Thursday, October 13, 2005

The History of Heresy

The reason I'm writing so much about church history lately is because millions and millions of people around the world have read Dan Brown's version of how things happened. In his telling, the books of the New Testament, as we have received it, were selected by self-interested men for self-interested purposes, and the church has been involved in a 2,000-year conspiracy to suppress the writings that didn't toe the company line.

Says the eccentric religious art historian in The Da Vinci Code, "The modern Bible was compiled and edited by men who possessed a political agenda -- the promote the divinity of the man Jesus Christ and use His influence to solidify their own power base."

Robert Langdon interjects, "An interesting note. Anyone who chose the forbidden gospels over Constantine's version was deemed a heretic. The word heretic derives from that moment in history. The Latin word haereticus means 'choice.' Those who 'chose' the original history of Christ were the world's first heretics."

If by "original history of Christ," one means the notion that Jesus was not God in the flesh living a sinless life and dying on the cross to pay the price for the sins of the world, then, yes, these were the world's first heretics. The word haereticus doesn't just mean "choice" or "able to choose." Its original meaning also carries the notion of being factious.

Granted, when former Senator Frank Keating, a man hand-picked by Roman Catholics to lead the inquiry into the church's role in sheltering pedophilia among priests, resigned after saying his experience was like dealing with the Mafia, it is easy for many to believe the historic church is just one big organized crime syndicate. It's relatively easy to cast the Roman Catholic Church in the role of bad guys. It's not too big a stretch to see them branding everyone who disagrees with them with a scarlet "H" for "Heretic."

But, while the word "heretic" has been misused in the past and continues to be misused today, we cannot dismiss it as easily as Dan Brown wants us to. It is a sad but true fact that we may be called heretical for disagreeing over a great many things -- the role of women, which translation of the Bible you use, your view of biblical prophecy, etc.. Unfortunately, the word "heresy" is often used to protect a base of power or some long-held religious dogma.

Sometimes, however, a person is called a heretic because they actually are a heretic. Dan Brown, Elaine Pagels and those who champion the Gnostic gospels are heretics, not simply because they choose to believe an alternative story of Jesus, but because they create division and foster attitudes of superiority among those "in the know."