Monday, October 28, 2013

Elaine Pagels


One of the foremost scholars of ancient Christianity is Elaine Pagels of Princeton University. She is known primarily for her work with the Gnostic Gospels, and the Nag Hammadi Library, which was a collection of ancient Christian writings discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. As a young scholar, she had access to the Nag Hammadi library, and did scholarly research on the Gnostic gospels. She published her landmark popular book, The Gnostic Gospels, in 1979.

Not only did Pagels study the Gnostic Gospels but she also found them personally meaningful. She likes their emphasis on finding the divine within one's self, and the subversive nature of the Gnostic Gospels. Pagels notes in her writings and interviews, that if one can find the divine within one's self, that makes the Church or Church authority superfluous. She hypothesizes that this may be one reason that Church authorities suppressed these ancient Gospels. In particular, she notes Athanasius ordering the burning of Gnostic or Secret gospels, and his Easter letter listing the 27 books of the New Testament as we have it today. Some of the monks though, liked the Gnostic gospels, and one such monk buried his treasure of Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi.

The Gnostic form of Christianity emphasized finding the divine within one's self more than beliefs about Christ or God, according to Pagels; it was not unlike Buddhist spirituality. She also believes that early Christianity was quite rich in its diversity, and that  there were several different ways of understanding Jesus and his message. She also notes that women had authority in some of these ancient Christian communities, though not in the proto-orthodox communities after the second century.

Some will say that the Gnostic Gospels did not make it into the canon because they were not very good, and that because the Gnostic Christian writings are disparate, they did not present a coherent faith. Another criticism of ancient Gnosticism was that it was elitist.

Pagels herself admits that Christianity probably endured because of the coherence of orthodoxy. She even says in her book Beyond Belief that the orthodox understanding of Christianity was likely winning even before it was established by church and imperial authorities. But she also finds the spirituality of the Gnostic Gospels compelling and that it was a vital force in ancient Christianity. Early Gnostic leaders, such as Valentinus and Marcion enjoyed large followings and were a challenge to ancient orthodoxy. As William Barclay notes, Gnostics were part of the ancient church. Pagels says that if the Gnostics had won the day, and had become the dominant form of Christianity, that the Church would resemble more closely the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Pagels experienced personal tragedy in the 1980's as she lost both her six year old son, and several months later, her husband. She describes a morning in which she was jogging in Central Park, trying to deal with the grief of losing her son. As the weather was cold and rainy, she slipped into the back of the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest. There she observed the worship, and found it comforting and meaningful, and came to appreciate the importance of the faith community. She later remarried a man who had also been widowed, and they raised a blended family together.

Pagels has written many books, a very popular one being Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, released in 2004. In this book, Pagels talks about the controversy between Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. One portrays Jesus as the Light of the World, and the unique source of salvation; the other teaches that although Jesus is the light of the world, this light can be found in every person for themselves. She believes that the Gospel of John was written in part to counter the Gospel of Thomas. Of course, Thomas is portrayed as doubting Jesus at first, and then later, confessing him as Lord and God after putting his fingers in the wounds of the Resurrected Christ.

Not all will agree with Professor Pagels, and her take on early Christianity. But she has brought to light the richness of diversity in early Christianity, and the intriguing Gnostic Gospels.

Below are some links for Elaine Pagels:

PBS: Mary Alice Williams's interview with Princeton historian Elaine Pagels

The Politics of Christianity: A Talk with Elaine Pagels

PBS NOW Interview with Bill Moyers

Elaine Pagel's Faculty Page from Princeton University

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel, reviewed by Lance Goldsberry

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel is truly a classic. First published in Germany in 1956, this book was later published in English in 1960. Donald Attwater, the noted scholar on Eastern Christianity writes a foreword for the book.

It is a great coffee table book, which provides a survey on how all the various Eastern Catholic Churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice (Mass in the West). This books highlights the Divine Liturgy as it is celebrated in 12 major Catholic Churches: Ruthenian (Ukrainian), Russian, Greek, Syrian, Melkite (Arabic), Maronite (Lebanese), Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldee (Iraq and Persia), Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara (India) Churches. All of these, except the Maronites, have analogs in sister Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Liesel provides historical sketches of all of the particular Eastern Catholic Churches, which gives one a sense of the Universality of the Church as she grew among various national groups, beginning with the dispersion of the Apostles.

It also underscores the truth of Catholic-Orthodoxy, as we see that the Church offers the single sacrifice of Christ with the same basic understanding of the Holy Eucharist, through out the various lands, nations and cultures that have been reached with the gospel: "For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts."- Malachi 1:11, Douay Bible. Justin Martyr (2nd Century) used this passage to explain the Christian Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The Church reached from the British Isles, across Europe and Northern Africa, and even into Central Asia, and eventually as far as China in the first millennium. Yet, all the Churches maintained a basic Catholic understanding of the Trinity and Person of Christ, Baptism, the Holy Sacrifice, the veneration of the Mother of God, and the Sacraments. This was not a top-down development, but the organic growth of the Church universal among various tribes, nations, and peoples, beginning with the original Apostles of Christ. For example, St. Mark the Gospel writer and interpreter for St. Peter in Rome, founded the Church in Egypt, and was the first Coptic Pope. St. Thomas founded Churches in Iraq and India. These Christian communities have existed in these lands since the first century.

Later expansion of the Church takes place as the Nestorians push into China, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius evangelize the Slavs, and offer the Divine Liturgy in the language of the people. Their work laid the foundations for Churches in Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The narratives for these Churches also underscore periods of suppression and persecution, lending credence to Tertullian's saying that the "Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church."

Liesel, besides providing these fine historical sketches, also gives a detailed description of each of these Liturgies, with their actions and rubrics. Black and white pictures of the Liturgies taken by N. Makula underscore their awe and beauty. All of the pictures were taken in Rome.

Because of the time this book was written, Latinizations that either crept in or were enforced in the Eastern Churches are evident. We see Latin-style garments, and read about spoken Liturgies without sensing in the Ruthenian Church. However, Liesel even at this time notes the urgency for reform to purify these Eastern rites of their Latinizations. The Eastern Catholic Churches have been a stumbling block between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Some may scoff at the quaintness of this book, which features Latinizations and sometimes exhibits a very slight Catholic chauvinism over and against our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. But until someone produces something better, this is a treasure. I hope one day, someone produces a similar book, which will be more up to date, and reflect the period post-Vatican II, featuring the reform of the ancient Eastern Catholic Liturgies and be based on the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches as well.

I am very lucky. I picked up my copy of this book in good condition with a library cover for only $10 in the area known as Dinky Town in Minneapolis, by the University. However, I have often seen this book for up to $100 on line on eBay or Amazon used books, so if you happen across one in a used book store for a good price, snap it up! I am sure it will provide you hours of enjoyment as it has for me. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

I can't close this review without mentioning that we need also to pray for our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, who are facing fierce persecution at this time in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and other places as well.

- by Lance Goldsberry

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel

Eastern Catholic Liturgies by Nicholas Liesel is truly a classic. First published in Germany in 1956, this book was later published in English in 1960. Donald Attwater, the noted scholar on Eastern Christianity writes a foreword for the book.

It is a great coffee table book, which provides a survey on how all the various Eastern Catholic Churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice (Mass in the West). This books highlights the Divine Liturgy as it is celebrated in 12 major Catholic Churches: Ruthenian (Ukrainian), Russian, Greek, Syrian, Melkite (Arabic), Maronite (Lebanese), Coptic (Egyptian), Ethiopian, Armenian, Chaldee (Iraq and Persia), Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara (India) Churches. All of these, except the Maronites, have analogs in sister Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Liesel provides historical sketches of all of the particular Eastern Catholic Churches, which gives one a sense of the Universality of the Church as she grew among various national groups, beginning with the dispersion of the Apostles.

It also underscores the truth of Catholic-Orthodoxy, as we see that the Church offers the single sacrifice of Christ with the same basic understanding of the Holy Eucharist, through out the various lands, nations and cultures that have been reached with the gospel: "For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation: for my name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord of hosts."- Malachi 1:11, Douay Bible. Justin Martyr (2nd Century) used this passage to explain the Christian Eucharistic Sacrifice.

The Church reached from the British Isles, across Europe and Northern Africa, and even into Central Asia, and eventually as far as China in the first millennium. Yet, all the Churches maintained a basic Catholic understanding of the Trinity and Person of Christ, Baptism, the Holy Sacrifice, the veneration of the Mother of God, and the Sacraments. This was not a top-down development, but the organic growth of the Church universal among various tribes, nations, and peoples, beginning with the original Apostles of Christ. For example, St. Mark the Gospel writer and interpreter for St. Peter in Rome, founded the Church in Egypt, and was the first Coptic Pope. St. Thomas founded Churches in Iraq and India. These Christian communities have existed in these lands since the first century.

Later expansion of the Church takes place as the Nestorians push into China, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius evangelize the Slavs, and offer the Divine Liturgy in the language of the people. Their work laid the foundations for Churches in Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The narratives for these Churches also underscore periods of suppression and persecution, lending credence to Tertullian's saying that the "Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church."

Liesel, besides providing these fine historical sketches, also gives a detailed description of each of these Liturgies, with their actions and rubrics. Black and white pictures of the Liturgies taken by N. Makula underscore their awe and beauty. All of the pictures were taken in Rome.

Because of the time this book was written, Latinizations that either crept in or were enforced in the Eastern Churches are evident. We see Latin-style garments, and read about spoken Liturgies without sensing in the Ruthenian Church. However, Liesel even at this time notes the urgency for reform to purify these Eastern rites of their Latinizations. The Eastern Catholic Churches have been a stumbling block between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Some may scoff at the quaintness of this book, which features Latinizations and sometimes exhibits a very slight Catholic chauvinism over and against our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters. But until someone produces something better, this is a treasure. I hope one day, someone produces a similar book, which will be more up to date, and reflect the period post-Vatican II, featuring the reform of the ancient Eastern Catholic Liturgies and be based on the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches as well.

I am very lucky. I picked up my copy of this book in good condition with a library cover for only $10 in the area known as Dinky Town in Minneapolis, by the University. However, I have often seen this book for up to $100 on line on eBay or Amazon used books, so if you happen across one in a used book store for a good price, snap it up! I am sure it will provide you hours of enjoyment as it has for me. It is one of my most treasured possessions.

I can't close this review without mentioning that we need also to pray for our Eastern Christian brothers and sisters, who are facing fierce persecution at this time in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and other places as well.

- by Lance Goldsberry

Patriarch Bartholomew on Apophatic Theology

If one speaks theologically, then one always does so within the context of an intimate relationship with God, who is the source of all theology. Moreover, if one articulates theology within the context of prayer, then one also realizes that the most appropriate method of theology is the way of silence before the awesome divine mystery that can never be fully grasped or described.

The final word, then, of theology is silence; its essence lies in the absence of words. For if it is difficult, as St. Gregory the Theologian claims, to conceive God, it is impossible to define God. Theology is best not said; it is most authentic when it is expressed in silence. This is why icons of St. John the Evangelist or Theologian will depict him with his fingers across his sealed mouth, as if to underline the importance of mystery and silence. So the way of Orthodox theology and spirituality cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of its negative or apophatic dimension.

Through the apophatic approach...Orthodox theology affirms the absolute transcendence of God while at the same time underlining the abiding immanence of God.

However, apophatic theology is is not simply another intellectual method of approaching God. It is not a better or even more effective way of knowing God. Theology always remains the knowledge beyond all knowledge; ultimately, it is a form of divine “ignorance.”

Negative theology, therefore, is not merely a corrective or corresponding way to the affirmative approach. It is the only way to God...


- Patriarch Bartholomew in his book, Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Jesus liberates the oppressed; the "Prosperity Gospel" does not liberate

Last night on TV, I heard a famous preacher say that Christians should never file bankruptcy, except in rare circumstances.  This is contrary to the Bible’s message of liberation. Never mind the fact that 66% of the bankruptcies in the U.S. are caused by medical bills, in this a society that has not provided universal health insurance. Forgiveness of debt is a biblical concept. Jesus tells a parable about a creditor forgiving a debtor who owes him a substantial amount of money (see Matthew 18.21-35). The Torah prescribes forgiveness of debt and a return of the land to its original owners in the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25.10-13). When Jesus began his public ministry, he read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4.18,19, NIV

The "year of the Lord's favor;" the text that Jesus reads refers to the Jubilee. Jesus preaches a message of liberation, the Gospel is GOOD NEWS.

The prosperity gospel is not a gospel of grace, but of bondage; it does not liberate the oppressed.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Poor Man's Heaven. The Rich Man's Hell

via Heaven and Earth

 
There is a lot of talk about religion out there. What passes for Christianity in some quarters not only bears no resemblance to the Founder's vision of faith, it is down right immoral.

The current crop of right wing religionists in the House of Representatives deny food stamps to the poor in direct contradiction to the Founder's admonition; "Feed My Sheep". (John 21).

Now they want to deny health care to the poor and the 48 million Americans who have no health care, in direct contradiction to the Founder's admonition; "visit the sick in their distress". (Matthew 25:36)

It is fitting that the Gospel for this last Sunday would be the famous story of the rich man and Lazarus. They both died. But the rich man went into Hades (an interesting Greek concept for the afterlife) and Lazarus, the poor man went into the bosom of Abraham where he was comforted and filled with good things.

When the rich man begs Lazarus to send someone from the dead to tell us about the consequences of our behavior in this life, Lazarus explains that a great chasm separates the rich from the poor; and Heaven from Hell. And so it does. The great chasm between the rich and the poor is exceeded only by the chasm between the poor who are comforted in the bosom of Abraham and the rich who rest in torment.

Read the original if you don't believe me.

Let us pray for the rich and the poor in this country that we may find a way to close the chasm to make the salvation of all possible. Read these words carefully. If ever there were a headline for America to read today, this is it!

Religionists, please take note.

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich Man and Lazarus

‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”