Monday, April 24, 2006

Gospel Truth and Poetic License

“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among then,” the “scholar” Leigh Teabing tells Sophie Neveu in “The Da Vinci Code."

It’s hard to know where Teabing arrives at this number of “eighty” records or “gospels” concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth. No one can find that many, not even if you include all the documents called “gospels” found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt (a treasure trove of Gnostic texts uncovered in 1945) or the scattering of other documents discovered in other locations. So we’ll just have to leave that to creative fiction.

What we do know about inclusion in the Bible is quite different. The renowned expert on the New Testament, Bruce Metzger (who truly is a scholar) concludes that only four documents survived the test of “canonicity”—what is legitimate as a record of Jesus’ life. (This can be found in his seminal book, “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance.”) That test indeed includes three criteria:
• Orthodoxy: For example, Did these writings cohere with the Hebrew Scriptures? Many of the alternative gospels disparage Jewish practices and/or attempt to remove Jesus from his Jewish context.
• Apostolicity: Did they reflect teachings of Jesus’ earliest followers? The recently published so-called “Gospel of Judas” (which no one takes to be written by Judas) reflects the Gnostics desire to wed their writings to the name of one of Jesus’ followers, for example. Even if Luke wrote the Third Gospel, his authority derived from his association with Paul.
• Consensus among the churches: Were the writings used throughout the known world? Gnostic writings appear to have been used in only specific localities and within distinct communities.

The early Christian communities in the first four centuries applied this threefold test to the writings about Jesus and determined that only four Gospels—those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—passed the test according to Metzger.

For Dan Brown to place seventy-some additional texts as potential candidates for the Bible can only be described as driving faster than his poetic license allows.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Assessing the Scholarship of "The Da Vinci Code"

Bart Ehrman, the noted University of North Carolina scholar of early Christianity, says it all: “Of the hundreds of professional New Testament scholars whom I personally know—people who study these texts [related to Jesus and the early Christians] for a living, and who are trained in the ancient languages necessary to do so—there is not a single one, to my knowledge, who finds the book to be historically credible.”

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Assessing the Phenomenon of "The Da Vinci Code"

Why has this book sold more copies than another other publication ever save the Bible? This question is swirling around my head as I peer into the facts behind the fiction and as I prepare for the release of this story in movie-form. (And let me say, there isn’t much serious scholarship contained in it. But more on that later…) As much as I’d like to find some new conspiracy plot behind its popularity, the first realization is a challenge to the church: This book proposes to describe true spirituality, and many in the listening world does not believe the Christian Church is telling the truth about God.

As "Narnia" Hits our DVD Players...

Note: Since the DVD of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” has just appeared, it seemed worthwhile to post a response to Adam Gopnik’s “Prisoner of Narnia,” which appeared in The New Yorker on the 21st of November last year. (See Incidentally, I sent this to the editor, but it didn't make it to print.) Gopnik himself was anticipating the release of "Narnia" in the theatres. In re-reading my response, I see that my style is a bit more contentious than usual. Nonetheless, I’m still committed to my criticisms—and more importantly, to the wider discussion of what C.S. Lewis is up to in writing Narnia. So here it is….

Presumably, it would have been easier (and shorter) for Adam Gopnik to offer the following summary: “I enjoy C.S. Lewis’s literary scholarship and imagination. I reject his religious commitment, and my judgment of his work mirrors exactly these preferences.”

This succinct account might have saved the reader enough time to examine an excerpt from Gopnik’s new children’s book, "The King in the Window," and then to discern whether his fiction offers cures for the ailments he diagnoses in Lewis’s "Chronicles of Narnia." It might also have prevented The New Yorker from tarnishing its reputation as a gold-standard for fact-checking. For example, Gopnik credits another novel to Lewis’s corpus, "The Screwtape Letters" (which instead is a series of articles first printed in an English religious newspaper) and erroneously calls his final book, "A Grief Portrayed" (instead of "A Grief Observed").

I would like to have assumed that Gopnik’s factual errors represent the veneer and not the wood itself. Unfortunately, when Gopnik continues to call Lewis’s "Narnia" books “allegories,” I wonder if he’s simply being hard-headed or doesn’t understand the difference between John Bunyan’s Christian in the Slough of Despond and Lewis’s Aslan dying at the Stone Table. Allegories have a one-to-one correspondence between the character, place, etc. and the thing allegorized. Certainly, Aslan functions as a Redeemer for Narnia, but Aslan does not equal Jesus in the Gospels. For example, there is no birth scene, Aslan never preaches anything like a Sermon on the Mount, he dies for just one individual instead of the whole world, and there’s no crucifixion. If it’s an allegory, Lewis missed crucial details. It’s probably better to agree with Lewis’s own numerous statements—along with his friend, Tolkien—that their books are not allegories.

In fact, an antipathy to allegory formed a common bond between these two authors. Gopnik writes, “Tolkien hated the Narnia books… because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse” Close, but perhaps only as close as the connection between Mark Twain’s “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Tolkien did find his friend’s books, like "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," incomplete in their mythological rendering of a secondary world, or to use Tolkien’s term, “sub-creation.” Why, after all, does Father Christmas appear in the midst of "Lion"? Any sensitive reader of Lewis can find agreement there. But Tolkien didn’t disdain these books because they were allegories. He disparaged their being hastily written and therefore inconsistent in creating an alternative world.

There’s much more to say, but I will note only two additional problems with Gopnik’s article:
1. He depends uncritically on A.N. Wilson’s spectacular, yet highly flawed, biography (and Wilson’s own reliance on the spectacular, yet highly flawed, psychology of Freud).
2. He names the faith of Lewis “an Anglican creed,” thereby misrepresenting Lewis’s ecumenical and orthodox “mere Christianity.

Lest anyone think that I find nothing redeeming here, I would hasten to add that Gopnik’s article possess both flashes of insight and stylistic beauty. He writes, for example, that after the death of Lewis’s wife, “his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like…. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.” And, yes, Lewis is certainly not perfect: Narnia does contain some racist (and misogynist) overtones.

With so much talent, it’s concerning that Gopnik’s misprision of Lewis prevented him from writing something much better. Consider this sentence: “It seemed like an odd kind of conversion to other people, and it still does.” An attentive editor would write in the margin, “Which people? Please support this criticism with specifics.” But no one apparently has. Nor has Gopnik bothered to provide support for his disbelief that anyone as intelligent as Lewis could find the Christian faith intellectually compelling. (I will refrain from trotting out the plentiful examples of intelligent Christians, but they do exist, alongside the scores of obtuse believers and non-believers alike.) Accordingly, Gopnik asserts that for Lewis, faith was “a cell of his own invention.” To make that kind of claim, Gopnik would have to omit the important historical fact that, before his conversion, Lewis’s work was heavy-handed and dreary. Only after his conversion does his scholarly and popular work express imagination and creativity.

There is more to say, but I’ll close with this: Lewis and Tolkien felt that fairy tales were too substantial to be consigned only to children. Gopnik’s article leads me to wonder whether literature is too important to be left to literary critics.