caused the pure human spirit to become trapped in the prison of the material body.

They were elitist because they believed that only a few specially enlightened people would eventually be saved. Most people, including most Christians, were too dull to gain the necessary insight. Finally, their Jesus was sardonic and escapist. More concerned with abandoning this world than transforming it, he is detached, clever, and self-absorbed. He is hardly to be confused with the canonical gospels’ Jesus who envisaged heaven on earth and a new humanity predicated on an inclusive love of not only one’s neighbor but one’s enemies.

It is not hard to see why the early shepherds (bishops) of the church strongly opposed the Gnostics. Israel’s God was not to be divorced from Jesus, nor Israel’s scriptures from what God had done in him. Creation is good and Jesus’ healing of bodies shows that they too are to be valued, as does Jesus’ own bodily resurrection.

Finally, the entire ancient world was built on a crushing elitism. Early Christian belief undermined this since in Christ there was no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. In what was a scandalous claim at the time, they held that everyone had equal status before him. In denying that Christ’s death was sufficient for all the Gnostics were simply reintroducing the old pagan hierarchical elitism.

In this particular document one finds then the characteristic fantastic references to emanations, aeons, clouds, and various beings fanning out from the one to four, then twelve, 24, 32, and finally 360, along with references to variously named angels, etc. There is also a strong animosity toward the disciples — they blaspheme Jesus in their hearts and they serve the other god - whereas, in true elitist form, Judas alone reflects on exalted things. And one meets the same superior, slightly mocking, and disengaged Jesus.

Only toward the very end does one get the one line that has created this no small stir: “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” That is, you will release me from my body. Judas then enters a luminous cloud (his own transfiguration experience?) and hears a voice (all this purportedly happening by the way during the last three days of the Passion week). There’s another gap in the text (about five lines) and then Judas is in the temple and accepts money in return for information on Jesus’ whereabouts.

The point is not hard to see. Judas, far from being a traitor, was Jesus’ closest confidant and ally, and as such had the special task of betraying him so that he could be released from his body. In other words, Judas (and those who like him are “in the know”) alone of Jesus’ followers is the truly enlightened one (and all those thousands of ordinary Christians who follow the other disciples are not).

What can we say about all this? First, the reports are right in that GJu is indeed a truly ancient document. But based on well-established parallels, the developed nature of its cosmic speculations clearly indicates that GJu belongs to the second century. Indeed, the hostility toward the twelve and the rehabilitation of Judas helps us be even more precise. This fits well with a particular sect of Gnosticism known as the Cainites who sought to turn Cain, the people of Sodom, Esau, and Korah (who led the wilderness rebellion) into heroes.

Irenaeus, a second century church father who steadfastly opposed the Gnostics, apparently refers to GJu and so this discovery also corroborates his accuracy. So it is old, but, and this is crucial, it is certainly not as old as the first century canonical gospels.

It also further illustrates the diversity of “Christian” belief from this period. But this hardly justifies Ehrmann’s and Pagel’s sensationalist claims. Anyone who has read the church fathers already knows about this diversity and the fathers have been around for 1800 years. What happened was that in the middle of last century scholars found ancient copies of the documents to which the fathers refer: primary evidence that these groups existed. So what is new is certainly not “diversity.”

What’s new is this particular copy of a Gnostic document. But we’ve already found numbers of them before so most of what GJu says, apart from the comments about Judas, is largely ho hum. In this sense there was and is “no myth of a monolithic religion” in the second century to be exploded. We have known about it for a long time.

So why the fuss? First, Ehrmann and Pagels, by reading this second century diversity back into the first, want to suggest that the idea of a common core of orthodox belief in the first century is a fiction imposed later by a hierarchical church. In other words the unity of the New Testament is the result of a conspiracy (enter the equally Gnostic-like speculations of The DaVinci Code, which apparently 17% of Canadians take to be largely true). Second, for others, GJu offers a more accurate account of what happened before Jesus’ death and so rehabilitates Judas.

But one can no more read back second century evidence into the first than one can read the twentieth century use of “gay” to mean sexual orientation back into nineteenth century reports of “gay” times at church picnics. Since the only concrete evidence for this kind of diversity is from the second century, the simplest and therefore most likely best explanation is that as the church expanded geographically and attracted more people the greater the potential of various fringe groups forming outside the mainstream.

In other words, GJu is only evidence of growing diversity away from a core first century tradition, not of an initial first century diversity. As perhaps the premier North American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has pointed out, when the first century church father Ignatius took his long walk to Rome and martyrdom, the fact that he was well received at a host of small Xn communities along the way suggests they shared a common conception of their faith.

Ehrmann and Pagels are engaging in wishful thinking - and as scholars they really ought to know better (and frankly we all end up getting tarred with the same sensationalist brush). There was no conspiracy and there is no myth to be exploded.

Finally, does GJu tell us anything about what really happened? Almost certainly not. The wild disembodied speculations of the group who created GJu do not inspire confidence. Would you buy a used chariot from these people?

If there was a highly secret conversation between the uniquely enlightened Judas and Jesus, both of whom died very soon afterward, to whom was this story told and how was it passed on? Some might suggest that Judas related it to his friends and family in his last hours. But if Jesus did not share this secret teaching with the twelve whom he had chosen to be with him for nearly three years, why would Judas just a few days or hours later share it with even more unenlightened outsiders like his family or friends?

Further, if Judas truly was the uniquely enlightened figure GJu suggests and if he was acting directly on Jesus’ instructions, why would he commit suicide just a few hours later (assuming of course that he did and did not end up marrying Mary Magdalene’s cousin before heading to India where he and Jesus spent the rest of their days constructing hidden clues for Dan Brown to discover)? All he had to do was wait for the resurrection when Jesus could have explained everything to the other disciples.

But perhaps the biggest question is this. If all Jesus needed was to be freed from his mortal body, why use Judas? Why not just hand himself over or throw himself sans angels from the Temple (as in the Temptation)? Why the charade of a betrayal at all? Indeed, just how reasonable is it to suppose that after spending three years with Jesus the only one of his followers who really knew what was going on was Judas? Not very.

A friend of mine who works with Revenue Canada at a border crossing once told me that the fundamental assumption in his job is that “the truth is bottomless.” No matter how many questions you ask, the answers will fit. Clearly this is not the case with GJu. Even a few simple questions like these see the whole thing begin to unravel. Everything suggests that this is a later, somewhat clumsy, attempt by an fringe group to rewrite a well-entrenched betrayal tradition to fit their own particular elitist agenda.

So yes, GJu is a new and interesting discovery for students of an aberrant and marginal second century group. But I suspect that once the circus has left town, more sober minds will see the present media brouhaha for what it is: a great deal of overblown fuss about a mildly interesting curiosity. Perhaps the more interesting question, at least for me as a member of the academy, is why do scholars who really ought to know better behave in this way? Would you buy a used car from them?

Rikk Watts, BSc (hons), MA (summa), MDiv (summa), PhD (Cambridge University)
Assoc. Prof. NT at Regent College, NT.
Good Friday, April 14, 2006.

Monday, May 01, 2006

THE DAY GOD REWROTE MY LIFE STORY I BEGAN A NEW LIFE .... I met and had an experience with God. No, I'm not a poached egg. Neither is my experience self or drug induced. And it has nothing to do with New Age philosophy. My spiritual encounter is real and life changing and life affirming. It wasn't of my initiation; it was all of God who is and became knowable.

Perhaps I should backtrack a little.

I am the last of five children born to farm parents at Quill Lake, Sask. Father was a German Lutheran. Mother, a Ukrainian Catholic. Because of the language and religious barriers we learned English and didn't attend church. We learned the value of family, hard work, and good times together. We attended a one room schoolhouse with a pot-bellied stove. This would play a significant role in our lives.

However, soon after my birth it was discovered I had cerebral palsy, affecting my walking and speech; something I bear to this day. I wasn't isolated though and partook of a regular life. My parents sought help from the best of medical science. They also contacted spiritualists and other forms of spiritual healing both for myself and mother's asthmatic attacks. For several years I was at a rehabilitation hospital in Regina, Sask.; this was a painful experience for me as a young boy being separated from family. Travel wasn't as accessible as it is today so I didn't get home regularly.

A Christian schoolteacher was hired for our district and it was from her that we were first exposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Friends invited mother and me to a healing crusade in Prince Albert where mother was converted and healed. She began praying for her family. When a travelling evangelist was invited into our area several family members made decisions for Christ. I was hospitalized during this time so did not have direct contact with the Gospel; mine was more of a mental assent to the faith rather than a living faith.

That was to change. As new believers in Christ my family took every opportunity to attend church; the closest being, at the time, Saskatoon, a 2 1/2 hour drive. One summer day the decision was made to go there. I was home again and, quite reluctantly, went along.

While waiting in the back seat of our 1959 VW for the rest to come to make the long trip something strange but miraculous began to take place. I do not know what was on my mind but I wasn't in the mood for the trip Suddenly, without warning and anticipation on my part, the presence of Jesus Christ came into and filled the back seat of the 'Bug'.

In an instance I was absorbed by it and in it. I cannot explain it but this living Presence enveloped me and I felt happy, free, forgiven, and given a purpose for life. In that moment it was Jesus and me. I felt Him. I knew Him and He knew me. I wanted Him for all time and He wanted me for all time. I loved Him and He loved me. Jesus became a Person to me. And for the first time I felt like a real person. I mattered. I was someone. He cared about me.

I was different. I wanted MORE OF JESUS. I read the little white Bible Mother gave me. I talked with God in prayer and God talked with me.. Church was exciting, fresh, and new every time. We, as a family, was baptized in water, taking on the name of Jesus for our lives. I was also filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking in a heavenly language.

I'm grateful to the Lord Jesus Christ, for who He is and what He has done for and in me. I'm very passionate for the Cross and the Resurrection, the one event that changed the face of history and has the power to change the life and direction of every individual as it has mine. I'm thankful that God is now my heavenly Father; we are friends and I am, really am, His child. Also, the Holy Spirit has come to be with me; His residence is now in me and He empowers me to live and serve. He, to me, is the equilibrium to my life.

Over the years I've grown and developed as a Christian. There are things I'm unable to do so I've honed my reading and writing skills. I completed my education through correspondence and GED, along with several Bible courses. I live independently in Regina. In 1979 I received my driver's license and drive a wheelchair equipped van. I enjoy going out to the farm every summer, helping where possible. My greatest joy is sharing my faith through speaking engagements as they arise but mainly through writing. I count it a privilege to tell you what the Lord has done for me for He is the living and good God. And I ask you to seriously consider Jesus Christ for your life and what He can do for you. Thank you.