Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels – The Nag Hammadi Texts (The Gnostic Gospels) Call for More Context When Understanding and Following the Bible

Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels – The Nag Hammadi Texts (The Gnostic Gospels) Call for More Context When Understanding and Following the Bible

pagels_gnosg1A friend recommended Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels to me. It’s an interesting examination of relatively-recently discovered (December 1945) gospels excluded from the Bible. Although this book makes me want to read these writings—known collectively as the Nag Hammadi textsI was disappointed that none of the work touch on homosexuality. Given how much attention is afforded to the Bible’s supposed prohibition of homosexuality, I assumed that writings created around that time would also handle this subject, and therefore add weight to the argument that homosexuality is supposedly “wrong.” This would demonstrating that the few (6) sections of the Bible that mention homosexuality are not a fluke. I wondered what these writings from that era would add to the homosexual “debate” in our culture, when it comes to the Bible.

Turns out, none.

This well-researched and developed book covers almost everything but. And in her work, the author doesn’t mention even one line pertaining to homosexuality. There is, however, interesting gender-related content. The fact that these ancient writings apparently had nothing to say about an issue that receives so much attention in our society is important and interesting: perhaps these ancient authors discussed matters of real importance rather than something as trivial as two men (or women) being in love and/or sleeping together. The omission sends a strong message: it wasn’t worth mentioning.

If Pagels’ book is any indication, these “gnostic gospels” should be added to the Biblical canon.

According to Pagels, gnostic means “knowledge.” She clarifies that this is knowledge gained through observation or experience, what we would refer to as insight (xix). From a religious standpoint, she adds that the secret of gnosis is to know oneself at the deepest level, and this is simultaneous to knowing God (xix). Pagels makes no mention of gnostics believing that one becomes a better Christian through constant studying of the Bible nor following every word of the Bible; it seems that they strive to dig deep and get to know themselves first and foremost, and in so doing, they develop a sense of right and wrong, based on the world in which they live.

To investigate this idea, the author discusses what she found reading the Nag Hammadi texts. These ancient works often depict (among other things) a living Jesus who, instead of coming to save us from sin, arrives as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding (xx). He’s a helper towards enlightenment that’s relevant to you, not one who condemns (nor, as some suggest, one who would judge homosexuals).

This suggests that what is “right” or “wrong” changes with the times (a point that Jesus even echoes in the New Testament, when he challenges criticism about his working on the Sabbath). It also suggests that Christianity is far more flexible than strict Bible adherents would have non-believers understand.

But of course, those who did not toe the ancient, strict line on faith were (and perhaps still are) labeled heretics, a person who deviates from “true faith.” Pagels, however, examines this idea closely, for it is important: what defines true faith? By whose definition? And why would such a strict boundary be drawn (xxii)? As you can imagine, the answer is for political power, and she emphasizes for those who might not know otherwise, today’s Christianity—based on our Bible—only represents a small selection of specifically selected sources from the many available at the time. The writings that did not help support the strict depiction of Christianity being constructed at the time were cast off, deemed heretical (i.e. illegal to read, possess) and often destroyed. This is what makes the findings at Nag Hammadi so revelatory: now we know what was part of the conversation that centuries ago was deemed unworthy. We should rejoice, for now we have a more complete picture.

It’s important to remember that a select few men in power decided how best to shape Christianity. Their choices—collected in our Bible—represent their impressions of what was true, worth following, not the whole picture. Basically, man decided, not God. And if you read Pagels’ book—or the actual writings in the Nag Hammadi texts (both of which are interesting)—you see that these writings are part of a much larger, more interesting story (for example Gnostic Gospels contain a wider variety of gender understanding—check out her chapter 3). This larger story offers more depth and complexity to ancient ideas than previously accounted for, and one that should be respected. This does not mean that The Bible is “wrong”; it does mean that its content should be understood in a broader context. This would open its meaning, not condemn it.

Hopefully, the added material will deflate so much of the negativity surrounding the ideas used by a healthy portion of religiously-inclined individuals in today’s society who use the Bible as a “moral” guide, especially when it comes to sexuality. As the Apocrypha already demonstrates, these works show how little earlier eras cared about homosexuality. If they didn’t, why should we?

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Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality: Support for an Argument against “Religious Freedom” Laws

Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality: Support forSullivan an Argument against “Religious Freedom” Laws

Investigating why the Bible is so often used to discriminate against the LGBT community has exposed me to a lot of interesting information. I read the Bible and then moved on to a number of books that offered helpful perspective on the Bible. My response to a lot of this information in my posts over the last three years has made me feel like I’m repeating myself quite a lot. I find no issue with the Bible itself; it is what it is; however, the issue is how so many people (and groups of people) have misused the Bible for their own unfortunate political agendas. Often, this agenda targets—and unfairly singles out—the LGBT community.

I devoted many a post to this particular point.

However, more and more news stories discuss people who have found fresh ways to use the Bible to discriminate against the LGBT community, using the thin (and inaccurate) reasoning that “the Bible says so.” These stories remind me why repeating myself is important and necessary. The crop of recent “religious freedom” laws adopted by a few states is a perfect example. The faulty “reasoning” behind these bigoted measures grossly misrepresent the religious views expressed in the very book they’re using to defend them.

I recently finished reading: Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality by Andrew Sullivan, and this book offers plenty of useful information that elucidates just how flawed the reasoning behind these bigoted laws is.

In this book, Sullivan argues in favor of society accepting homosexuality—or at least leaving us alone—during an era when our community was gaining ground in the mid-90s. In addition to putting the issue in political as well as historical context, the book breaks down four groups of peoples involved in this issue. Using labels he constructs as well as defines, he presents: The Prohibitionists, the Liberationists, the Conservatives, and the Liberals.

His chapter on the Prohibitionists most directly examines how religious leanings influence attitudes about homosexuality, so that’s the only part I’ll discuss here.

Beginning from a generalization about what opponents of homosexuality believe—“homosexuality is an aberration and that homosexual acts are an abomination” (20)—he labels those most stringently opposed to us as prohibitionists. (As they would see how we live our lives prohibited.) He of course deals most with the religious support for this point of view. This is problematic, in part because their arguments are not grounded in logic but rather beliefs. He accurately points out that you can’t have a reasoned dialogue with a person who argues using beliefs: they are beliefs (meaning not grounded in logic, someone just believes something to be true). In this case, they believe the Bible is true, therefore you can’t counter their point with reason. Something either belongs to a person’s beliefs or it doesn’t.

He focuses his detailed examination of Bible content on six sections most commonly dissected. He offers little that you won’t read elsewhere, but he does a good job probing the context in which ideas are expressed in the Bible as well as how important proper translation of what is written in this ancient text is. (Basically, we don’t always know what we think some of these passages mean, in part because of the specific words used in the language of the original Bible authors.) So I won’t regurgitate all of his points here.

One point in particular about a section in Romans, however, is worth discussing here.

Paul states: “For this cause, God gave them up into vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet” (Romans 1:26-27).

According to Sullivan, in this passage, Paul is calling out Romans who persist in their polytheism, even though they have been given the opportunity to follow the one true God (29). Furthermore, this is significant because of the wording: Paul is calling out those who go against their presumed heterosexual nature and engage in “unnatural” gay sex instead. Paul declines to address those who, against their will—i.e. making no conscious decision—engage in sexual behavior that is in line with their nature: those who are born homosexual. These people, by definition, and Paul’s reasoning, are acting naturally. Therefore, Paul’s condemnation would not apply to them (or us).

To support this point, Sullivan states: “Historians record that in virtually all societies, there are records not only of homosexual acts but of homosexual identities and communities and subcultures” (30). He mentions records dating back to the Stone ages, and even points out that these identities existed in Native American tribes (30), a people of which Paul would have been unaware. Therefore, how could he be commenting on identities he knew nothing about in his limited knowledge?

This is one of many facts that Sullivan uses successfully to point out how “Prohibitionists” who justify their gay bigotry with the Bible are misguided.

I would take this instance a step further and say that here is an important example of where the context in which something in the Bible is said matters. This is not unique, for there are several places where context matters, for people often state that there are places where things are meant to be taken literally and places where things are expressed figuratively—the only way to tell the difference is context. Therefore, you can’t ignore the context in one place and emphasize its importance elsewhere. You have to be consistent.

So the people who are using the Bible to support these offensive “religious freedom” laws are ignoring context. They point to Jesus in general and often Romans in particular to justify their hatred and narrow thinking about people (those in the LGBT community) they don’t understand or accept. Yet, if they’re using Romans, they do so incorrectly. Furthermore, Jesus would never have refused service to any person, especially based on an aspect of their identity with which they were born, such as their sexuality. If these people are so intent on clinging to their hatred—make no mistake, that’s what it is, no matter how you frame it—they should ask themselves if their logic extends to denying people service based on race or gender. That thinking is in the Bible, and yet you don’t hear that used today. Although, sadly, it has been used several times throughout history. Are we anxious to return to those times?

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A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: Should We Bother?

A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: Should We Bother?

“The Bible may not have been dictated by God, it may have had a messy and complicated birth, one filled with political agendas and outdated ideas—but that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be beautiful and sacred” (316).

This quote perfectly sums up A. J. Jacobs’ experience following the Bible literally for a indexyear. It also more or less sums up my experience reading the Bible. I found that, contrary to what I thought I would discover, my issue has never (or at least rarely) been with what the Bible says; rather, my issue has been with how people have chosen to use the Bible for their own personal (and in a number of cases, political) reasons. The important word here is choice. Reading Jacobs’ book has reinforced this feeling for me.

Jacobs wraps up his experience by looking at this idea of choice, with regard to what people choose to follow from the Bible. For, obviously, if you elect not to follow the Bible literally, you are then selectively choosing what to adhere to.

He discusses “cafeteria Christians,” a phrase that refers to those who pick and choose which rules to follow. Although this term has been used derisively by Fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians, as Jacobs’ experience illustrates, this type of selectivity makes sense in our modern era. However, he does point out, in staying with the cafeteria metaphor, that a portion of these “moderate” Christians will select “a nice helping of mercy and compassion” yet have no problem doing anything about the ban on homosexuality (327). He is also quick to point out that EVERYONE who follows Christianity exercises their own type of choice about what to follow. They have to, as he states, because if they didn’t, they would have to “kick women out of church for saying hello” (328).

He recognizes that there’s nothing wrong with choice, and he even praises cafeterias, saying he’s had some great meals in such establishments; however, the key is making the right choices. He suggests embracing the nurturing and healthy ones—avoid the bitter ones (328).

As he suggests with this last point, is there a better guide for deciding which parts of the Bible a person should follow? I would add that the criticism of this type of decision-making would be that a person only selects the ones that are convenient; however, compassion can be a difficult, and often inconvenient pill to swallow. So those who practice it routinely deserve praise.

Jacobs’ journey ends by stating he has become a reverent agnostic, and that’s as compassionate as you can become without changing your belief system: he respects what others believe without telling them they are wrong. This experience has made him more respectful of different belief systems and ways of life. That’s the best lesson to learn from his journey, and one of several reasons that I enjoyed reading his book.

If only everyone were so open minded and tolerant, the gay community would have an easier time with our lives in society.

Next up: I plan to read and discuss the Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels

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