Forbidden texts are sinfully sexy. You can’t help but be attracted to literature that the official Church didn’t want to include. There’s a certain thrill associated with discovering a different perspective from established thought. But let’s get real. You don’t mess with the canon.
Unless you’re Ann Braude, director of Women’s Studies on Religion at Harvard Divinity School, or Elaine Pagels, who won the National Book Award for Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, and is the professor of religion at Princeton University. These Ivy League scholars are not only challenging the 2,000-year-old sacred text, but they are really encouraged by what they have found. Pagels and Braude helped kick off “America the Spiritual,” a series of live web chats focused on “Women and Spirituality—Breaking the Code.” With author Leonard Sweet as moderator, the panelists took questions from online participants at Spirituality.com and from some of the 300 attendees at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston.
From an evangelical perspective, these are the “spit out your coffee, ’cause Britney just kissed Madonna” kind of discussions. In other words, take everything you thought was right and orderly and blow the lid off in front of a live studio audience. So I can’t be accused of overreacting, I must say that scholars have been challenging the validity of the Bible way before Dan Brown’s book on the Da Vinci Code. What is unique about this discussion is that it is not unique in America during the new millennia.
From the cover of Newsweek magazine and the New York Times Bestseller list to an ABC special, this nation is experiencing what Sweet has termed a “spiritual tsunami.” Not just news media, but religious themes in films like The Matrix and Bruce Almighty are raking in profits. “This is all part of this awakening and sensitivity to faith,” Sweet said. “We are right now experiencing some kind of energy from the groundswell of interest in spiritual materials.”
Riding the crest of that wave are Pagels and Braude. These women believe they are probably at the forefront of discussion because of their books. “Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute,” said Pagels, whose research focuses more on religion than gender. “In fact, she helped financially support Jesus and was one of his apostles.”
In the cover article of Newsweek, scholars threw Pope Gregory the Great under the bus for this one. Apparently in A.D. 591, “He gave a sermon in which he combined several biblical women into one, including Magdalene and an unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet. Although the Vatican officially overruled Gregory in 1969, the image stuck until quite recently.”
If you feel like this flies in the face of everything you’ve read in the Bible, you’re mostly right, because, well, with the exception of Ruth, the entire Bible was written by men. “When you read the New Testament, every voice is the voice of a man,” Pagels said. “It’s not just that we are in a different century; we’re not projecting modern values back into the first century. The gospel of Mary Magdalene tells the story of the revelation from her viewpoint. It’s just now coming to light that women were articulate at this time in history and were worth listening to.”
The validity of revelation is a prime argument. “Women are no longer satisfied with a male view of Scriptures,” Braude said.
“Women want to have their thoughts represent them rather than their personal attributes or their relationship to a man,” Pagels said.
Braude supported this argument with an example from an African-American tradition of referring to women as the “backbone of the Church.” The paradox lies in the fact that while women give support, spiritually and materially, to the church, their place is always in the rear. Depending on whom you ask, it could be a while before that wish comes true. The Southern Baptists are now attempting to let women run the missions sector of ministry. Big deal, say the Nazarenes, who agreed to this over 100 years ago.
Pagels also added that, according to this Gospel, violations are human activities, but not a cosmic stain like St. Augustine described. “Mary said, ‘There is no sin of the world,’ only the violations each human commits.”
Before you shrug this off as a desperate attempt at a Danielle Steel novel, think about the questions this type of “archeological finding” raises. I did. I thought about who has authority to speak for the Church? How do you separate genuine spiritual truth from lies? Where does the discussion go from here? Braude suggested thinking about women’s roles in Judaism. “The great thing about women’s roles is that it creates liturgical creativity. We’ve had to rethink ritual practice … rethink everything.”
What Pagels observes is a chance for women who were brought up to think their roles in the Church were limited to see that this has never been true. “Recent discoveries in the texts show this explosion of discussion at the beginning of Christianity.”
In the new millennia, this explosion of discussion will continue to happen via live web casts from the Mary Baker Eddy Library over the next six to nine months. The library’s CEO, Stephen Danzansky encourages “a conversation, not a monologue” for the “America the Spiritual” series, and anybody is welcome to attend.