This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Junk History.


            I recently read an excellent book of poems by Susan Ludvigson, called Trinity.  She addresses spiritual themes, mainly through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and Emily Dickinson.  I enjoyed it.  She even tells the wildly apocryphal story that suggests that Jesus did not die on the cross but faked his death, and survived to go to France with Mary and raise a family.  That obviously isn’t part of the story as I know it.  But even if I have a different viewpoint, her excursus is not threatening to me and raises interesting possibilities and perspectives.  I know folks whom this would mortally offend.  But as an English major from way back, and an emergent – which is to say, open source – Christian today, I am able to listen to different stories and embellishments and sometimes glean something valuable from them.
            That being said, Ludvigson includes a “Note” at the end of her book, in which she briefly tells the Mary-Magdalene-and-Jesus-go-to-France-and-raise-a-family legend, I guess so we don’t think she just made all that up.  Then she adds a final sentence: “Some recent studies by scholars of the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to bear out the essential elements in the legend.”
            Now, the vast consensus of legitimate scholars date the Dead Sea Scrolls a couple of centuries before the common era.  Therefore, it is impossible for them to have anything to say about events that happened after that, like in the first century.  However, there are a few writers -- Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Robert Eisenman and others -- who have concocted a bizarre reading of the scrolls in which they are made refer to events around the time of Jesus and Paul.  In order to do this they have to attach secret meanings to the words (like: when it says “Damascus” it really means Qumran; that sort of thing) and hype up a lot of circumstantial and coincidental material.  (Baigent and Leigh are the guys who wrote Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the book upon which The DaVinci Code is largely based.)
            They also attach dark conspiracies to the fact that the Scrolls were mostly suppressed and kept secret for decades, alleging that it was the Vatican preventing their subversive story from getting out.  Many of the Scrolls were in fact kept locked up for years, but this was a matter of disgraceful scholarly laziness, hubris, control-freakiness, and maybe greed, more than anything else.  It was reprehensible and quite un-scholarly, but not a vast conspiracy to suppress a “truth” that threatened the Catholic Church.  We can see this from the fact that anyone can now purchase a copy of the complete Scrolls and read them for themselves.  Yet still, only this bunch of writers, who approached the texts with a preconceived agenda, come up with their eccentric readings.  Presumably only they have the secret wisdom necessary to interpret these ancient writings correctly.  Right.
            Those readings would not bother me were they admittedly fiction or poetry.  But this group of writers apparently wants us to believe that they have exposed the actual historical truth.  And this claim is ridiculous.
            Why otherwise smart and intellectually responsible people get sucked into this kind of nonsense is beyond me.  Would Ms. Ludvigson tolerate someone who wrote a book claiming to “prove” that “Emily Dickinson” is really a secret code for Robert Frost?  I don’t think so.  It might be an interesting poem or novel.  But to claim it as historically true would be idiotic.  
           By allowing herself to succumb to this ideology she denigrates her otherwise fine work.  It may be wonderful and meaningful as poetry; but it’s not history, and to reduce it to history is to drain it of most of its value.  Her work rings far truer as poetry than when she tries to add value by pretending that it has some historical basis, especially when she relies upon dubious and second-rate scholarship.
             

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