Cliff Gardner

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Da Vinci Code

I saw the Da Vinci Code today with my family. When I read the book I thought it read like a Boxcar Children novel and the movie was about on par with that. However, what stands out the most to be about the whole story is the reaction many people are having to it.

Anyone who has spent more than a few Sunday school sessions studying the Bible is aware that it shouldn’t be taken literally. It was written thousands of years ago, translated, debated and thoroughly edited. Numerous parts were omitted from the original draft for political or practical purposes and text is full of metaphors demanding interpretation. Taking the Bible literally (and this is something that Dan Brown does point out well in the book) has lead to more killing than anything else in history. The point of the Bible, and this is the Baha’i in me saying this, isn’t to cling to the text itself but to the overarching message of love it embodies.

SO WHAT if Jesus had a wife and children? That doesn’t change the power of his message, which is fundamentally the same one preached by Muhammad, Buddha, Bah'a'ullah and others. However, if my beliefs were somehow challenged by a book or movie (which they aren’t in the case of the Da Vinci Code), I would like to believe that my faith would be strong enough to withstand a little debate.


  • I think it's very misleading to say that parts of the Bible were "omitted from the original draft," as if someone sat down and wrote the Bible as a single author. The Bible is a collection of books by different authors, but except for some of the Old Testament Big Five, there is almost no evidence of "writing by committee" or after-the-fact mass editing by different authors than the original ones. For example, the gospel of Mark was almost certainly written by a disciple named John Mark between 40 CE and 70 CE - do you want to tell me which parts were omitted?

    I believe the Bible, especially the 4 gospels, have a message of love, but there are many more messages than that, and I'm not really comfortable boiling all of Christian theology down to "Love people." For example, if I KNEW the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, it would change my whole conception of my religion. But I've investigated it, and I think it's true, and that gives me a very particular view of Jesus.

    I don't care in a theological sense if he had a family, but I'm convinced from the evidence that he did not. People seem to buy alternate theories about Jesus' life on much less proof than they'd require to buy the "regular" version, and I find that strange. In that sense, though, you're right, I'd rather talk to people about it than freak out about a movie.

    Oh, and I think land/resource conflicts have led to the most killing, but YMMV, obviously.

    By Anonymous andrea, at 6:26 PM  

  • Oh, and I also disagree that Muhammad, Jesus, and Buddha preached the same message, especially in terms of how people are required to interact with the world (don't know Baha'a'ullah much). Muhammad was much more purity and justice oriented than Jesus, and Buddha wanted people to withdraw from the world to an extent, which Jesus didn't, etc. etc. I realize this is a core belief of Baha'i, I'm just registering my dissent. :)

    By Anonymous andrea, at 6:30 PM  

  • Here Here! Debate is good, but not to make false claims.

    By Blogger truax, at 6:51 PM  

  • Yay! Religious debate!

    What I meant by omitted from the original draft was deciding, around the time Christianity became a more mainstream religion, which documents were to be included and which one's weren't, and there's lots of evidence to suggest that not every book was included. Your example of Mark sort of proves my point, kind of--that 40 years after the fact isn't exactly the most accurate way to transcribe the life of Jesus, and details probably got fudged, meaning that the details shouldn't be the focus, only the bigger picture.

    I'm pretty convinced too that Jesus was resurrected. However, what parts wouldn't still apply if he didn't come back from the dead? Wouldn't the commandments still be good ideas? I'm just saying that the message is the important part, not the specifics.

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 7:32 PM  

  • I think I need to read this book. I haven't done it yet. Maybe then what you're saying would make sense.

    I'm staying out of a religious debate. I'm not smart enough for that.

    By Anonymous Holli, at 9:15 PM  

  • Personally, I've always felt that Jesus was quite likely married, but that's because I think Jesus sort of exemplified the things that we ought to do in our lives, if we possibly can, and I think being married to a good person is one of those things. But that's just me.

    By Blogger Haylie, at 10:55 PM  

  • re: the extent to which the content of the bible has been determined by people for various reasons down the ages:

    there was a great program on NPR recently called "misquoting Jesus". if anyone is interested there is a link here...

    i highly recommend listening as i do feel the clinging to literal interpretations is detrimental and gives rise to a dogma that strangles true religion and spirituality and the true message of Christianity.

    By Anonymous Tan Ya, at 7:02 AM  

  • For some people, if Jesus was not actually resurrected, then he wasn't God, and there is no point in worshiping him. He becomes just another guy with nice ideas who you can listen to in bits and pieces, if you feel like. If you don't like that he seems to say all divorce is bad except for adultery, you can ignore it. But if he was the Christ, and the Word become flesh, etc., than he is much more than any other human prophet, and should be followed above others. So it's very important to some people, and I wouldn't take it too lightly!

    40 years is massively short for that time period, actually, and almost everything we have on major historical figures that old or older is way, way farther apart between life and record. It wasn't like now where everyone is literate and we write biography before people are dead. There was an oral record first, then a written one, but that doesn't mean they weren't accurate. And material in some of the letters (like 1 Corinthians) may even be older. So yes, there was likely some fudging in whether people said "nice" or "good," but whether than extended to, say, accounts of Jesus' trial? I'd be more convinced by actual proof things were different, as opposed to just assuming standard practice for biography failed.

    Haylie- Some good people also choose to not marry to devote themselves totally to a cause (like monks.) People in Jesus' time sometimes did that too. So you have a funny way of reasoning things out. :)

    By Anonymous andrea, at 7:19 AM  

  • I actually think that if Jesus weren't the Word (although I do think he was one of many folks who fit into that category...sorry, being Baha'i again) that it would actually be better for faith in general because it would mean that we would have to respect PEOPLE and their ideas, or at least consider and debate them regardless of divinity. If, to quote regina spektor (haha), people are just people, then their ideas have to go through more obstacles and couldn't just retreat to "well, he was God and was right," which is what lots of hard-line folks have always done with the Bible (even today, folks like Fred Phelps and company are a good example).

    As for proof that stuff got left out, I think the NPR program linked to by Tan Ya above is a pretty good example. However, I agree with you that marriage isn’t really a cornerstone of all that is good. It can be awesome, but you can be a rockstar without being married. Just my .02

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 9:03 AM  

  • OH, and I think your argument that small details got fudged but the bigger one's were the same is exactly why a literal interpretation of the Bible that clings to those specific details doesn't really make sense and focusing on the overarcing message does. I'm not saying that some of those details aren't really important to some people (like Jesus' divinity), but I do think that on the whole, faith is better off focusing on the steak and not the peas.

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 9:50 AM  

  • "For example, the gospel of Mark was almost certainly written by a disciple named John Mark between 40 CE and 70 CE - do you want to tell me which parts were omitted?"

    This is actually where I find the biggest hole in the claim for a literal interpretation of the Bible, especially when it comes to the Gospels. I think the reason why the life of Jesus is open to interpretation and debate is because the four books of the Bible that supposedly chronicle his life were written years after the fact. Granted, 40 years is certainly a short period of time given the grand scheme, but we have to remember that the people who wrote these Gospels are just like us. They experienced the same lapses in memory and personal preferences in interpretation of events that we would in 40 years.

    This certainly isn't a reason to discard what's said in the Gospels (and other books of the Bible) completely, but I do think it lends credence to the idea of using caution when taking things said in the Bible literally.

    By Anonymous shea, at 2:21 PM  

  • If Jesus wasn't, in fact, the Son of God, then he is a dangerous madman who should not be trusted, clearly insane, and probably deeply evil.

    I am borrowing this argument in shortened form from C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity," a wonderful book. He addresses it early. It can't be the case that Jesus Christ was simply a "moral teacher" or something like that, because he wasn't just leaving the inference that he was the Son of God to us; he was saying it himself.

    You have to get more than some "minor details" wrong to get that part wrong, since it is a common theme in all four Gospels and indeed in every account of his life.

    Also, check out Surah 5:54 (in the Qur'an) and tell me if you still think that every religion has the same essential message. :) It really demeans all of them to say that. I deeply believe that the teachings of my religion are different in extremely important ways from the teachings of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism; having to listen to people say "no, you're wrong, it's all the same" is more than a little insulting, yes?

    By Blogger Ian Samuel, at 9:01 PM  

  • I'm not trying to insult anyone and you're certainly entitled to believe whatever you want. I guess all I would ask, then, is where you think Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and everyone else who believes something different than you are going to go when they die. I just think we're all on different paths on the same mountain. :-)

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 1:28 PM  

  • I don't like religious debate much, but I wanted to share a certain perspective on some of the things that were said:

    Andrea, we've never met personally, but I have tremendous respect for your reasoning (and, incidentally, your short fiction). I don't mean to quibble, but I feel as if some of what you wrote doesn't mesh with my line of thinking. Please know that I offer the following criticisms with the utmost respect.

    When you state that, "40 years is massively short for that time period, actually, and almost everything we have on major historical figures that old or older is way, way farther apart between life and record."

    This is a very valid point. You could say that the existence of Jesus, and even much of what he said and did, is as likely to have happened as, say, the existence and deeds of Napoleon. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would deny that Napoleon existed or did the things we take for granted he did.

    At the same time, no-one is arguing for the divinity of Napoleon, nor the vast majority of other historical figures, so the normal standards won't do. The specific details of most historical figures lives are far from set in stone, but assuming that they are true seldom has far-reaching implications regarding our perspective on the cosmos, nor our day-to-day morality.

    Additionally, when we consider any historical document, it is important to consider the motivations behind its authors when judging its factual accuracy. To continue the previous example, a person writing about Napoleon might have been greatly influenced by the way in which the conquerer's actions helped or hurt his own life, and those of his family and nation.

    For those writing about Jesus, the documents that survive to the present day are, it seems to me, overwhelmingly likely to be ones favorable to the position that Jesus was the son of god, for example, due to the influence of the church as a center for learning and record-keeping for thousands and thousands of years.

    When you ask, rhetorically, "do you want to tell me which parts were omitted?" you refer specifically to the gospel of Mark. My first response is, of course it is impossible for anyone to know what, if anything at all, has changed in that document over the course of the last two thousand years.

    However, certainly more than four men created an accurate 'oral record' of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and whether or not even one more person (man or woman) had the opportunity that those four had - to have their oral records transcribed into a form that we, thousands of years later, could translate into our own languages and consider - is parenthetical to the more pertinent point that even if they had that privileged opportunity, a different account which was, even indirectly or minority, damning to the notion of the divinity of the Christ, and moreover the divine supremacy of the church, is exceedingly unlikely to have survived for us to see it.

    For me, that is the start of why taking the message of the surviving records of Jesus as the message of the man himself is problematic.

    To Further respond to Ian Samuel, further below, when he states "If Jesus wasn't, in fact, the Son of God, then he is a dangerous madman who should not be trusted, clearly insane, and probably deeply evil.

    I'm put off initially by this first bit - the so-called "Lord, Liar or Lunaitic" argument - because of its drastic oversimplification of the psyche of one of the most complex and influential men in history. I'd prefer to critique the line of thinking by approaching the more specific second bit of his statement.

    It can't be the case that Jesus Christ was simply a "moral teacher" or something like that, because he wasn't just leaving the inference that he was the Son of God to us; he was saying it himself. "

    In specific, I reject the second line of thinking on two points. The first is the verbose argument I made above, that the accuracy of Jesus' 'statements' is not necessarily wholly accurate; if there is even some small chance that the specific intent of Christ's words was misunderstood over the course of the last two thousand years, you are forced to hinge the entirety of your religious conviction on a notion which may or may not be true. For me, even 'probably' isn't enough to warrant such utter devotion to an idea.

    The second point I'm considering is the omnipresent issue of scriptural interpretation. Yes, the debate on this issue is infinitely complex, but perhaps you will allow me to approach the idea in the simplest of terms. As (but one) example, take John 14:6 - "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

    Assuming what I have argued above is incorrect, and we can safely say that this is truly a literally correct statement made by the Christ himself, we still must interpret the statement. By first translating it from the language in which it was first transcribed to a language which we understand, then taking into account the subtle differences of meaning in language and culture evolving over decades and centuries, is it ever really safe to say that there is only a single possible interpretation of those words?

    We must take some liberties with the language, after all. To be obliquely literal, does "no man cometh" mean that women can cometh into the father in other ways, or perhaps not at all? Clearly not, so some degree of interpretation is necessary.

    How much, then? Where must we draw the line? Is it impossible that, by those words and accounting for aspects of culture and language we can never fully understand, Jesus meant that 'the only way to understand god's love for you, is to become as a son to him in the manner that I have"?

    Or that "the only way to get to heaven is through the perfect love that I have attained"?

    Or even, "Thomas, in answer to your specific question, of how you yourself specifically can know the way to God: I know and love you, and I know that the only way you'll make it to the love of our heavenly father is through me - though it is still possible that people who have never heard of me, for example, can still find his love some other way"?

    I don't mean to quibble over semantics; in fact, I think that is T-mac's point, and one that I embrace as well: namely that, if multiple interpretations are (even improbable but somehow) possible, perhaps the details are distracting from the intent of the son of god himself.

    Only love and respect to you all.


    By Blogger Dave, at 10:59 PM  

  • To answer your question, Thomas: I don't profess any knowledge on what will happen to Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, etc. when they die. (Nor do I profess any knowledge on what will happen to me. Or anyone else.)

    The church has saints--people we know are definitely in heaven--but they're vanishingly few compared to the total number of... people. And there are no "anti-saints," people we know for sure are in hell.

    It is stunning for any religion to claim that it has a complete understanding of the universe ("the same mountain") and also all other religions ("different paths"). If you asked a priest and a rabbi if they consider their faiths simply different means to the same end-point, I doubt you would receive an affirmative answer. So how are we to contrast this expert opinion with assertions to the contrary? :)

    By Blogger Ian Samuel, at 5:16 AM  

  • I wasn't trying to say I'm an expert on all faiths, just to say that as a Baha'i, I believe that all of these religions are equal, even if they are different (which we don't really believe and instead chalk up those differences to bad translations/humans messing up the actual writings of prophets over the years, i.e. literal interpretations are bad).

    However, stepping back from the idea that all religions have fundamentally similar messages, can you get behind the notion that they're all EQUAL in the eyes of God?

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 12:31 PM  

  • another great NPR link re: the lost gospels and the Davinci Code

    If i might add a comment to the discussion re: the similarity and difference of religions i love the eastern fable of the six blind men and the elephant. the human mind can never comprehend the mystery and wonder of God and the spiritual world so we are all like blind men clinging to whatever we can know about them.

    the following poem can be found at the link:

    "American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) based the following poem on a fable which was told in India many years ago.

    It was six men of Indostan
    To learning much inclined,
    Who went to see the Elephant
    (Though all of them were blind),
    That each by observation
    Might satisfy his mind

    The First approached the Elephant,
    And happening to fall
    Against his broad and sturdy side,
    At once began to bawl:
    “God bless me! but the Elephant
    Is very like a wall!”

    The Second, feeling of the tusk,
    Cried, “Ho! what have we here
    So very round and smooth and sharp?
    To me ’tis mighty clear
    This wonder of an Elephant
    Is very like a spear!”

    The Third approached the animal,
    And happening to take
    The squirming trunk within his hands,
    Thus boldly up and spake:
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a snake!”

    The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
    And felt about the knee.
    “What most this wondrous beast is like
    Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
    “ ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
    Is very like a tree!”

    The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
    Said: “E’en the blindest man
    Can tell what this resembles most;
    Deny the fact who can
    This marvel of an Elephant
    Is very like a fan!”

    The Sixth no sooner had begun
    About the beast to grope,
    Than, seizing on the swinging tail
    That fell within his scope,
    “I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
    Is very like a rope!”

    And so these men of Indostan
    Disputed loud and long,
    Each in his own opinion
    Exceeding stiff and strong,
    Though each was partly in the right,
    And all were in the wrong!


    So oft in theologic wars,
    The disputants, I ween,
    Rail on in utter ignorance
    Of what each other mean,
    And prate about an Elephant
    Not one of them has seen!"

    By Anonymous tan ya, at 6:55 AM  

  • For all religions to be "equal," at least some of their contradictory truth-claims must be wrong. Judaism claims Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, but an ordinary man. Christianity claims the opposite. These are logically distinct and cannot both be true.

    Thus, whoever is "right" is "equal but lesser," in that some fundamental tenet of their faith is incorrect, and some fundamental tenet of someone else's faith is correct. I'm not sure what the word "equality" even means in that context.

    This isn't about literalism. Quite the opposite. Andrea made the point above that the "themes" of major religions are also quite different. Christianity is, at its core, a religion about repentance and forgiveness. Islam has a different theme. Judaism a third. Buddhism a fourth. These themes are not only "literally" irreconcilable (interesting, by the way, that "literal interpretations"--many of which form the core of many people's beliefs--are not also "equal" in the eyes of God) but thematically incompatible also.

    The analogy to the blind men and the elephant is interesting. But it insists on the falsehood of several key points of several faiths. When a certain religion, for instance Christianity, claims to have the nature of God revealed directly by Him (as Jesus Christ), are they wrong? If you believe they were wrong, that is defensible; if you believe they were right, that is defensible; but you cannot simultaneously say that all religions are the same, all religions are right, but that only you (bearer of the elephant-story) have got the key to make them all fit together.

    I understand these sort of loosey-goosey "all religions point in the same direction, oh, it's just different views on the same thing" claims are popular amongst liberals and progressives of every stripe. However, they are deeply intellectually dishonest. They require a level of abstraction that does serious damage to all of the beautiful variety of square pegs they are forcing into the same round, inoffensive hole.

    By Blogger Ian Samuel, at 10:36 AM  

  • Well, you’re right that my argument that literal interpretations are flawed is fundamentally a defensive one in debate terms (although I still think it’s valid and gets me a lot of ground to say they’re all ultimately similar). However, you and Andrea are both correct that pointing to literal interpretations only gets me so far and that on some big picture thematic levels, these faiths are different.

    This means that I just haven’t done a good enough job explaining my faith. In addition to pointing to flawed interpretations of various scriptures, Bahai’s also believe that the faiths should be to some degree different because at the time they were written they could only reveal a part of God’s truth. We call this concept a progressive revelation. Each faith reveals a little more (and differs slightly) about God than the faith that came before it. So, the fact that they’re different just means that they’re speaking to different parts of the same fundamental truth about God.

    I don’t believe that a belief in God should have to come with an exclusion of other faiths. There’s another way. The thing is, as a Baha’i, I’m not claiming that I/we gave dominion over heaven or access to God. We believe that Christians will go to Heaven, and Jews and Mormons and Buddhists too will get to embrace God, just that they’re missing out on an overarching truth along the way. My faith doesn’t exclude anyone and I find that very comforting. Also, I don’t believe that I’m missing out on the beauty of other faiths—quite the opposite. I’m ONLY taking the beauty of love from these faiths because that’s the only overarching message that really matters.

    Ultimately, all religion comes down to faith. This is what I believe, and I didn’t arrive at it lightly and without thorough study and prayer. I would hope all of you would respect that.

    By Blogger T-Mac, at 11:02 AM  

  • hi there,

    just a response to the misunderstanding that I am claiming to be able to have the key to put all the pieces together. i actually find the Baha'i idea of God as an unknowable essence to make a great deal of intuitive sense. i went in search of excerpts from the Baha'i writings on this topic and came across so many so many on the topic of the different "messengers of God"...i beg your indulgence in allowing me to post a couple below. i have had to restrain myself as i found so much good stuff :) also with regards to the question of "equality" there are some interesting words here from Baha'u'llah regarding "distinction" and some "Prophet's" excelling on if you have the interest :)

    "That Essence of the Divine Entity and the Unseen of the unseen is holy above imagination and is beyond thought. Consciousness doth not reach It. Within the capacity of comprehension of a produced reality that Ancient Reality cannot be contained. It is a different world; from it there is no information; arrival thereat is impossible; attainment thereto is prohibited and inaccessible. This much is known: It exists and Its existence is certain and proven -- but the condition is unknown.

    (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 381)

    "It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. Such is the unity of those Essences of Being, those Luminaries of infinite and immeasurable splendor! Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: "I am the return of all the Prophets," He, verily, speaketh the truth. In like manner, in every subsequent Revelation, the return of the former Revelation is a fact, the truth of which is firmly established....

    The other station is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation. Even as He saith: "Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others. To some God hath spoken, some He hath raised and exalted. And to Jesus, Son of Mary, We gave manifest signs, and We strengthened Him with the Holy Spirit."  
    It is because of this difference in their station and mission that the words and utterances flowing from these Well Springs of Divine knowledge appear to diverge and differ. Otherwise, in the eyes of them that are initiated into the mysteries of Divine wisdom, all their utterances are, in reality, but the expressions of one Truth. Viewed in the light of their second station -- the station of distinction, differentiation, temporal limitations, characteristics and standards -- they manifest absolute servitude, utter destitution, and complete  self-effacement. Even as He saith: "I am the servant of God. I am but a man like you."...

    Were any of the all-embracing Manifestations of God to declare: "I am God," He, verily, speaketh the truth, and no doubt attacheth thereto. And were any of them to voice the utterance, "I am the Messenger of God," He, also, speaketh the truth, the indubitable truth.
    (Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 55)

    By Anonymous "bearer of the elephant story", at 8:47 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home