Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Not So Christian Year?

Last Easter, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said in his Easter 2006 sermon, "One of the ways in which we now celebrate the great Christian festivals in our society is by a little flurry of newspaper articles and television programmes raking over the coals of controversies about the historical basis of faith." He was harking back to the days when the English calendar was structured around respectful commemorations of the days of The Christian Year. (The use of this name for the liturgical calendar derives largely from a 19th-C. book of this title by John Keble, co-inspirer of the Oxford Movement, which is just out in a new edition.) To put it another way, the Christian Year was marked by announcements and events from the Church rather than by Random House’s marketing department.
The Archbishop’s Easter 2006 sermon was delivered in the midst of Da Vinci Code mania as it peaked out with the coverage of the HBHG-DVC plagiarism trial (which delayed release of the paperback until the case was settled) just before the release of the Tom Hanks film.
But a year on, is a pattern detectable - where Easter is marked by a ‘blockbuster’ new book or film that claims to rewrite Biblical history? Well, this spring there was the ‘Judas Gospel’, complete with bitter academic feud [see earlier blog entry], rival nonfiction books, TV documentaries, plus a version supposedly written by Judas’s son Benjamin Iscariot which was actually a novel written by best-selling author (and disgraced MP) Lord Jeffrey Archer. Just before Easter there was the ‘Jesus family tomb’ TV documentary by Titanic director James Cameron and tie-in book. This has since provoked a general backlash, with one DNA expert criticising its claims (based on a single test of a few fragments pocketed while the owner’s back was turned) as “publishing by press release.”
Publication and press coverage may peak around Easter, but works are in fact appearing year-round. The ‘Judas Gospel’ works appeared well before Easter, cf. Archer’s book was announced in December.
Peter Jeffery book coverNow, post-Easter we also have Reading Judas: The Gospel Of Judas And The Shaping Of Christianity by Princeton historian Elaine Pagels, who popularised the genre pre-DVC with her 1979 bestseller The Gnostic Gospels (chosen as one of the 100 nonfiction books of the century by the Modern Library). And there is Frederica Mathewes-Green’s The Lost Gospel Of Mary: The Mother Of Jesus In Three Ancient Texts, and university sociology professor John Carroll's The Existential Jesus.
We have a name now for this year-round ongoing phenomenon. A Professor of Jewish History has named it the “DaVinci Codification” of popular culture. Professor Steven Fine of Yeshiva University issued a statement, “The public, and the scholarly world, is faced on an almost monthly basis with “discoveries” by either non-academics or lone academics that fly in the face of the kinds of careful scholarly research for which the academy prides itself. The “DaVinci Codification” of the public imagination is—to a very disturbing degree—affecting our cultural agenda.” He predicts more to come.
We won’t have to wait long. The NY Times did an eve-of-Easter article [31-Mar-07] on “Easter season, when fresh Gnostic gospels or dubious ossuaries show up like spring daffodils.” It predicts the next controversy will be over a disputed manuscript known as the Secret Gospel Of Mark – “a longer Gospel by Mark known only to initiates.” This is lost, but supposedly referred to in a letter, found in 1958 in a Greek Orthodox church outside Jerusalem, from 2nd-C church father Clement of Alexandria, saying its existence must be denied even under oath, due to its “carnal doctrine.” (According to the Times, it seems to describe Jesus initiating naked boys using ‘a hallucinatory, nocturnal and quite possibly homosexual rite’.) A Columbia University professor of ancient history and ex-priest, Morton Smith, actually wrote a popular book on his find for public consumption (The Secret Gospel: The Discovery and Interpretation of the Secret Gospel According to Mark, 1973). But this was back in 1973 – long before the genre had become mass market fodder.
Two books since then have portrayed the Secret Gospel Of Mark as a forgery, perhaps by Prof. Smith himself. The Gospel Hoax: Morton Smith’s Invention Of Secret Mark is by Stephen C. Carlson, a lawyer using a ‘CSI’ type forensics approach, while the most recent, The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled: Imagined Rituals Of Sex, Death, And Madness In A Biblical Forgery is by Peter Jeffery, a ‘Princeton expert in the history of Christian liturgy.’ Both insist Prof. Smith planted a secret ‘code’ in his work revealing he had invented the document. A third book, Mark’s Other Gospel: Rethinking Morton Smith’s Controversial Discovery by U. of Toronto prof. Dr. Scott G. Brown argues the Secret Gospel Of Mark is not a forgery, and these exposes are prompted by modern homoerotic fixations in the academic world. (Alan Boyle's blog Cosmic Log summarises and gives links to 'the continuing flap over the Jesus Family Tomb' including the academic infighting.) Concludes the NY Times: “it is time for ‘CSI: Academia.’”