Diversity versus Pluralism


As I was reading Stephen Prothero's New York Times review of Reading Judas, by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, I was curious what axe he was going to grind. He doesn't really tip his hand until about halfway into the review, where it becomes apparent what his gripe is, and then he devotes the remainder of the review to his complaint that this book about the Gospel of Judas "makes early Christianity look like contemporary American religion — more pluralistic, more wild and more contested than most imagine." It is hard to know what to make of this objection. Does he actually believe that early Christianity was homogenous? That would seem to be what he is implying, although he never really comes forward with a justification of that position.

At face value, his objection to the book would seem strangely misinformed, given that it is patently clear that early Christianity was diverse. And one could even make the case that it was more diverse nearly two millenia ago than modern American Christianity is today, since many of the early Christian theologies that were stamped out by the prevailing Roman orthodoxy in the first centuries of Christianity (such as Ebionism, Arianism, and Gnosticism) remain absent from the official pronouncements of large mainline denominations of today, which instead continue to overtly preach the orthodox Nicene Trinitarianism of late fourth century Roman Christianity.

The fact that most of the various competing theologies were stamped out by the orthodoxy suggests that one could make a distinction between diversity and pluralism. By this I mean that diversity describes the existence of differences; pluralism, on the other hand, is an ideological or theological respect for (or even a celebration of) those differences. Early Christianity was diverse, in that it comprised a collection of competing theologies. But given the lack of respect for this diversity that existed, at least within the proto-Orthodox Christianity that eventually triumphed over the others, one could argue that "pluralism" was missing from early Christianity. Perhaps "pluralism" in this sense is a modern, post-Enlightenment Western concept, and if that is the basis of Prothero's objection, then I think he might have a case. But I am not sure that he is saying that. It seems that he prefers orthodoxy to diversity, and in this regard he thinks that he speaks for all of America.

Prothero specifically goes on to say that he doesn't much care for the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Judas, and he suggests that "Most Americans will rightly prefer Luke’s Jesus, whose heart breaks over the oppression of women and the poor." Well, I might not like the portrayal of Jesus in Judas either, but he assumes that we have to choose between Luke and Judas. But do we? Is it really a matter of either-or? Who is to say that Luke's portrayal of Jesus is ideal or even 100% correct, or that what most Americans prefer is relevant to the discussion anyway? Personally, I don't care much for the way Luke whitewashed some of of Jesus's humanity that was expressed in his main narrative source, the Gospel of Mark. Whereas Mark had Jesus suffering over his impending death, Luke had Jesus facing his crucification with remarkable calm and ease. Which Jesus is more human, more real to us? I would suggest that Mark's was. So should I then have to choose between Luke and Mark? Why are there four gospels instead of one, anyway?

There are lots of things in the Bible that I don't like the portrayal of. I don't like the way the Bible sometimes portrays God as a tribal, warlike, genocidal deity. I don't like the way Christ is portrayed as exacting a future bloodthirsty revenge on the world in the Book of Revelation. I don't like the sexism found in the writings of someone who went by the name of Paul in the pastoral epistles. I don't like the anti-Semitic pronouncements in the Gospel of Matthew.

In an earlier posting, I commented on Jack Good's idea that the Bible should be seen as a kind of family album of a community of faith. According to this metaphor, then, the Gospel of Judas could be said to represent the pictures of the "black sheep" in the family that were thrown out of the album. They represent a part of the community of faith that some would prefer to forget and write out of the family history.

Another point is worth considering. While Prothero rightly praises Luke's Jesus for his concern for the oppression of women and the poor, we can see how much oppression of women and support for powerful economic interests has been perpetuated by certain elements of Christianity, despite the fact that Luke is firmly entrenched in the Christian canon. The Bible is a collection of many voices, and within its diverse messages one can find justifications for lots of things. The diversity genie is already out of the bottle. It is a fact of religious life. Maybe what we need to do is to look at the diversity of voices and recognize the evolutionary struggles with faith and theology that people throughout history have had to cope with, and from that history we can learn the lessons necessary to build a better understanding and a better world.


Heather said...

**Why are there four gospels instead of one, anyway?** If I'm remembering my history correctly, there are four gospels because there are four pillars holding up the earth, and four corners of the earth. ;) Or something like that.

I'm also always amazed that people complain about the idea of early Christianity being diverse. Even Paul's geniune letters allude to this, in that he keeps telling people he has the true gospel, and others are false. There's also a mention of those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh are the anti-Christ (in one of the letters of John). You don't need anything outside of the Protestant Bible to get the idea that it was a little chaotic in those times, in trying to determine who was actually telling the truth.

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Jesus an Essenes ?


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