2016-06-30
Bishop John Shelby Spong, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J., writes a weekly online column on faith, politics and the events that shape our lives. To learn more and receive a free month of Bishop Spong’s insightful columns, visit http://www.bishopspong.com/free.

To get into the theater for the first New Jersey showing of "The Da Vinci Code," I had to walk past a small picket line of three local Catholic women saying their rosaries and carrying a sign that read, “'The Da Vinci Code' insults our Lord and his Church. Stop blasphemy.”

Demystifying 'Da Vinci'Presenting my press card, I asked for an interview. They told me they were part of a statewide Catholic effort to oppose the distortions of their faith in “The Da Vinci Code.” When I asked if they had read the book, they answered, “No,” and then said they would not think of reading blasphemy. “How do you then know that it insults your Lord and his Church?” I inquired. “Our church said so,” they responded. I next asked if they had seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” “Oh yes,” they said, “that was wonderful.” Are you aware, I continued, that most biblical scholars think Mel Gibson’s film grossly distorted the New Testament portrait of the crucifixion by blending it with medieval Catholic piety? “Our church told us that it was true,” they intoned.

That interview was going nowhere, so I departed, recalling the words of an evangelical leader who said, “We live in a Jesus-haunted culture that is biblically illiterate.”

I am neither a fan of detective stories nor of the cinema. My chief experience in viewing this motion picture was boredom. The plot was beyond credibility, the claimed historical basis was badly flawed, and the acting, other than that of two supporting characters, was not spectacular. Despite its chases and violence, I found it slow-moving. Had the story not been draped around the central icon of the religious tradition that has informed our civilization, I do not believe it would come close to having the appeal of the “007” series--or even “Murder, She Wrote.” Keeping the heirs of Jesus concealed for more than 2,000 years in order to preserve a theologically correct interpretation of Jesus as the Incarnation of God and the second person of the Holy Trinity is a bizarre theme, to say the least. The titillating idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that this union produced a daughter--who in turn kept the divine bloodline of Jesus alive for all those centuries, despite a massive ecclesiastical plot to destroy this theological bombshell--makes for good theater, but it doesn’t make for good history.

First of all, the time between Jesus and today represents a minimum of 60 generations. Even if the union of Jesus and Magdalene had produced an heir, the percentage of "divine blood" present in any heirs by the 60th generation would be infinitesimal. The idea that, after 60 generations, this bloodline resided in a single 21st-century woman--and not in literally hundreds of thousands of heirs--is patently absurd, unless each generation had only a single child.


When I asked the picketers how this movie insults Jesus, they pointed to its storyline about Jesus marrying and having a child. I found in those words the negative attitudes about women that are rooted in the patriarchal sexism practiced by the Christian Church through the centuries. Is there something evil about marriage and childbirth? Is marriage a compromise with sin, as the Church fathers have proclaimed? St. Jerome went so far as to argue that the only redeeming feature of marriage was that it produced more virgins. I do not believe that women are the corrupters of “holy men.” Yet that idea lingers on in a church that installed mandatory celibacy and unnatural virginity as pathways to holiness. What those “ideals” produced, however, has been little more than distorted sexuality and massive amounts of debilitating guilt.

It's true that nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was married. But before anyone feels too relieved at this news, nowhere in the Bible does it say that he was not married. Yet Mark, Matthew, and Luke all assert that a band of women accompanied Jesus and the disciples all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. Under the Jewish social and cultural norms of that time, these women could have been only one of two things: wives or prostitutes. When these women were listed in the biblical texts, Magdalene was always placed first, as if she had a claim to status the other women did not possess. Of course, these hints constitute only circumstantial evidence, but they do raise questions and open the door to a way to read the gospels outside the box of literalism.

Other biblical evidence that might point to a significant relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is that she is portrayed in every gospel as one of the chief mourners at his tomb. In the fourth gospel, she is the only mourner and is also depicted as demanding access to the body of Jesus, which she believes has been removed from the tomb. For a first-century Jewish woman to demand access to the deceased body of a Jewish male would have been off the charts in terms of propriety unless she was the nearest of kin. The name Magdalene also does not appear to be connected with a village called Magdala, since there is no evidence that such a place ever existed. People tell me they have been to the village of Magdala, to which I respond, “Yes, and it was built just to attract people like you!”

Scholars now think "Magdalene" is related to the word migdal, which literally means tower but comes from the same root as "large" or "great." Suppose Mary Magdalene means Mary the Great? Other passages in the gospels might be read as suppressed hints of the possibility that Jesus and Magdalene were actually husband and wife. These hints do not prove that Jesus and Magdalene were married. They simply suggest that this possibility cannot be ruled out. Dan Brown, by making the marriage of Jesus and Magdalene the theme of his exciting page-turner, has now placed that possibility into the public arena. It is not likely to disappear soon.

What neither Brown’s book nor the movie understands is that the debate over whether Jesus was human and somehow infused with God’s presence, or a divine life simply masquerading as a human being, has been ongoing since the dawn of the Christian era. The first gospel, Mark, written in the eighth decade C.E., portrays Jesus as fully human, with no hint of a miraculous birth, who at the time of his baptism was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Fourth Gospel, John, written in the 10th decade, portrays Jesus as the pre-existent Word of God incarnated in a human form, which allowed him to do godlike things.

That debate turned on how God is to be understood. If God is a supernatural being, dwelling outside the life of this world, who periodically enters human history to split the Red Sea or to answer prayers, to meet God in Jesus is to see Jesus as a divine visitor. However, if God is conceived, as many modern theologians suggest, as the “Ground of Being,” the source of life and love, then Jesus becomes the human vessel through whom the God presence is experienced, enabling people like Paul to say: “God was in Christ.”

Through the centuries, the church has tended to see Jesus as a divine visitor. In the 21st century, the emphasis has been to look at God through the lens of humanity. At the end of the movie version of “The Da Vinci Code,” Tom Hanks raises this question poignantly when he says, “Maybe the human is the divine”--or maybe the human is the only medium through which men and women can talk about God.
I think that is true, and because I hold that conviction, I think the only task facing the Christian Church in our day is to enhance the humanity of every person, so that by living fully, loving wholeheartedly, and daring to be all that they can be, they make visible all that the human word "God" means.

The Jesus I serve was understood by John’s gospel to be the one who came so that “we might have life abundantly.” The religion of Jesus can do no less. When Hanks says, “As long as there has been one true God, there has been killing,” he spoke the truth that plagues religion when it claims that its own understanding of divinity is the same thing as God--which seems always to lead to religious imperialism.


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