Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Banality for Dummies

Fr. Robert Hart on how, like the Red Queen, to try to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

We have all seen them, those large paperback books with the yellow covers that teach every practical subject under the sun. For example, people beginning to use a computer can read Windows for Dummies- a book that helped me. Even religion has its share of “Dummies” books, such as Catholicism for Dummies. With the charm of self-effacing humor, an American attribute that was best exemplified by Ronald Reagan, people buy these books and laugh at themselves in the process.

But, there is one more volume that is needed, namely a “Dummies” book on how to be impressed by the latest and most novel, nonetheless banal and most outrageous, fads and trends in pseudo-scholarship. Why take The Judas Gospel seriously, or the claims of Dan Brown about his meticulous historical research? The problem is that even just a little education gets in the way. And for many people these subjects have become quite boring- just a rehashing of the same old same old. But, with a “Dummies” book, we could learn to appreciate the ability to be impressed in and of itself.

Here are some of the things that such a book (perhaps they could title it Banality for Dummies) could help us to appreciate. This list is not exhaustive, and with the embarrassing help of the National Geographic channel, it will be outdated by the time anyone reads it. Nonetheless, the same themes reappear with such regularity that these principles can be applied to whatever new fad comes along, as a sort of “one size fits all” that really does fit all (not like the bathrobes in the stores).

How to see the Pre-Constantine Church as being motivated to guard its power and privilege.

I really need help with this one. Dan Brown, for example, seems not to be aware of the time of persecution that lasted between Nero and Constantine. In fact, it seems that scholars such as Elaine Pagels have trouble remembering that this period covered about two and a half centuries, and that the Church was an illegal association subjected to its own holocaust. Precisely what power, privilege and status was Saint Ignatius of Antioch protecting when writing about the authority of bishops? I admit that I need a “Dummies” book on how to appreciate the theory that a desire to solidify his own power motivated him to write epistles that taught the importance of the episcopal office. Ignatius was well aware that he would be killed very shortly in the arena, and he was chained to four Roman soldiers as a prisoner, sentence having been passed. The epistles of the saint were the legacy, left behind for the Church’s benefit, the last will and testament of a man on a traveling death row. And, I need a “Dummies” book so that I can learn how to overlook the general persecution when reading similar critiques of men like Saint Irenaus.

This leads directly to the next point, namely,

How to believe that ancient Christian bishops were the first in line to die for secrets that disproved any reason to be a martyr in the first place.

A little bit of wisdom from Pope Saint Gregory the Great gets in my way. In his classic book Pastoral Care, the eighth chapter of Part One, he wrote:

Now, as often happens, those who covet pre-eminence seeking support for their own cupidity, take advantage of the Apostle’s statement when he says: ‘If a man desire the office of a bishop he desires a good work’…We must, however, observe that this was said at a time when whosoever was set over the people was the first to be led to the tortures of martyrdom.

Now, the saint was writing about the danger of ambition and pride; but in the process he creates a stumbling block for anyone trying to believe the worst about the church hierarchy in the period between Nero and Constantine. If the theories of Holy Blood Holy Grail, and its stepchild, The Da Vinci Code, are to be taken seriously, we need to ask why the bishops of the Church risked, and often squarely faced, death for a religion they did not really believe in. If the Church was guarding the secrets of Christ’s alleged marriage and of his final mortality, how was that something to die for? Or, if we turn to the world of more serious pseudo-scholarship, we must ask exactly what power, privilege or status was being protected by the men whose honor was that of being first in line to be crucified, or burned at the stake, or eaten by large cats as the entertainment for a Roman audience? Really, a “Dummies” book needs to be written to help us.

How to defenestrate logic

Granted, the example I am about to use is over a decade old now; but it is too perfect an example of a heresy against reason to ignore. Its main feature is the principle of overcoming logic. If we can deal properly with this problem, especially with this advanced sample, we will have achieved a victory. But, again, I cannot help anyone to get this victory. I can only present the need, once more, for a big yellow book.

When Barbara Thiering was, in Luke Timothy Johnson’s words (in his book The Real Jesus), “an obscure Australian academic whose credentials for addressing the question of the historical Jesus consist of four technical articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls and two books tracing the connections between Qumran and the Gospels” she “had her ‘research’ made the subject of a television documentary…” Johnson put the word “research” between quotation marks, as the facts merit. For several years the Discovery Channel marketed the tape of this documentary, which was hyped as a challenge to faith that every Christian must face. Briefly, Thiering’s theory was this: In order to understand the New Testament, we must translate it into Hebrew, and then interpret the symbolism of the Hebrew words by the secret code of the Essenes. Only when we do this, can we see what it really means. One of the things we learn using this method, is that Jesus never rose from the dead; in fact he had not died. He simply changed his name, and became the Apostle Paul. Of course, this is only perceived by those who can use the Essene codes to unlock a Hebrew translation (her specific translation that is). The question that gets in the way, is why did the writers of the New Testament books address their works in the Greek language to Gentiles outside of the Holy Land, that is a readership who knew nothing about the Essenes or their codes, and that did not read Hebrew, if the books could never be understood by them? It seems like kind of a wasted effort, to say the least. (And, of course, the same question comes up again, namely, why did they face martyrdom themselves, and promote the likely martyrdom of their converts, for naught but a mortal Jesus?) If we can overcome the problem logic makes for us on this grand scale, we will have mastered the principle of unrestrained credulity. We will find it easy, after this accomplishment, to take seriously Holy Blood Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code, The Judas Gospel (which was not created by the Marvel Comics Group after all), and everything that Elaine Pagels has ever written.

We need a “Dummies” book.

How to be impressed by Second and Third Century Gnostic “Gospels” while considering the Canonical Gospels as having been written too late to be reliable.

Well, that one speaks for itself.

Like the El Greco Fallacy

Of course, there is another possibility. A “Dummies” book may be useless for a large number of people, because this much credulity may be difficult for them to learn. If so, perhaps we could use some of these theories as an intelligence test. After all, that is how the El Greco Fallacy came to be. A psychology professor at Harvard invented the theory that El Greco painted long thin figures, completely out of proportion, because of astigmatism. He saw everything long and thin, and out of proportion, and so everyone in his paintings appears to have come straight off the rack. Everyone who believed the theory was rejected as a student, lacking sufficient intelligence. Or so the story goes.

I do not suppose that even a “Dummies” book would help us with that one.

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