Friday, May 05, 2006

Sermon: "There's Something About Mary" (Delivered 12-28-03)

[A sermon from the archives in honor of the upcoming release of The DaVinci Code movie.]

Nothing these days is trendier, it seems, than Mary Magdalene. She has appeared recently on the front cover of Time and Newsweek. Stroll through the religion section of Borders or Barnes & Noble and there she is, featured in dozens of new books about her, everything from credible texts by some of the world’s finest religious scholars, to popular treatments that seem like they should appear in the super-market check-out tabloids. All of this recent hullabaloo about Mary Magdalene can probably be traced to a single phenomenon, a recent work of fiction by Dan Brown entitled, The DaVinci Code that has sold over 40-million hardcover copies so far.

Last October members of this congregation began asking me if I had read this novel, and what I thought of it, and my opinion about it as someone with formal training in religious studies. I was invited to read it, and invited to share my thoughts about it once I had. This is something I plan to do, from time to time: mix things up a little bit, by offering commentary on books or films or other pieces of contemporary culture that are your mind. And I encourage you to recommend to me books and films and other products of contemporary culture about which you might want me to speak.

And so it is fitting that in the slow moments between Christmas and New Year, a time that is perfect for putting on your wool socks, grabbing a blanket, stretching out on the couch, sedated and contented by so much rich Holiday feasting, and pie, and eggnog, to cozy up and drift away with a good book. This morning’s sermon will really be this kind of a sermon, sort of an indulgent and fanciful sermon, an in-between-one-thing-and-another sermon, kind of an after Christmas, before New Year, escapade sort of sermon.

For those who haven’t read The DaVinci Code, let me set the scene for you with a basic plot summary. While in Paris to give a lecture, a young dashing Harvard professor by the name of Robert Langdon, described as “a Harrison Ford in Harris tweed,” is summoned to a murder scene. The curator of the Louvre has been murdered by a renegade faction of the powerful and manipulative Catholic organization called Opus Dei. Working off a series of vague clues, Langdon, along with an attractive, young French secret agent Sophie Neveu, must race to put together the pieces of the mystery before Opus Dei figures out the clues, and all the while with the French authorities hot on their heals. In other words, all just another day’s work for the scholar of religion. Sort of what they told me ministry would be like…

And did I mention that solving these clues and codes and riddles will lead to the Holy Grail?

That is what makes The DaVinci Code more than a rather pedestrian fluffy action novel; the novel claims to reveal all these secrets and conspiracies about Christianity, namely that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had kids and that the Holy Grail is really not a physical cup, but a set of documents that prove the genealogy of Jesus’ offspring, and that the Catholic church has been involved in a massive cover-up conspiracy to keep the real truth of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene a secret. Now, maybe it is just me, but the idea of a Church covering up a scandal involving sex is just too far-fetched to be believed.

But seriously, seriously, where do you begin? The book is intentionally misleading in that it claims on page one that all descriptions of artwork, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate. Well, that’s not quite the truth. While it is clear that Dan Brown has dabbled in church history, he has played fast and loose with historical evidence. In fact, Brown appears he could use a qualified researcher with a background in religious studies, not that I would know anybody qualified for that post. As an aside, when I first announced I was going to preach this sermon, I received a call from a member of this church who is fluent in Italian, and she informed me that Dan Brown’s earlier book Angel and Demons, which is set in Rome, contains dozens and dozens of Italian grammar mistakes. And in The DaVinci Code, Brown is far from scholarly rigorous. Margaret M. Mitchell, writing for Sightings magazine, lists dozens of historical errors in Brown’s book and also many gray errors in which complex issues are misrepresented and distorted. There is a reason Dan Brown’s novels sell 40 million copies while the new book about Mary Magdalene, by the world’s foremost expert on Mary Magdalene, Karen King, will be read mainly by seminary students. The scholarly approach to the story is complex, nuanced, ultimately given to uncertainty, and, well, it’s not that sexy. The conspiracy theory that wraps it all up in one tight package is flashy, juicy, sexy.

I was a student of religion for seven years at two of the world’s finer religion programs. While at Harvard I took New Testament from Karen King, who has her picture featured prominently in a recent edition of Newsweek. And one of the major outcomes of such an extensive study of religion, what I am now going to share with you, and what will sort of hold or encapsulate what I want to say to you, is this: as with all things, history is messy; there are layers and layers of complexity and nuance, and there is no simple master narrative. That is because people are nothing if not complicated creatures. And the first reaction to learning about all this muddledness, inconsistency, messiness is to dismiss it, to feel threatened by it, but after time, you can come back to it and glory in the mixed up nature of it all. But rather than caricaturing historical figures, we should come to expect and even marvel in their inconsistencies, quirks, shortcomings, failures, and so forth… for we are equally complicated creatures ourselves, and history would not be able to tell our stories in a simple way either. We long for simple, clear-cut truths that tell us right and wrong, good and bad, pure and impure, hero and villain… but the evidence always points to the contrary, on the one hand and on the other hand.

I want to touch on a couple of things the book points out. First of all, it touches on aspects of paganism that Christianity borrowed, which is true, but The DaVinci Code goes wrong when it makes it all out to be a big conspiracy. It plays on our desire for a clean, consistent story. Teabing and Langdon give Sophie Neveu a history lesson about early Christianity that says, in essence, “Nothing in Christianity is original. It was all stolen from paganism for political reasons.” But scholar Margaret Mitchell counters saying that, “The relationship between early Christianity and the world around it, the ways in which it was culturally embedded in that world, sometimes unreflectively, sometimes reflexively, sometimes in deliberate accommodation, sometimes in deliberate cooptation, is far more complicated than any simplistic myth of cultural totalitarianism.”

The same thing with the Council of Nicea. It is true, the Council of Nicea did establish the Divinity of Jesus as doctrine, did formalize the canon of the New Testament, did set the liturgical calendar and did formalize the ecclesiastical structure – all of this was decided by a bunch of men 300 years after the death of Jesus, by vote. And it was a close vote. As one of my colleagues has said, “Maybe there weren’t any hanging chads, maybe the other side didn’t win the popular vote but lose the electoral college, but it was certainly contentious.” Contentious is an understatement, by the way, most of the bishops attending the council of Nicea came with bodyguards. The bodyguard of the bishop of Alexandria beat up the bishop of Constantinople!

[As an aside, I should mention that I studied as an undergraduate with a leading expert on Shenoute of Atripe, the monk who was the bodyguard of the bishop of Alexandria. (What a claim to fame!) And you may find it interesting to know that this monk Shenoute of Atripe did not just go around beating up bishops. When he wasn’t beating up bishops he was leading the Coptic community on the outskirts of Alexandria that operated a soup kitchen that fed over 10,000 people a month and an orphanage that rescued infants from trash-heaps. What a complicated character!]

So, I suppose my point is this. As soon as we learn how messy and complex it was, we dismiss it. Nothing like a bunch of Unitarian Universalists sitting around saying, “it can’t be real; it was decided by a vote.” Well, so were our Principles and Purposes. So are the statements of social conscience we adopt at the denominational level. The only difference though is that we realize that we are part of a changing historical process, but we can tend to forget that educated Christians are equally aware that their religion has been changing and evolving from day one. No wonder some should find the idea of evolution so threatening – it is a complex theory of change and transformation, variation – it defies the idea that everything can fit into a nice, neat package.

But I want to get to Mary Magdalene. The belief that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute did not surface until nearly 600 years after Jesus had died. This belief was promulgated by a Pope, but it is unclear as to his motivations. As it turns out, Mary was a very common name. There are at least three Mary’s in the gospel accounts. There is Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the sister of Martha. There are also a large number of unnamed women including the woman caught in adultery and the “sinful” woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. This Pope just sort of mashed all these unnamed women together and assumed that they were all Mary Magdalene. Was it a case of Biblical ineptitude? Was a smear campaign against Mary Magdalene by men in the church who feared a female disciple? Was a twisted attempt at Augustinian logic, the more seedy the sin the more sweet the salvation? It is unknown.

But here is what the best scholars today have to say about Mary Magdalene: she was definitely not a prostitute (in fact, the Catholic Church declared she wasn’t back in 1969). She was a close acquaintance to Jesus, part of his inner circle, most likely in a relationship in which she was his disciple. She was likely a woman of some affluence, likely inherited, and possibly was a financier of Jesus’ ministry. There is no way to know for sure whether their relationship was romantic.

And this raises the whole interesting issue of women in the early Christian communities. There were. And many of them were in rather prominent leadership positions. And it is probably safe to assume that Jesus and even Paul had more liberal ideas about women than many of their contemporaries, but it is likely that they were not all out radicals, and they likely did not even understand the full significance of some of the radical things they were saying. When Paul said in Galatians 3:28 that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female” he probably didn’t even fully grasp what he was suggesting.

One of my classmates in seminary once showed me a feminist reconstructionist version of the Bible. One of the features of it, was that whenever a woman is mentioned but not named, or whenever it was clear that women were present but not mentioned, they put a big bold-faced X right there in the scripture. The point was that the real identities of these women had been erased from these traditions, and one should remember them. Sort of like how Malcolm X took the name X to symbolize how the last name of his ancestors had been lost. It was powerful to see thousands of X’s as you flipped through the pages.

And that is sort of what The DaVinci Code is hinting at, bringing back Mary Magdalene into the story as a female presence; bringing back the female Spirit of Sophia as a balance to the male Logos (by the way, the female protagonist in the book’s name is Sophia Neveu – Sophia is Greek for wisdom and neveu is etymologically similar to new, “nuevo” in Spanish, “nouveau” in French.) But the book is too simple when it gives Christianity all the blame for being sexist and anti-woman. It is true, there have been aspects of Christianity that have been harmful for women, and also aspects of it that were liberating. The pagan culture then was no better, parts oppressive, part liberating. And Judaism is a mixed bag too. And even Islam, even Islam, even though we are more familiar with Islamic oppression of women, there are strains within Islam that are liberating for women. Hinduism and Buddhism have had their parts that were liberating for women, and their parts that were oppressive. And sociology has been sexist and oppressive and liberating. And psychology has been sexist and oppressive and liberating. And science has been oppressive and liberating.

So, how does the book end? Well, I won’t give it away entirely. But I will tell you that they do not find the Holy Grail, or do they… but then again, a literal Grail appearing in a nice, neat package would inevitably turn out to be disappointing. Quoting from The DaVinci Code, “It is mystery and wonderment that serve our souls, not the Grail itself. And the beauty of it lies her ethereal nature. For some, the Grail is a literal chalice that will bring everlasting life. For some it is a quest for lost documents, secret history, literal truths. But for most, let the Holy Grail be simply a grand idea, a glorious yet unattainable treasure that inspires us, even in our world of chaos… Ah, but even this Grail cannot remain hidden and lost forever… look around you, find it in art and music and books. As we sense the dangers of our history, of our destructive paths, we are beginning to sense the need to restore all that is sacred. Those songs are worth singing and the world needs modern troubadours.” (p. 444)

So, we are going to start doing that this morning. Before the sermon we sang Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the words “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” addressed to a presumably male Christian God. But after we take the offering and extinguish the chalice, we will sing the original words, “Joy thou goddess, fair immortal, offspring of Elysium.” It was those words of Friedrich Schiller that Beethoven had in mind when he wrote Ode to Joy.

And perhaps that is the Holy Grail we seek… a world large enough to contain multitudes with Moses and Miriam, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Einstein and Madame Curie, Bill and Hillary, Krishna and Shiva, Zeus and Athena, “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of Glory, God of Love,” and “Joy, thou goddess, fair immortal, offspring of Elysium.”

“I suspect the Holy Grail is simply a grand idea, a glorious unattainable treasure that inspires us even in this world of muddled chaos… may we sing such a song, may we be modern troubadours of such a song.”