Archive for August, 2007

Still gnosing

That’s right, you heard me: I gnose. It’s the verb I’ve recently made up to describe my active interest in gnosticism. Since the word “gnosis” or knowledge is pronounced NO-sis, I believe that the verb “to gnose” should be pronounced with the long o sound rather than the short. I gnose, we gnose, you gnose; you get the idea.

Anyhoo, as I worked through Ms. Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, I came across (or was reminded of) The Gospel of Judas, and have simultaneously been reading Bart Ehrmann’s The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed. It’s actually been working well, because both books make many references to the Bible in comparison with the Gnostic Gospels, so I’ve been reading books of the Bible at the same time so that I have some idea of what they’re talking about. I read John last week, and next up is Mark and Matthew.

I don’t have anything intelligent to say about the differences between the canon and the books that were not included in the Bible, because Pagels and Ehrman obviously are better qualified and have written on the subject already. But I am curious about what people think of this sort of thing. What do you think about the Gnostic Gospels? What does it mean to you that there were gospels from the early Christian era that were not included in the Bible ultimately? If you’re not Christian, is there any comparable situation, say that relates to the Koran or the Book of Mormon?



Is there a Gnostic church somewhere, I wonder? I think that would be just up my alley. I mentioned Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief the other day, and reading that led me to start reading The Gnostic Gospels again. She has to be one of the finest minds in comparative religion today. It’s not just that she comes up with solidly researched ideas about the origins of Christianity, it’s that her simplicity of language makes it accessible to anyone. I actually saw her speak here in St. Paul a few years ago, and she’s not only brilliant but adorable. The way she spoke reflects the way she writes: simple, humble, learned, and engaged. Also, you just want to pick her up and hug her.

If you haven’t read her, you really should. I imagine some Christians would find her ideas disturbing, but they’re not ideas so much as they are observations from reading ancient texts from the early days of Christianity in their original languages and getting the best sense of what Christianity was really like in its early years. It may not fit with the usual idea of Christianity, but you can’t claim she’s made stuff up.

Her work is comforting to me, because it suggests that any religion can change and still survive. She shows how the Christianity of the first few centuries after Christ is actually quite different from the Christianity of today, and how the changes in Christianity arose from the political situation then extant in the Roman Empire and other parts of the Christian diaspora.

I know there are a lot of people who think their faith can’t be allowed to change. But Pagels shows that faiths can change and survive, even flourish as a result of the changes, but not abandon core beliefs. Hey, maybe Islam could become a little more liberal toward women. Maybe Christians who make homophobia an article of faith could let go of their fear of gay and lesbian people. Maybe the world wouldn’t end. Just a thought. 🙂

My epiphany

I’ve been thinking about this business of a faith community and whether it’s lonely to live without one. Someone suggested in a long-ago comment that it was, and that by being agnostic and remaining aloof from any faith community, I’m to some degree electing a lonely existence.

I’ve realized that that’s not really true. And I’ve also realized why. I think because our society has become so mobile, the places where folks find company for the journey have changed. I think it’s different for everyone, of course, and while my circle of comfort and support is based on different stuff than others, by this I don’t mean that anyone else is wrong to find comfort or community at a church.

My point is, it used to be that you found your circle in places – neighbors, church, nearby points of gathering. While that hasn’t totally changed, people move around so much and change jobs so much that they tend to find their peeps in similarity rather than in place. Not that I’m saying people used to settle for who was nearby, but the consistency came from those who lived and worked and attended church nearby.

But I find my friends in commonality, away from where I live. I meet them at jobs and at social gatherings for people who share the same needs that I have.

Plus, living here in a state where a lot of people have lived here since childhood and have had the same friends since then, it’s much easier to form bonds with other transplants, people who have moved from other states like I did. And as we’re apart from our families and don’t necessarily live near each other, our bonds are in commonality and not in place. I draw my strength to face life from friends, whose distance (or sometimes estrangement, unfortunately) from family leads them to be more loyal to friends than to family. They’re as loyal to me as I am to them. We help each other for six months in a row when one of us has to sell a house that she wasn’t planning to sell, and do each other’s errands when one of us has a baby six days early.

I doubt I’m unique in this. I guess what I mean is that since I only seem to encounter God when it’s quiet and nobody’s around, this is what works as a faith community for me. There’s faith in ordinary life, too, and that’s where it is for me.

Worth a read

This fellow is Christian (I think), but this dialogue about Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief is well worth reading all the way to the end. He summarizes the history of Christianity in a way that makes total sense to me, and that also acts as a good explanation for some (not all) of my reasons for favoring agnosticism over any particular faith. He’s an interesting writer by the name of Eric Mader-Lin.

I’m having a sudden epiphany about that, in fact. More in my next post.

Okay, after this I’ll let it go.

I realize I’m kind of harping on this imprecatory thing, and I promise this is the last post on it. But I had an interesting conversation with a self-described “recovering Catholic” today. She had to have me explain imprecatory prayer to her, never having heard of such a thing in her 35 years. Once I explained it, she was beyond horrified. In fact, I had to mention puppies and kittens to get her to settle down.

Anyway, other than being horrified, she had this to suggest: She wasn’t positive, but she had a thought about the idea of imprecatory prayer. She was fairly well versed in the Bible, having read it several times, and she also had studied other religions to some degree. She said, “I’m not at all positive, but I think the only other religion – and I’m not even sure they can – whose followers can pray for bad things to happen to enemies is Satanism.”

Passed along without further comment. And, moving on now.

More on the imprecating

Rejecting Reality was kind enough to link to my post about Wiley Drake’s let-us-pray-agin-em campaign directed against Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and to say lovely things about my blog. Plus, he knits. Lovely! I aspire to knit but I suppose that would involve sitting down and, you know, concentrating long enough to learn it.

He also said something that shocks me:

I went to a church for many years that would pray that President Clinton would be removed from power ‘by any means necessary’. Really? I don’t remember Jesus praying that Herod or Caesar would befall harm.

Wow. Has anyone else been to a church like this? People honestly pray for presidents to be removed from office? Wow. I guess it’s the “by any means necessary” that freaks me out, and I can see why RR is not pleased by it. I wonder, did people pray for him to be assassinated? Have a heart attack? Get hit by a car? Zowie.

 I did find more on imprecatory prayers at, in a lengthy essay by Bob Deffinbaugh, Th.M., entitled “Psalm 109: A Prayer for the Punishment of the Wicked.” This at least made it seem as though there are very particular conditions that should be met before imprecating is an option.

David’s Indictment of His Enemies: His Innocence and Their Iniquity (109: 1-5)

“1 For the choir director. A Psalm of David. O God of my praise, Do not be silent! 2 For they have opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me; They have spoken against me with a lying tongue. 3 They have also surrounded me with words of hatred, And fought against me without cause. 4 In return for my love they act as my accusers; But I am in prayer. 5 Thus they have repaid me evil for good, And hatred for my love.” (NASB)

Verses 1-5 are crucial, not only to this psalm, but to our understanding of imprecation. In this introductory section David makes two claims: (1) his innocence and (2) the iniquity of his enemies. The God who is the object of his praise (v. 1; cf. also Deut. 10:21; Jer. 17:14) is also the One who receives his petitions. David’s plea that God not remain silent in verse 1b is a cry for help, as elsewhere (cf. Ps. 28:1; 35:22; 83:1). The basis for David’s petition is then given in verses 2-5. David is accused by his enemies but is innocent of their charges. He has done good to his enemies, which they have repaid with evil.

I believe that verses 1-5 are crucial to a correct understanding of imprecatory prayers because they inform us about the prerequisites for imprecation. The requirements are rigorous for those who would thus pray. Likewise, those who are worthy of divine wrath are carefully defined. Only the innocent dare pray as David does, and only the wicked need fear the fate which David petitions God to execute.

This sounds very similar to the concept of jihad among the Muslims. The Koran laid out specific reasons for jihad and also conventions to observe during jihad, such as not bringing jihad against women or children. Most likely someone will send me a death threat, but basically everything al-Qaeda doesn’t observe in this regard, the Koran seems to require. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a little agnostic in a big world. And I haven’t seen what they’ve seen.

Also, unless I’m mistaken, it doesn’t sound like Wiley Drake thought about it this way. AU informed the IRS of a church that was breaking the law. The complaint they sent to the IRS did not say that Drake couldn’t talk about the candidates he approves of, only that he couldn’t use his position as the leader of a tax-exempt 501(c)3 organization to do so. They merely observed that the law requires churches to refrain from political activity or lose their tax-exempt status, and that Mr. Drake’s chosen actions violate this law. In this sense, Mr. Drake is clearly not “innocent,” and therefore is not entitled to unleash the wrath of the Lord on AU. Unless, of course, he thinks he’s above the law, which is something we have entirely too much of in this country.

Off to read the latest issue of Outreach and to stomp my size 5 1/2 foot at something else…

Imprecatory prayers

I just heard this phrase for the first time today and I’m not sure I understand it. Are Christians really allowed to pray for bad things to happen to people they don’t like? Apparently a Baptist pastor, Wiley Drake, is calling for people to pray to do battle against an organization called Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since churches are tax-exempt, in theory they’re not supposed to endorse political candidates. Wiley apparently did, on stationery for his church, so Americans United complained to the IRS. Here’s his statement:

Is this really considered okay by Christians?

Update: Where are my blog manners? I heard about this via The Carpetbagger Report.