This Week in God

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Rod Dreher has been blogging from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, where today Alan Wolfe and James Davison Hunter debated whether there really is a culture war. At one point the discussion veered close to one of my pet theories: that it's conservatives and fundamentalists, not liberals and modernists, who are the real pioneers of ecumenicalism. Writes Dreher:

Wolfe says the most important insight from Hunter's work is that in recent times, conservatives within each religious tradition (Catholics, Protestants, Jews) found they had more in common with each other than [with] liberals of their own traditions.

Alas: Wolfe then throws some sand in the gears by predicting "a return to traditional religious divisions." I'm not persuaded by the evidence he offers, but of course I'm just reading a summary of what he said.

Dreher also links to a good column by the Los Angeles Times's Tim Rutten:

So far, "The Da Vinci Code" has sold 60.5 million copies, 21.7 million of them in the United States. We're frequently reminded that America is the most religious country in the developed world, with churchgoing rates unrecorded in any other Western nation for decades. Moreover, militantly assertive Christianity has become a political force demanding to be heard from the corridors of the Capitol to the local school board.

So, who's buying this book? Are there really that many secular humanists who don't care whether their prose has pronouns with antecedents?

Actually, the attitudes that make Americans so "religious" are the same ones that have made them such a ready market for the "Da Vinci" flimflam. This country is suffused with religious sentiments and impulses, but Americans are abysmally—even willfully—short on religious knowledge. All the periodic hand-wringing over this country's crisis of faith or creeping secularism notwithstanding, the problem with Americans is not that they don't believe anything; it's that so many think they can believe anything—and that believing one thing doesn't preclude belief in another….In such an inner landscape, why not entertain the possibility that Jesus scored? After all, it could have happened….

Brown's claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation belong to a strong new current in American life—the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation. According to this schema, things are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it's what I believe. Thus, the same sensibility most likely to take offense at this film—that of the religious assertionists—is the same one that makes things like creationism an issue in our schools and the demands of biblical literalism a force in our politics. Brown and his foolishness are, in fact, a part of this same culture of assertion and not of some wider secular one.

Elsewhere in Reason: Tim Cavanaugh wrote about The Da Vinci Code here, and I tackled it here. I looked into another sort of religious ecumenicalism here. Cathy Young takes on the culture of assertion here.

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  1. I don’t think “eucumenicalism” is really a word. Maybe you meant “eucumenism”?

  2. I said this in another thread. Every person I have met who believes the stuff in the DeVinci Code claims to be a Christian. I think this is due to the failure on the part of Churches to properly teach religion. Churches seem to be of two ilks these days. Some, mostly the mainline Protestant faiths, are infected with hippy dippy feel good, God is love, mush. Others, the Evangelicals and some conservative Catholics are obsessed with politics and abortion. In the process, the nuts and bolts of Christianity is not taught very well or very much anymore. As a result, a lot of believers don’t know enough to know why the DVC us wrong.

  3. Brown’s claims for his book and, by extension, the film adaptation belong to a strong new current in American life — the culture of assertion, which increasingly pushes logical argument out of our public conversation.

    I hate to pour water all over this argument, but really, has the man never heard of the Burned Over District? Or the Great Revival?

    I mean really, there is a reason why American religion has such highlights as Mormonism, Christian Scientists, Scientology, the Church of Christ, Pentacostalism, etc. No, American religious sentiment rises and falls and rises again, and there are some very clear, well-worn patterns that whatever is happening today fall into.

  4. Dave W, per dictionary.com:

    ecumenicalism

    n : (Christianity) the doctrine of the ecumenical movement that promotes cooperation and better understanding among different religious denominations: aimed at universal Christian unity [syn: ecumenism, ecumenicism]

  5. John,

    In the process, the nuts and bolts of Christianity is not taught very well or very much anymore.

    Welcome to the vast majority of Christian history.

  6. You’d think that this was the first time that one work of fiction contradicted another work of fiction.

  7. I need some better drugs. It’s not even 10am my time, and John and TAFKAGG have both made comments I agree with.

  8. Hakluyt beat me to it, but I’ll add my two cents that I’m getting really sick and tired of the whole “churches don’t teach doctrine” excuse. The fact that the same “heresies” continually recur strongly suggest that they are either (or both) the result of some inherently logical part of Christian doctrine that for some reason the religious hierarchies don’t want to acknowledge or they have some emotional appeal that causes people to find them reassuring.

  9. Thanks, Fyodor. I spelled it wrong when I GOOGLED it earlier. Suggested correction retracted.

  10. Churches seem to be of two ilks these days. Some, mostly the mainline Protestant faiths, are infected with hippy dippy feel good, God is love, mush. Others, the Evangelicals and some conservative Catholics are obsessed with politics and abortion. In the process, the nuts and bolts of Christianity is not taught very well or very much anymore. As a result, a lot of believers don’t know enough to know why the DVC us wrong.

    My mother is in the conservative Catholic camp you describe. Every once in awhile she gets way too political and righteous. That is when I pull out the olde fashioned Baltimore Cathecism she made a big point of buying me. Even though the thing was published a long time ago, there is plenty of mushyheaded love advised in there. We then discuss those passages at length, and how they apply to our own lives personally, until she (temporarily alas) realizes that her religion isn’t exactly what she thinks it is. When used properly, the Cathecism is her shut em up juice. I am grateful 4 it.

  11. Phileleutherus: How do any of those examples contradict what Rutten wrote?

  12. I’ll also add my two cents that I’m getting really sick and tired of the lazy fucking server squirrels.

  13. “When used properly, the Cathecism is her shut em up juice.”

    Yeah, but were you sure to check the ingredient label for corn syrup?

  14. [T]hings are true because I believe they are true and you have to respect that, because it’s what I believe.

    Does anyone remember when facts and opinions were considered different things?

  15. I get the ecumenicalism argument here, but will sum it up this way:

    Today’s Religious Right = A Born Again, an Orthodox Jew, and a Right Wing Catholic, all standing in front of each other in a circle with knives to each others backs.

    No, this isn’t heading anywhere good…

    JMJ

  16. I’m still waiting for the Flying Speghetti Monsterism bible to come out…

  17. SR:

    they do offer a paypal option to support this site…

    subscribing is also pretty cool.

    9 of 10 that haven’t subscribed have come down with moths of the genitalia.

    (cedariax, of course, cures that)

  18. You know, the L.A. Times may have gotten wise to Bugmenot.

    Anyway, Jesse seems to think that my interpretation of the column is incorrect, and I’ll concede that it might be until I can read it.

  19. “SR . . . subscribing is also pretty cool.”

    I’m already a subscriber and have been for several years. 😛

  20. SR:

    GRIN!

    no genital moths there, then. 🙂

  21. You say “Culture of Assertion” I say “Culture of Truthiness

  22. Those nuts who think the Da Vinci Code is historical are almost — but not quite– as nutty as those people who think that Jesus died and was resurrected after three days, or turned water into wine, or walked on water.

  23. I wonder – like SR – if part of the problem isn’t simply that Christian theology got far too complex and abtruse (not to say self-contradictory) for the ordinary believer to follow; certainly it seems that the early Church chose the less comprehensible option every time there was a serious doctrinal dispute. One consequence was the unending rash of popular, doctrinally simpler heresies that lasted all the way to the Reformation, when their place was taken by the various Protestant churches – and when a denomination’s theology started getting twisted around itself, there was always a more straightforwardly comprehensible alternative available. Among the Protestant churches, the emphasis has seemingly been on ‘fundamentalism’ – going back to the Bible – rather than simplifying the nature of the Trinity, which was the hallmark of most Catholic heresies. With the caveat that I haven’t read the book (and won’t, by God!) the theory advanced by Brown is classically Catholic, in that the simplifying it proposes affects the nature of Christ – it is just so much easier to understand a fully human Jesus (with reformed hooker wife and kids, to boot)…

    (I offer all of this with the further caveat that although I was a Catholic in my childhood, I’ve been an atheist for many years – I find theology interesting, but chiefly because of the effect of religion on history.)

  24. We’re frequently reminded that America is the most religious country in the developed world, with churchgoing rates unrecorded in any other Western nation for decades. Moreover, militantly assertive Christianity has become a political force demanding to be heard from the corridors of the Capitol to the local school board. So, who’s buying this book?

    Christians who disagree with the Christians who want to ban it.

    The simple reason is that there is no “Christian Church.” There are God knows how many denominations and subdenominations who disagree on matters of doctrine. Christians are not a majority in the U.S. They are an overwhelming collection of minorities.

    Note that this is not to say, Americans are abysmally — even willfully — short on religious knowledge.

    Actually, the fundamental problem with the Truth of Christ is that it is just too simple for most folks to stomach. The idea that we are all equal, all sinners, and we can’t change that, but if we believe in Christ we get eternal life flies against everything hard-working roll-up-your-sleeves-and-solve-problems Americans stand for. There must be more to salvation than simple belief. So Christians form denominations and make up all sorts of rules to follow to be “better Christians.” And they disagree on which set of rules to use.

    So some condemn DaVinci and some embrace it.

  25. I think Jesus died and was resurrected in three days, and all that other stuff and am certainly not nutty. ALL philosophical worldviews (religious or not) require faith. The question is not whether someone has faith, but what their faith is in. That is, we all believe things that we cannot prove – it doesn’t make me insane just because I believe in different things than you. You are only insane (or stupid) when you believe in something that can be and has been disproven, which is why I agree that the da Vinci Code believers are nutty.

  26. Larry A,

    When I was in college I was in a religion class and pointed out to a bunch of good Baptists that someday they would be in heaven and see a few murderers and child molesters there with them. I almost caused a riot.

  27. “Americans are abysmally — even willfully — short on religious knowledge.”

    There’s a nice oxymoron for you: religious knowledge.

  28. Todd, last I checked, “The Da Vinci Code” is fiction.

  29. with reformed hooker wife

    Mary Magdaline was not a reformed hooker. That was invented by Catholics who wanted to avoid confusing the peons with three seperate characters named Mary. In fact, she was apparently rather well off financially, and was one of the more influential Apostles in the early days of the Church. I mean, Jesus Christ people, how many times does this have to be said?

    And while we’re on the subject, the idea that Jesus was married isn’t really all that crazy. There are more than a few points in the Gospels where Mary Magdaline’s behaviors would suggest a level of intimacy with Jesus that was well higher than what one would expect out of a normal teacher/pupil relationship. And there was also the wedding at Canaan, where Jesus was asked to turn water into wine, an action that, given the culture of the time and the practices surrounding weddings, doesn’t really make any sense unless it was his wedding. And that’s leaving aside all the gospels that didn’t make it into the Bible that have even more explicit passages that support the idea. We’re never going to know, but as long as someone acknowledges that it’s belief and not fact, I don’t see how thinking Jesus was married is any different than thinking he wasn’t.

  30. ” We’re never going to know, but as long as someone acknowledges that it’s belief and not fact, I don’t see how thinking Jesus was married is any different than thinking he wasn’t.”

    Because all of the eye witness accounts that we have of his life say that he wasn’t. Further, there is nothing sinful about being married, so I don’t see his being so would have been necessarily so problematic that the founders of the church needed to write out what had to have been a very well fact had it been true.

    As far as being books that didn’t make it, I don’t understand why everyone automatically ascribes malace to the church fathers for pairing down the bible. Yes there were other gospels and those were apocryphal. The Church fathers were not that far removed from the actual events and they were scholars and knew which gospels were legitimate which ones were not. Maybe they got it wrong, but I have yet to see an apocryphal gospel that is compelling enough for me to believe that it should have been included. Maybe the Church fathers were engaged in some horrible conspiracy in creating the bible, but I don’t see any evidence of that and judging from the choices they did make, I see lots of reasons to believe they were not.

    You are right about Mary Magdaline not being a hooker, but it was not the Catholics who dreamed that one up. It was the Protestants who came up with that one. Mary is a Roman Catholic saint was venerated relics and all by medieval Catholics. The Protestents rejected the so called “cult of the Saints” and as part of that started the Mary was a hooker line.

  31. While the gospels don’t explicitly say that Jesus was unmarried, there are a few passages that would cause problems for such an assertion. For instance, at one point it’s mentioned that people who thought he was a prophet compared him to Jeremiah, but there’s no mention of a comparison to the more famous Isaiah, Elijah, or Ezekiel. The main thing that separates Jeremiah from the others is that he never married.

    There are more than a few points in the Gospels where Mary Magdaline’s behaviors would suggest a level of intimacy with Jesus that was well higher than what one would expect out of a normal teacher/pupil relationship.

    Like when? Before his death, all the gospels say about her is that she accompanied Jesus’ entourage, and that she’d had seven demons driven out of her. If you’re talking about the woman who gave Jesus a perfumed pedicure with her hair, that was not Mary Magdalene, it was an anonymous “sinful woman.”

    the wedding at Canaan, where Jesus was asked to turn water into wine, an action that, given the culture of the time and the practices surrounding weddings, doesn’t really make any sense unless it was his wedding.

    I’m not sure which culture and practices of the time lead you to that conclusion; iirc, the text says that the headwaiter informed the groom that they’d run out of wine, the groom told Jesus’ mother, then she told Jesus. Which wouldn’t make much sense if Jesus was the groom.

    Also, at first, Jesus essentially told his mother that running out of wine wasn’t his problem, which would be quite a bizarre attitude for a groom to have about his own wedding party, especially given “the culture of the time and the practices surrounding weddings” that you claim to be so familiar with.

  32. Jesse Walker,

    Yes, you appear to be right. I blame it on your poor ellipsis skills. 🙂

  33. crimethink,

    The copy of the copy of the copy of the copy, etc. of the text may say that.

  34. Because all of the eye witness accounts that we have of his life say that he wasn’t.

    There are no “eyewitness accounts” of Jesus’ life. At all. The Gospels were written between 30 and 50 years after Jesus’ death, by second and third generation members of the Christian community who were putting various eyewitness accounts together for the purposes of recording Jesus’ life. Luke even makes reference to putting various accounts together at the beginning of his book. The Epistles that were actually written by Paul date to 15-25 years after, but Paul never even met Jesus. That was the point of the whole “road to Damascus” thing.

    You are right about Mary Magdaline not being a hooker, but it was not the Catholics who dreamed that one up.

    Wrong again John. The myth of Mary Magdalene being a whore started in the sixth century, when Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon characterizing her as a harlot. This was, by the way, approximately 1000 years before Protestantism existed. They continued to venerate her because they said she reformed, making her a good example of Christian forgiveness.

    I have yet to see an apocryphal gospel that is compelling enough for me to believe that it should have been included.

    Which apocryphal gospels have you read John? List them for me. What can you tell me about the Council of Nicea, or the Gnostic, Arian, or Docetic heresies, to name a few, or St. Athanasius of Alexandria? How does your lack of a conspiracy on the part of the Church fathers account for the fact that in several places the books of the Bible were altered by scribes to downplay the role of women in the early church? Have you done any serious study of this subject? Somehow I doubt it.

  35. PL – yeah, at the very least. There is absolutely no concrete evidence that Jesus Christ was a real person. I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt about that, but I was also raised Catholic. I think it’s quite possible there never was such a man.

    And to ascribe divinity to him, even if he did exist, is even further removed from anything we know about reality.

    I’m actually somewhat more inclined to think Holy Blood, Holy Grail is more correct on many points than the bible.

    However, I must also caveat that with the revelation that I used to be into a lot of conspiracy theories. As other posters may remember, I still don my tinfoil hat from time to time. 🙂

  36. I’m not sure which culture and practices of the time lead you to that conclusion; iirc, the text says that the headwaiter informed the groom that they’d run out of wine, the groom told Jesus’ mother, then she told Jesus. Which wouldn’t make much sense if Jesus was the groom.

    Why would the head waiter come to tell Jesus’ mother if she wasn’t involved with the wedding party in some way? Further, he didn’t say it wasn’t his problem, he said “My time has not yet come,” a very different statement than just claiming not to be involved.

    Going to the grave to anoint the body of the dead individual on the third day was, ritually speaking, the job of the next of kin. In all three Gospels, Mary Magdalene was the person who went to the tomb to do the job, a fact which imples a stronger relationship that master/disciple.

    Additionally, an unmarried Rabbi would have been highly atypical in those days, being against the first mitzvah, that is, “be fruitful and multiply.” More than once Jewish history tells of Rabbinical candidates who were told to go and marry before they would be accepted for study; marriage was that important. And an unmarried Rabbi traveling the countryside would have been more or less unheard of.

    Can you point me to the comparison to Jeremiah?

  37. For us to believe that Jesus was the groom at Cana would require us to believe the evangelist was engaging in verbal gymnastics for no reason. The story refers to the groom and treats him as a different person. Indeed, the story as told by John gives the story a funny ending; the groom gets credit for what Jesus did! If Jesus had been the groom, clearly the author did not want us to know that; wouldn’t it have been easier to leave the story out entirely? It’s far more logical to believe that Jesus and the groom were separate people and that there is no cover-up going on. Gee, maybe no one else was “asked to turn the water into wine” because no one else there could work miracles! (Even if you don’t believe that Jesus could work miracles, accept that from the perspective of the Gospel He could and no one else could.
    Please give an example of a specific book that was “altered by scribes” to downplay to role of woman.
    Please cite a source for your claim that the next of kin generally went to anoint the body. Plus, in three of the Gospels Mary is accompanied by other women – Mary the mother of James (possibly Jesus’s aunt, if you’re determined to pursue the relative angle), and (according to Mark) Salome (probably the mother of Jesus’s disciples James and John) and/or (according to Luke) Joanna (another of Jesus’s female followers). Why they all His next of kin?
    I have read the Gospel of Thomas, and it stinks. Half of the sayings were ripped off from the canonical Gospels, and the other half were boring and/or incomprehensible.

  38. On the other hand, you are right that “Mary Magdalene was a prostitute” is of Catholic origin, and crimethink’s argument about Jeremiah as the only unmarried prophet is a little dubious. We know Isaiah was married (and father of the celebrated Mahershalalhashbaz), but the marital status of Elijah and many other major prophets is unknown.

  39. I think Jesus died and was resurrected in three days, and all that other stuff and am certainly not nutty. . . You are only insane (or stupid) when you believe in something that can be and has been disproven, which is why I agree that the da Vinci Code believers are nutty.

    Sorry, but given the available historical evidence, belief that Jesus was resurrected after three days, or changed water into wine, is completely nutty, regardless of how many people disagree, and how much spittle flies from their lips when they do so. The silliness of the Da Vinci Code believers is absolutely trivial in comparison, IMHO.

    And the epistemology you articulate in your last sentence is extra-nutty, and for your sake I hope you don’t really practice that standard in real life.

  40. Please give an example of a specific book that was “altered by scribes” to downplay to role of woman.

    1 Corinthians 34-35. The passage that commands that women not speak in church, and ask their husbands later if they have questions, does not fit with the flow of the chapter, and is blatantly contradictary to earlier statments in the letter, where Paul commands that women who speak in church ought to have their heads covered out of modesty. Further, in some early copies it appears after verse 40, and in a few it doesn’t even appear at all. Also, Romans 16:7 refers to a husband and wife team of Junia and Andronicus, both of whom he refers to as “foremost among the apostles.” However, the idea that a woman could be an apostle, let alone foremost among apostles, could not be accepted, so some translators changed the name to Junias, a male name, despite the fact that Junias was not a common name and there’s no evidence that Junia was Junias. Some also changed it so it read “Greet Andronicus and Junia, as well as my fellow prisoners, who are foremost among the apostles.” Just two examples of women being minimized by scribes in the centuries after the books of the Bible were written.

    I’m already late for class. I’ll come back to address the other points you make later.

  41. Not sure what is “extra-nutty” about considering someone insane who believes something despite the fact that it has been disproven.

  42. There are textual problems with these verses, but the question of how they arose is a little less cut-and-dry than you allow. “Junia” as “Junias” is first recorded in the ninth century, and the reasons for the change are unknown. There are extent statements by St. John Chrystostom, St. Jerome, and other Church Fathers recognizing the reference as being to a woman, so scholars have always been aware that there were manuscripts in which the reference was to a woman. If there was a conspiracy, it was a pretty minor and and poorly-exected one.
    The First Corinthians issue is just the opposite – contrary to your statement, all extant manuscripts of First Corinthians include the verses (which is not true of some passages of disputed origin, such as the story of the woman taken in adultery or the longer ending of Mark.) There is a dispute over their proper place. An interesting article on the subject is here.

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