Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Culture Wars and Conspiracy Theories

Dan Brown is right about one thing: there was a culture war going on in the early church between those who accented Jesus' divinity and those who stressed his humanity. There were extremists on both sides; Dan Brown merely sides with the extremists who stressed Jesus' humanity to the exclusion of his deity. And, while that same culture war may still be going on in 2005, perhaps it's not entirely fair to blame it all on Constantine. In the Nicene Creed, Jesus is understood as both fully human and fully divine. Some have trouble with that paradox. Others take the paradox itself as evidence of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Forty years after the Council of Nicaea, in 367, the highly influential bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, delivered an Easter sermon in which he endorsed the writings that make up the New Testament as we know it today. To eliminate potential confusion, Athanasius wanted other books with other teachings destroyed.

"But someone," writes Elaine Pagels, speculating specifically about the monks of a monastery in Upper Egypt, "gathered dozens of the books that Athanasius wanted to burn, removed them from the monastery library, sealed them in a heavy, six-foot jar and, intending to hide them, buried them in a nearby hillside near Nag Hammadi," where they were unearthed in 1945, providing fodder for conspiracy theorists in general and Dan Brown's novel in particular.

In a real sense, however, Brown's novel only underscores the wisdom of Irenaeus. Pagels defines a Gnostic as "one who knows." She suggests Irenaeus and other early church leaders "used the term derisively to refer to those they dismissed as people claiming to 'know it all.'" At the core of Dan Brown's novel is the conviction that folks like Leonardo Da Vinci, Robert Langdon and Elaine Pagels know things about God that lesser people cannot know, matters kept secret from common Christians like us who are not "in the gnosis."