|Bishop Michael Ingham speaks to Synod|
There seems to be a bit of a fuss - a Christian fuss - in some parts of the world over the Da Vinci Code. The Roman Catholic Church has asked its members worldwide not to read the book and to boycott the movie. Some Protestant fundamentalists are demonstrating outside movie theatres. A few governments in some Christian countries have placed restrictions on its screening.
Dan Brown’s best-selling book is of course fiction, and it’s based on another book that came out back in 1982 called “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” This earlier work, however, (unlike Brown’s) purported to be history and not fiction. It proposed the idea that Jesus of Nazareth got married to Mary Magdalene and that they had a child, or several children, whose existence was hidden from the world by the disciples.
After the death of Jesus on Good Friday, the thesis goes, the children along with Mary Magdalene were smuggled out of Palestine and taken to Gaul, or France as we know it today, where their descendants still exist carrying this precious secret. The disappearance of the wife and children allowed the disciples to put around the story that Jesus was not dead but alive, and that he was therefore the Son of God, the Risen One.
While the Early Church was spreading this news around the Mediterranean, the real truth of the matter was being kept secret in France and over the centuries the conspiracy has been maintained by clandestine religious orders with the full knowledge of the Vatican. The bulk of the book is an elaborate and complicated conspiracy theory detailing the mediaeval intrigues of Avignon popes, the formation of special guards called the Knights Templar to protect the descendants of Jesus, secret chateaus in the Pyrenees and so on.
Central to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” is the claim that the wedding in Cana of Galilee - the first miracle in John’s Gospel - was actually Jesus’ own wedding to Mary Magdalene. Jesus and Mary were too poor, the authors claim, to buy enough wine for the feast so Jesus did this little transformation of water thing to save money and also mightily to impress the Jews. When they weren’t impressed, the disciples decided to get Mary out of the picture so they could concentrate on promoting the Messiah image of Jesus.
Now all of this came out 24 years ago. So there’s nothing new in the Da Vinci Code. In fact conspiracy theories have been around for a long time now (you can find some in the New Testament itself) and all are designed to try to prove Christianity is a hoax and Jesus an imposter. This current craze is just the latest in a long line. When this book came out in 1982, I was serving as the Rector of St. Francis-in-the-Wood, and I remember speaking to the congregation one morning about it. This, in part, is what I said at that time:
“There are so many flaws and assumptions in this book that it would be impossible to cover them in a few minutes. But let me list the principal difficulties with it.
“First, there is not the slightest reason to believe that the wedding in Cana was Jesus’ own wedding. It was quite customary, indeed normal, for Jewish rabbis to marry, and if Jesus had married there would have been no reason for the Gospel writers to hide the fact. Indeed, it would have been advantageous for the Church to advertise Jesus’ marriage since Jews from that day to this regard marriage as a great source of spiritual knowledge. One of the early Rabbinic codes says “an unmarried man may not become a teacher” - which shows what Jews think about celibacy.
“So if our Lord had married Mary Magdalene we could expect that to have been clear in the New Testament. That fact that it isn’t suggests that they weren’t, since one of the cardinal rules of biblical studies is that if you find something in the Scriptures disadvantageous to the early Church, then it’s almost certainly true.
“Second, it’s preposterous to assume that, after conceiving and carrying out this hoax upon humanity - the hushing up of a marriage, the disappearance of a wife and children, and the invention of a fictitious resurrection - the disciples would then embark upon a lifelong mission to preach an invented Gospel which led to their own martyrdom. Whoever was in on the supposed conspiracy, it would certainly have included Peter, the leader of the disciples, and James and John the beloved disciple. Yet all these men were put to death for preaching the Gospel - Peter being crucified upside down in Rome by the Emperor Nero, and James martyred by Herod Agrippa.
“Now it is historically possible for people to die for a mistake. We know of many tragic instances of that. But it is humanly impossible to die for a lie. It is stretching credibility too far to believe that Peter would have undergone the torture of crucifixion knowing that it was all for nothing. He is more likely to have confessed the truth and gone back to his fishing boat.
“There are other problems in the thesis too. How on earth could a woman with children be smuggled out of the country in the middle of a Roman occupation, with all the land and sea routes under military control? Getting them all the way across to Gaul at the other end of the Mediterranean, finding secure and secret lodging, with sufficient money to provide for their long term future, would require a sophisticated international intelligence service such as only the Roman Empire itself possessed, and quite beyond the capacity of a band of Galilean fishermen and a few Jerusalem tax collectors. Yet the Roman Empire wasn’t friendly to Christianity for another 300 years.
“This latest attempt to discredit Christianity falls down, like all the previous attempts, under the sheer burden of its own nonsense.”
Now I mention all this today because we are gathered here in Synod. And we are meeting at a time where there is a kind of defensive Christianity around us, a fearful and overly protective sentiment among some Christians that makes them reactive to the world rather than constructively engaged with it. The fact is, there are good and strong reasons for believing in the Gospel. The fact is, we should be confident in the truth about Jesus Christ and bold in his mission to the world. Defensiveness shows a failure of nerve.
St. Augustine of Canterbury, whose death we commemorate today, did not walk across Europe from Rome to England in the 6th century in defence of a lie. He did not establish a church in the British Isles to perpetuate a myth. He was motivated by a powerful faith in the goodness of God and in the truth of Christ and by the importance of establishing the reign of God among the people of his time. We here in Synod have exactly the same task.
It has always been a challenge to spread the Gospel. Augustine’s era was neither easier nor more difficult than ours. In 6th century England he faced warring tribes and a divided church. He had to live among what one historian describes as “uncouth and brutish islanders.”
In British Columbia today we face the challenge of rising secularism and deepening materialism. The fastest growing religion in this province according to the Census is “no religion”. The challenges we face don’t come from other religions, from the changing multicultural landscape of immigration. In fact, we have much in common with them. The real challenges to all people of faith come primarily from secularism, from the belief system that says we need no belief system.
We live in a wealthy part of the world where people are raised from childhood to be consumers and designers of their own reality. You can choose your clothes today from a variety of fashions; you can buy foods from all over the world; you will soon be able to design the genetic code of your own baby; and of course you can construct your own religion. Spirituality has become a new fashion industry. We are religious consumers, as of everything else. This is the culture in which we live.
Christians vary in their response to this. Some want nothing to do with it. They turn their backs on the world. Others surrender too quickly to culture, and fail to challenge its dark side, its destructive patterns and values. The Anglican tradition is neither of these. Our tradition is to engage culture, to meet it head on, without defensiveness, armed with reason and the critical witness of the Gospel.
We have to do this in a number of ways. We need to transform our parish churches into mission centres that offer people a spiritual pathway through this materialistic culture. We need to lift ourselves out of survival mode, and get to work on mission. We need to confront the main issues of the day with the ancient truths of our faith, and not run away from them or suppress innovation with intolerance. And we need to offer people genuine alternatives to the mindless consumerism that dominates our TV and radio waves - alternatives rooted in the radical life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
If we can do these things, then we can constructively change this culture. We can offer people something genuinely valuable and life-giving they can’t get anywhere else. And we will come alive again as a church and be filled with missionary zeal in the right and proper sense.
The real significance of the wedding in Cana of Galilee is its invitation to change the ordinary into the intoxicating. That’s what we need to do in this diocese and in each of our parishes. We need to rise to the challenge of modern secularism by making our worship, our buildings and our mission reflect something new and extraordinary: worship that transforms people from consumers into stewards; buildings that invite people into the future not the past; mission that is centred in service to the world not in acquisition of goods or privileges; prayer and study that frees people from the spirit of the age and connects them to the Spirit of the eternal.
The Christian faith offers people values to live by and truths to stand up for. We are more than individuals on a quest for success. We are a community dedicated to the world and grounded in the life of God. We are more than an institution: we are a tradition that is prophetic, dynamic and universal. We know how to find the spiritual in the midst of the material, because God came among us in the flesh and redeemed our world. We know how cope with suffering and loss because we place ourselves under the mystery of the resurrection. We can show people how to become spiritual beings on a human journey, and not just units of production in the rush for survival.
To do this, there are new conspiracy theories we need to challenge. One is the seductive notion that more toys bring more happiness. Another is that a society with no beliefs will produce greater tolerance. A third is that truth is relative and you can simply construct your own. And the fourth great modern delusion is that we can go it alone in this universe all by ourselves, without help from its Creator
We can’t overturn our culture in one Synod, of course. But we can start. We can set our feet along the right path. We can re-affirm the lordship of Jesus Christ as our model and guide. We can free ourselves from religious and social conventions and turn ourselves around to bring in the reign of God, as he did. We can commit ourselves to a life of stewardship and begin the tough decisions about re-organizing our parishes for mission. This Synod is an opportunity for us to challenge some of the deepest assumptions of our culture, and also our own complacency and conformity with it.
The fuss over Da Vinci at least tells us that the modern world is still intensely interested in the life of Jesus, who he was and what happened to him. Two thousand years after his life, there is no lessening of fascination for this man and his unique place in human history. It seems to me the millions of people flocking to see the movie have a right to know the real story - the story that has sustained much of the world for twenty centuries, the Gospel of resurrection and the unconditional love of God - and that we are the ones who can offer it to them.
My friends, let us not fear the world, but seek God in it. May the Spirit of God guide us in this Church and throughout our Synod.