Doubtful Mysteries Blind us to Real Faith - Mail on Sunday article
Sunday 16th April 2006The following article appeared in the Mail on Sunday. It reflects on how the conspiracy theories of 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'The Gospel of Judas' fade next to the truth about Jesus, as revealed through the Bible.
A few days ago, I finally got my copy of the Gospel of Judas that people have been talking about. And no, in case you're wondering, it didn't make me tear up the New Testament and start looking for a new job.
It's actually a fairly conventional book of its kind — and there were dozens like it around in the early centuries of the Church. People who weren't satisfied with the sort of thing the New Testament had to say spent quite a lot of energy trying to produce something which suited them better.
They wanted Christian teaching to be a matter of exotic and mystical information, shared only with an in-group. So a lot of these books imagine Jesus having long conversations with various people whose names are in the Bible but who we don't know much about. This, they claim is the real thing— not the boring stuff in the official books. Don't believe the official version, they say. The truth has been concealed from you by sinister conspiracies of bishops and suchlike villains, but now it can be told.
I suppose that explains why there's always such an interest in stories about 'lost' books coming to light. Think of the massive international industry around the Da Vinci Code: it's exciting to think of conspiracies and cover-ups when trust in traditional institutions is low. The same sort of thing seems to have happened with the history of the Church and its Bible.
But here's the problem. We're familiar with a world of cover up stories; we're on safer ground with their cynicism and worldly wisdom; they are less challenging and don't force us to confront difficult realities. And, like any kind of cynicism, it actually stops us hearing anything genuinely new or surprising. We need to stop and ask ourselves from time to time just why the cynical version is the one that appeals to us , is it just because we can cope much more easily with the picture of a world that always works by manipulation and deceit? Don't we want to see anything more challenging? Are we just too lazy to recognise something really fresh, something that hints at a bigger and a better world?
The people who wrote the Gospel of Judas were trying to persuade their readers that everyone before them had got Jesus wrong, and that the folk who ran the churches were only in it for their own profit (never mind that these leaders and their followers regularly faced death for what they believed, just as some believers still do now, as we've been reminded in recent weeks). This story in itself was an easy option, something that couldn't ever be completely disproved but would create a climate of mistrust.
But why were those writers not satisfied with what the Bible says? It becomes a lot clearer when we compare the Jesus of the Bible with the Jesus of these other documents.
In the new 'gospel', Jesus is made out to be a mystery man, a guru. He laughs mockingly when the disciples try to understand what he's about. He is said to reveal the mystic names of heavenly powers, and to explain how the universe was created by inferior angels. He claims that the soul is only a very temporary dweller in the body. And Judas is told repeatedly that only he understands Jesus, not the other, dimwitted, disciples. It's the standard kind of teaching you expect from gurus of a certain sort.
Now turn to the New Testament. Here is the real Jesus who actually has a recognisable human setting. His favourite method of teaching is to tell sharp and sometimes satirical stories of ordinary life, with a sting in the tail. He doesn't suffer fools (especially religious fools) gladly, but he has all the time in the world for those who are thought to be failures. He is a straightforward, not a cynical man. He likes being with children. He knows his disciples don't fully understand him and sometimes it makes him angry, but he goes on loving and trusting them. When he's faced with a horrible and unavoidable death, he trembles and cries, but goes on with it.
When the Jesus of the Gospels comes back from the dead, he doesn't go and crow over his enemies, he meets his friends and tells them to get out there and talk about him — about what his life and death have made possible, about forgiveness, making peace, being honest about yourself, checking the temptation to judge and condemn, tackling your selfishness at the root, praying simply and trustingly.
This is flesh and blood. It's not about exotic mysteries. It is about how God makes it possible for us to live a life that isn't paralysed by guilt, aggression and pride. It asks us to come down to earth and face what's wrong with us. Is it surprising that some people found this too direct, too in-your-face to cope with? No wonder they preferred to go on about the names of angels and the secrets of how the world began.
Let's ask ourselves why we're sometimes more comfortable with such stories about conspiracies and stories about mystical gurus. Is it perhaps because when we turn to what the Bible actually says, Jesus challenges us pretty seriously? What if this is a story we haven't really listened to before? And what if everything could be different because of this particular story?
That's the question we ought to be asking at Easter. What if this surprising character in the New Testament is not just another teacher, another guru, but someone who really could change the world? Everything truly can be different because of the real story of Jesus, the Son of God.
Well, that is the real front-page story, bigger than any story about the discovery of a lost document and ultimately more exciting than any number of conspiracy theories.
And that's perhaps why the Bible story is still being told two thousand years on, by people who have discovered that the world and their lives really have changed.
© Rowan Williams 2006