Wednesday, March 08, 2006

God and the Bookstore

A few days ago, my wife and I found ourselves browsing in one of the big chain bookstores. That, in itself, doesn't happen that often, largely because I try to keep myself out of bookstores too much in case I want to buy the store. For someone who enjoys reading as much as we both do, book stores can be a little too tempting. Still, we're going on a trip on Saturday and we decided some reading material would be nice.

I should say here that I have a 'hit and run' style of book browsing. That is, I hit the areas that I'm particularly interested in, browse carefully and run. That way I'm not as tempted by my old habit of convincing myself how essential a book is to me. Believe me, given the convoluted reasons I've used to convince myself to buy books, hitting and running is a positive financial necessity. Don't give me a chance to decide why I need a book. I'll come up with one.

So, the first section I hit on this visit was the Christianity/Religion section. My visits to this particular section have always been something of the triumph of hope over expectation. I have found some excellent books in the big box bookstores, but these stores are not my primary stop for good sound Christian books. Still, I find it fascinating to stop in this section because they are an index of where the book-buying public is in this subject area. Or, at least, of what the book-sellers think the book-buying public want. So, we get an interesting mix of a few sound evangelical books mixed with a large number of anti-Catholic, liberal and radical takes on Christianity; all promising that they are the best approach to Jesus.

The variety is amazing, if bewildering. I recall as a new Christian being very bewildered by the vast array of books in front of me, not knowing how to choose helpful books. Over the years, I've learned what to look for and what to avoid. I do worry a bit about the message that many of these books give, but I think it is enlightening to see that these are the books that are on offer.

Yet I found myself worrying on that visit. What really set off my worry is that increasing number of heretical gospels are being published. We're getting editions of the Gospel of Thomas, or of Philip or the Gospel of the Nazarenes showing up in the Christian sections of these mainstream bookstores. Or we're getting Beliefnet guides to Gnosticism as if this was a viable option for Christians. Heresy sells, it seems, and I find that worrying.

I am an unapologetically orthodox Christian, so I am not going to apologize for saying that I find this trend to Gnosticism to be pernicious. I also have to say I'm puzzled by it. Given the widespread caricature of traditional Christianity as condemning matter and insensitivity to the natural world, I just don't get how anyone could argue that Gnosticism (a dualist heresy which identifies matter with an evil creator distinct from a good, immaterial God) could possibly offer a better alternative. Nor can I understand how people, who argue that the Gospels could not really give a clear sense of Jesus' earthly ministry and teachings because they were written within 60-80 years after Jesus' death, can accept Gospels which are one to two centuries older yet. If this is not the 'itchy ears' which Paul talks about (2 Timothy 4,3), I don't know what is.

I'm not saying that we should censor these books or these bookstores. I think that would be counter-productive and unrealistic. We can't dig our heads in the sand. These "gospels" (for instance) are out there and we have to deal with that. I've tried to do that. As part of that effort, I have read those heretical gospels and found them unhelpful in the extreme. Whatever good they have is derivative from the Gospels. Wherever they are original, they express a concept of the world which I think is just flat out wrong. Jesus did not seem to die; he died and was raised on the third day. There is not one God and a evil angel who created matter; there is one God, the Creator. Yet these books are there and, as distressing as it is, I think we'll continue to deal with these ideas. And we need to be ready for that.



Sophia Sadek said...

Phil, not to worry. After all, Christ was a gnostic practitioner. Don't forget that he was crucified for his heretical teachings. There is nothing wrong with heresy.

Phil S. said...

Well, apologies on two fronts. Apologies that it took me so long to post your comment. I'm trying for 24 hours posting time for new comments that I moderate, but, since I was on vacation, I didn't manage it here. Second apologies are that I haven't answered in longer. Same reason, mind you.

I could write a whole blog on each of your comments, but I won't. What I will do is to confine myself to this:

1. What do you mean by 'Christ was a gnostic pracitioner' because the last I looked he doesn't fall into that mould very well. He isn't dualist, he rarely suggests secret teachings (yes, you can take parables that way, but, given his want to preach to large crowds, and, yes, he even really lived, died and was resurrected. Of course, I also reject the Gnostic gospels, so that might skew things.

Second, in a sense, Jesus was killed for his heretical teachings; heretical to Judaism at least. Clearly, Jesus appropriates Jewish thinking about God and takes on the charactertisics of a messiah; not just a Jewish messiah, but something more personal and exalted.Yet, thinking about your first comment, I think we'll differ on just what that heresy was.

3. I have to flat out disagree with you about there being nothing wrong with heresy. My post, indeed, was trying to make the point that heresy is problematic because it distorts our view of God and, hence, our ability to respond. Now, who am I to impose my view of God on you? Nobody, particularly, except someone who believes firmly in the God we encounter in the Bible as we have it. That, I hope, is enough.

But, welcome to the blog (this is also shockingly late in the post) and I hope you'll enjoy later entries.