Tag Archives: Popular Authors

Did the Movement for Marriage Equality Begin in 2008? One Chapter in a Larger Narrative

Forcing the Spring, the recent best-seller by New York Times reporter Jo Becker, purports to chronicle the back story to the sweeping success of the marriage equality movement across the nation, but critics complain that the book gives too much credit to Becker’s sources and too little to the significant contributions of others, especially earlier pilgrims in the long journey toward marriage equality. In response, author Becker acknowledges that “The book is about one chapter in a larger narrative, and that narrative includes so many people who worked so hard on this issue when the going was far tougher than it is today.”


Let us consider the role of progressive religion. Against well-entrenched religious opposition to all things gay, progressive religious leaders were early voices “crying in the wilderness,” and decades of advocacy within religious spheres have largely prepared the good soil for recent marriage equality policy breakthroughs.

In the sixties, the issue was not marriage equality but criminalization and police harassment of homosexuals. Of course, the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969 exploded as a spontaneous backlash to a police raid on a gay bar, and Stonewall has become the iconic moment that marks the birth of the gay liberation movement.

Clergy press conference following police raid

Clergy press conference following police raid of 1964 New Year’s ball

However, nearly five years before Stonewall, the San Francisco based Council on Religion and Homosexuality (CRH) sponsored a New Year’s Eve ball in 1964 that was raided by police, and the clergy who appeared at a press conference the next day to denounce the police behavior focused the eyes of the nation on abusive police practices and policies. One commentator suggested the clergy provided the “cloak of the cloth,” a powerful and visible sign of religious support for the LGBT community. In 1965, the prestigious Christian Century Magazine suggested, “the law … should not penalize private immoralities which cannot be proved contrary to the common good.” The first LGBT policy statements of the ecumenical Protestant denominations (Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ) in the late sixties and seventies called for the decriminalization of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Holy Union 1970

The 1970 Holy Union of Father Robert Mary Clement and John Darcy Noble, Rev. Troy Perry officiating

By the 1990’s, still long before marriage equality was on the legal horizon, many clergy conferred a blessing on the relationships of their gay or lesbian parishioners, variously referred to as “covenant ceremonies,” “rites of blessing,” commitment services,” “holy unions,” and other terms. In fact, the terminology “holy union” dates to 1970 when independent (non-Roman) Catholic priest, Father Robert Mary Clement, who had marched in his clerical robes in the first Gay Pride parade in New York City, was joined with his life partner in a religious ceremony, and the officiant was Rev. Troy Perry, who had started the Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay denomination, months before Stonewall. In 1993, Perry and the MCC organized a Washington D.C. event they dubbed simply “The Wedding,” and Perry claimed “At least 2,600 same-sex couples, complete with tuxedos and wedding gowns, made a public commitment in a mass ritual.”

Meanwhile, the ecumenical Protestant churches wrestled with policies regarding blessing gay and lesbian couples.

  • In 1993, the Lutheran Conference of Bishops stated that although the church did not recognize an official ceremony of blessing, the bishops acknowledged the prerogative of pastors and congregations in ministry with gay and lesbian persons to “explore the best ways to provide pastoral care,” and that was widely interpreted to allow clergy discretion to preside at rites of blessing.
  • After Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech was defrocked and Pastor Greg Dell suspended just before the turn of the century for presiding at covenant ceremonies, nearly one hundred West coast Methodist clergy jointly officiated in the covenant service of a lesbian couple. Though Methodist policy remained unchanged, the horde of media representatives and bank of television cameras at the February 2000 press conference announcing that no ecclesiastical charges would be filed against the “Sacramento 68” demonstrated that the same-sex marriage issue had captured the attention of the world.
  • When Massachusetts became the first state to recognize marriage equality in 2003, by judicial fiat, the local Episcopal bishop initially encouraged his priests to refrain from conducting marriage ceremonies, but the priests widely ignored their bishop, and within a few years, the bishop himself presided at a lesbian wedding–of two of his priests, no less!
  • On July 4, 2005, the UCC General Synod formally endorsed marriage equality with an overwhelming vote for a resolution that “affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage.”
  • In the last decade, the Presbyterian journey to full LGBT inclusion was marked by ecclesiastical trials wrestling with rites of blessing, and the Presbyterian courts made it clear that rites of blessing were permitted as long as it was not a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, when the Presbyterian “Supreme Court” instructed her local presbytery to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, who has long been the “poster lesbian” of the Presbyterian Church, for officiating at legal marriages of gay and lesbian couples, the presbytery instead issued a resolution of support for Rev. Dr. Spahr’s ministry. All Presbyterian eyes are on Detroit this week where issues of marriage equality are front and center of the General Assembly.

In the last dozen years, as marriage equality has gained momentum in the civil sphere, so too has full inclusion of LGBT persons moved forward in the religious sphere, at least within the ecumenical denominations. By removing the gates to the pulpit through revisions to ministry policies–that is, by ordaining partnered gays and lesbians–the UCC (as early as the 1970s), the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians have all recently affirmed that the relationships of gay and lesbian partners are to be recognized, supported, and celebrated. Without attempting too fine a point regarding a chicken or egg analysis, when the moral authority of the church swings toward inclusion, public opinion will be affected.

Finally, and especially germane to the recent sweeping success of marriage equality adjudication and legislation across jurisdictions, the role of progressive clergy in statewide pro-equality movements cannot be understated. The example of Minnesota is illustrative. In 2012, a restrictive constitutional amendment was defeated by the electorate, and marriage equality was enacted during the next legislative session in 2013. Minnesotans United was the LGBT advocacy group that successfully worked on both measures, and their strategy “refused to cede the religious ground.” Though the local Roman Catholic Archbishop was an outspoken opponent of marriage equality, ecumenical Protestant and Jewish clergy served in highly visible leadership roles. Minnesota clergy issued joint communiques, provided legislative testimony, appeared at rallies and press conferences, and a priest, a minister, and a rabbi came into a bar together in a humorous TV ad. The clergy collar was omnipresent in LGBT advocacy efforts.

Marriage is a legal contract, defined and sanctioned by the civil law but with significant religious overtones, and the voices of opposition to LGBT rights have long used religion to bolster their arguments. Because of the religious underpinnings to LGBT issues, legal and societal progress would have been slowed or thwarted without the counter-influence of activists and allies, within the church, who offered the “cloak of the cloth” from the earliest days, who provided the example of holy unions to bless and solemnize gay and lesbian relationships, and who “refused to cede the religious ground.”

Dom Crossan and Paul the apostle

John Dominic CrossanFormer Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan is a co-founder and highly visible spokesman for the Jesus Seminar, a progressive group of New Testament scholars active in the last twenty years seeking to identify “the historical Jesus”.

Recently, he has turned his attention to Paul the apostle.  A few years ago, he co-authored, with Marcus Borg, an excellent book entitled The First Paul (2009), which I reviewed in three separate posts.  Here’s a link to the three posts in reverse order.  The central thesis of the book is that the thirteen New Testament books traditionally ascribed to the pen of Paul the apostle may be broken into three groupings: a) the radical and authentic Paul who was a social visionary vis a vis the existing culture—an opponent of slavery and proponent of a strong role for women, b) the conservative Paul, three books that may have been written by Paul but probably weren’t and which evinced a retreat from his radical social views, and c) the reactionary Paul, the so-called pastoral epistles consisting of 1st & 2nd Timothy and Titus, which were definitely not written by Paul and indeed were written to correct Paul’s radicalism, to re-establish the Roman social order of slavery and patriarchy.

Crossan is again writing about these themes in a highly public forum, the Huffington Post.  His article is not only on the religious section of the Huffpost, but appears on the main page under the banner The Search for the Historical Paul: Which Letters Did He Really Write?  As I write this,  there are over 200 comments to Crossan’s Huffpost article, and like many public cyberspace forums, the “trolls” dominate.  Many are anti-Christian, and a few are conservative Christians who insist, even if the human authorship is not Paul, that the subsequent letters were “spirit-breathed” and thus all letters are consistent and true (the holy trinity of inerrant, infallible, and inspired).

Crossan’s article is brief and seems not to plough new ground but merely restates the conclusions voiced earlier in the collaboration with Borg.  Here is the central thesis of the Huffpost article:

The problem is that those post-Pauline or Pseudo-Pauline letters are primarily counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline. What happens across those three sets of letters is that the radical Paul of the authentic seven letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) is slowly but steadily morphed into the conservative Paul of the probably inauthentic threesome (Ephesians Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and finally into the reactionary Paul of those certainly inauthentic ones (1-2 Timothy, Titus).

Crossan’s article includes this recently rediscovered and cleaned up fresco of Paul dating to the 13th century. Paul and ten scrollsNote that Paul holds not one scroll and not thirteen scrolls but ten, signifying that the dubious authenticity of the pastoral epistles is not merely a recent understanding. Indeed, in 2nd century lists of authoritative books that served as precursors to the formalized New Testament canon, the pastoral epistles are generally not included.

By the time The First Paul was published in 2009, my own manuscript for A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle was already completed and in the hands of the publisher.  Thus, my research did not include The First Paul, but my conclusions were similar–but I had a special authorial problem.  In a novel about the life of Paul, how could I suggest that six books traditionally attributed to him were not actually his?  Written after his death, such books were not part of his story in a strict sense.  Additionally, how could I make the point that he held radical views regarding slavery and women to rebut the traditional stereotype of Paul derived from the NT letters to Timothy and Titus?

My solution was two-fold.  First, the novel included the circumstances and the writing and the delivery of the seven “authentic” letters.  The six “inauthentic” letters were not mentioned at all, an implicit but indirect statement that they were not part of Paul’s story.  Second, Timothy and Titus were important characters in the novel, protégés of Paul.  In a purely fictional device, I placed offensive words about women quoted from the NT book of Timothy in the mouth of Timothy the character and offensive words about slavery from the NT book of Titus in the mouth of Titus the character.  In both instances, the novel offers a strong rebuke from the lips of Paul.

Was Paul the apostle gay?

A week ago, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee promoting my novel to the 2,000 participants of the Roman Catholic Call to Action Conference.  One of the keynote speakers was retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.  The Bishop is an outspoken proponent of progressive Christian causes, and he has published a dozen or so books in the last several decades that have attracted a huge liberal readership.

I was greatly pleased to have the opportunity to visit with the Bishop for a short time.  For those unfamiliar with my novel, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, the characterization of the man from Tarsus suggests he struggled with homosexual urges, which he characterized as his “thorn in his flesh”.  Bishop Spong shares this view, and we briefly discussed our common impression.  Bishop Spong said he first read of this idea in a 1930’s treatise by the British theologian Arthur Darby Nock.  I offered the bishop a copy of my book as a gift, which he graciously accepted and asked me to sign it for him.

A video of the bishop explaining his rationale has appeared on You Tube.  Watch and enjoy:

Kindle, iPad, Nook & more; will eBooks rule the world? UPDATED

UPDATE:  A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle is now available as an eBook for $8.99.  It is in Kindle version at Amazon.com and also through the publisher’s website.  It is also available in  iPad, Sony Reader, Nook/.epub version through the publisher’s website.

The Amazon Kindle has long been the leader in the eBook revolution, but Apple’s rollout of the iPad in the past few months has heightened awareness of the eBook phenomenon.  For the uninitiated who haven’t been paying attention, eBook reading devices (such as Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.) allow users to read books in electronic format.  Poppycock, you say?  A passing fad?  For better or worse, the answer is a resounding no, and the major publishing houses are scared to death, and recent news items will only stoke their fears. 

I’ll get to that in a moment, but let us pause first and enjoy the musty fragrance of old books.

Louise Erdrich is an accomplished Minnesota author, and her memoir of a trip to the border waters of Minnesota and Canada, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, paints a compelling portrait of the traditional bibliophile.  Conservationist, canoeist, photographer, and lover of books, Ernest Oberholtzer lived most of his 93 years on a remote island on Rainy Lake.  Erdrich’s pilgrimage included a few days in residence in an Oberholtzer cabin preserved by the foundation that maintains the island and offers summertime retreats for artists, authors, and others entranced by Ober’s legacy.

Mallard island Erdrich writes,

I want to stay among what I imagine must have been his favorite books.  The foundation has tried to keep the feeling of Ober’s world intact, and so the books that line the walls of his loft bedroom were pretty much the ones he chose to keep there, just hundreds out of the more than 11,000 on the island.  Heavy on Keats, I notice right off, as we enter.  Volumes of both the poems and the letters.  Lots of Shakespeare … then with kind of a bingeing greed I start, taking one book off the shelf, sucking what I can of it, replacing it … [I imagine a year with these books in which] I am forced to do nothing but absorb Oberholzer’s books.  Every day, I pluck down stacks of books from the shelves upon shelves tacked up on every wall and level of each of the seven cabins on Ober’s island.  Slowly, I go through the stacks, reading here and there until I find the book of which I must read every word.

As an undergraduate at Dartmouth four decades ago, I spent much of my study time in Baker Library, and I preferred climbing into the stacks of many storeys and storys.  Huddling in a corner carrel, surrounded by thousands of hoary volumes, I sensed that I learned by osmosis, that even if I napped, knowledge would seep in through my pores.

For such as Oberholtzer, Erdrich, and me, something will be lost in the phenomenon of the eBook.  But now to the recent news stories that bode an ominous future for traditional publishing.

Amazon.com is an ecommerce phenomenon.  Founded in 1994 as an online bookstore, Amazon soon cut deeply into the market share of traditional brick and mortar bookstores.  Today, it is the giant of booksellers and sells far more books than any other entity.  Just a few years ago, it introduced Kindle, a hand held, electronic device that could read digital versions of books.  Here is the first recent news story:

The Amazon.com Kindle e-reader and bookstore have reached a “tipping point,” the company said Monday, with Kindle titles outselling hardcover books on the massive online marketplace for the first time … “even while our hardcover sales continue to grow, the Kindle format has now overtaken the hardcover format. Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books–astonishing, when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years and Kindle books for 33 months.”

This report suggests that the much ballyhooed introduction of the Apple iPad into the marketplace has not negatively affected Amazon and Kindle—to the contrary, the increased public awareness of the eBook phenomenon engendered by the iPad publicity seems to have benefited all eBook vendors.

The second news item is that the price for a Kindle continues to drop even as the technology improves.

Amazon has launched a $139 Wi-Fi-only Kindle, hoping to stay ahead of competitors by luring customers with low-priced e-readers that the online retailer is betting will drive digital book sales.

Amazon on Thursday also introduced the third generation of the original Kindle, which has Wi-Fi and 3G wireless technologies. The latter makes it possible to buy digital books from Amazon and download them in less than a minute. Amazon kept the price for the device at $189.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble announced its own marketing effort to push its version of an eBook reader, the Nook:

In September, the chain will begin an aggressive promotion of its Nook e-readers by building 1,000-square-foot boutiques in all of its stores, with sample Nooks, demonstration tables, video screens and employees who will give customers advice and operating instructions.

What’s an author to do?  Much as I might prefer to live in a world of Baker Library stacks and Oberholtzer island retreats, I recognize that I must sell books in order to write them.  My publisher has been working diligently to convert A Wretched Man novel to the various digital formats, and it will soon be available as an eBook through Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and others as well as downloadable from our own website.

Book Review: The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon

Author Robert Gagnon has parlayed his best selling 2001 treatise into a role as theological spokesman par excellence on behalf of the conservative camps within the various mainline Christian denominations concerning LGBT issues.  With bona fide scholarly credentials behind his conservative argumentation (B.A. degree from Dartmouth College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary), he provides the intellectual cover for those who oppose gay clergy and gay marriage within Christian denominations.  What is more, due to his popularity, he has become a virtual cottage industry, and his website promotes his videos, audio tapes, articles, books, upcoming speaking engagements and recommended talking points.

He provides the scholarly support for those promoting a sola scriptura, word alone, “Bible trumps science, reason, and experience”, attitude toward ethical discernment of sexuality issues.  In this, there is extreme irony because his baseline argument is not biblical at all; instead, his views are based on natural law and science (anatomy)—we’ll consider this in detail below.  That’s not to say he doesn’t discuss the oft-quoted biblical passages with great erudition.  Indeed, even those who disagree with his conclusions can learn from his discussion of ancient same gender sexual practices and cultural attitudes.

Gagnon recognizes the difficulty in promoting the oft used and misused “clobber passages” as warrant for conservative Christian policies vis a vis committed same gender partners.  Yet, he is not willing to let go of the traditional arguments either, often expressing a “yes, but” response to consensus scholarship that would dismiss or diminish the relevance of such clobber passages for the current debate over committed partners.  Yes, the Sodom story of Genesis is about hospitality and not homosexuality Gagnon acknowledges, but

what makes this instance of inhospitality so dastardly, what make the name “Sodom” a byword for inhumanity to visiting outsiders in later Jewish and Christian circles, is the specific form in which the inhospitality manifests itself: homosexual rape. p 76

So, while acknowledging that the Sodom story “is not an ‘ideal’ text to guide contemporary sexual ethics” (p 71), Gagnon doesn’t quite surrender it either.  In this manner, he doesn’t directly abandon current scholarship, yet he retains enough wriggle room for his conservative followers to continue to misuse the biblical “clobber passages.”

As mentioned above, Gagnon’s own thesis does not rely on the traditional clobber passages of the Sodom story, or on the Levitical holiness code, or on the Pauline writings of Romans 1 or the vice lists of 1 Cor 6 and 1 Timothy.  Gagnon acknowledges the weaknesses of each of these with  “yes, but” argumentation.

Instead, Gagnon proposes a theory of “complementarity”, which is little more than a warmed-over restatement of ancient  procreation arguments.  Hear Gagnon’s words, which he couches as the “contrary to nature” arguments of the ancients:

Procreation is God’s clue, given in nature, that the male penis and female vagina/womb are complementary organs.  No other sexuality results in new life.  Therefore the only acceptable form of sexual intercourse is between a man and a woman … sexual passion for its own sake [is] little more than unbridled lust void of societal responsibility. p 164

The second main reason why same-sex intercourse was rejected as “contrary to nature” extends from reproductive capability to the anatomical fittedness of the male penis and the female vagina. p 169

Listen now to Gagnon’s “yes, but” argument:

[Yes] Each of the two main arguments contains elements that contemporary assessments of sexuality would find unacceptable … [but] Nevertheless, the core of both arguments remain persuasive in a contemporary context, containing as they do a recognition of the fundamental biological complementarity of men and women, a divine and natural stamp of maleness and femaleness that is blurred by same-sex intercourse.  Apart from Scripture [emphasis mine], the clearest indications of God’s design for human sexuality come from the anatomical fit and functional capacity of male and female sex organs.

Because male genitalia “fits’ female genitalia, we can infer that this reflects God’s creative design.  And since Genesis 1 & 2 are about creation, we can read this theory of complementarity into the text.  Voila!  A biblical argument against same gender sexual activity of any and all kinds!  With a scholarly slight of hand, Gagnon has transformed anatomy into biblical doctrine.  In the end, the erudite Biblical scholar and exegete is reduced to gussying up the simplistic anatomical notions of the ancients in modern garb and by a series of inferences passing them off as biblical truth.

Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

2004 Hardcover release Published in 1979, The Gnostic Gospels has received the National Book Award and has become the leading work regarding the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in 1945, and Pagels is recognized as a preeminent authority on these Coptic language, gnostic flavored texts.

Although discovered in 1945, the texts remained outside public purview for many years due to scholarly and governmental squabbling over access.  When western scholars finally obtained access to the discoveries, Pagels was entering graduate school at Harvard.  Listen to her story:

I first learned of the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1965, when I entered the graduate program at Harvard University … I was fascinated to hear of the find, and delighted in 1968 when [a Harvard professor] received mimeographed transcriptions … because the official publications had not yet appeared … Convinced that the discovery would revolutionize the traditional understanding of the origins of Christianity, I wrote my dissertation at Harvard and Oxford on the controversy between gnostic and orthodox Christianity.

After receiving her Harvard PhD, Pagels accepted a faculty position at Barnard College, Columbia University, and she continued her research into early Christian Gnosticism, publishing a couple of technical books in the process.  In 1975, she traveled to Cairo and received access to the original documents, she delivered a paper to the First International Conference of the Nag Hammadi scholars, and “having joined the team of scholars, I participated in preparing the first complete edition in English, published in the United States in 1977.”

Nag Hammadi codices The story of finding the buried vase that contained the ancient texts is filled with blood revenge murder and sufficient intrigue for an Indiana Jones movie, but the speculation regarding the burying of the vase millennia ago is equally compelling.  Nag Hammadi is a small city on the banks of the Nile River several hundred miles upstream from the Nile Delta.  Based on dating the codices found in the jar, it is commonly believed that the vase was buried between 350 and 400 CE. 

Who buried the vase?  Why?  Pagels borrows this explanation:

The scholar Frederik Wisse has suggested that the monks who lived at the monastery of St. Pachomius, within sight of the cliff where the texts were found, may have included the Nag Hammadi texts within their devotional library.  But in 367, when Athanasius, the powerful Archbishop of Alexandria, sent an order to purge all “apocryphal books” with “heretical” tendencies, one (or several) of the monks may have hidden the precious manuscripts in the jar.

All this is merely background to the primary thrust of The Gnostic Gospels, which is to interpret and compare these gnostic texts with orthodox Christianity.  Here are Pagel’s main theses:

  • Hierarchy threatened: 

Because gnostic Christians stressed a direct relationship with God attained through self knowledge (gnosis) as revealed by Jesus, the authority of the deacons and bishops was threatened, and the hierarchy attacked the gnostics with a vigor befitting a life-death struggle.  Even though the gnostics were fellow Christians, albeit with different views, the concepts of orthodoxy and heresy developed to smash the gnostics.  Chief among the heresy hunters was Bishop Irenaeus whose monumental “Against Heresies”, c 180 CE, provides the greatest insight into the early battle over orthodoxy.  He wrote:

Such persons are, to outward appearances, sheep, for they seem to be like us, from what they say in public, repeating the same words [of confession] that we do; but inwardly they are wolves.

[Gnostic teaching destroys them in] an abyss of madness and blasphemy.

[S]uch a person becomes so puffed up that … he walks with a strutting gait and a supercilious countenance, possessing all the pompous airs of a cock.

One must obey the priests who are in the church—that is … those who possess the succession from the apostles.  For they receive simultaneously with the episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.

  • Significance of the Resurrection: 

Since gnostics stressed interior knowledge initiated by the revelatory character of Jesus and under the guidance of the spirit, individual theological views varied–dogma was not important—interior enlightenment mattered, and this varied from one to another.  Thus, gnostics held varying views on the resurrection of Jesus, but they tended to spiritualize the resurrection accounts and understand the resurrection symbolically while their opponents stressed the literal historicity of the resurrection, at least in part as self-serving claims for authority for the witnesses to the resurrection (Peter and the disciples) and their heirs (priests, bishops, and pope). 

Pagels describes the resurrection view of the gnostics as follows:

Ordinary human existence is spiritual death, but the resurrection is the moment of enlightenment.  “It is  … the revealing of what truly exists … and a migration into newness.”  Whoever grasps this is spiritually alive.  This means that one can be “resurrected from the dead’ right now:  “Are you—the real you—mere corruption?  Why do you not examine your own self and see that you have arisen?”


  • The role of women:

Again, gnostic views are diverse and varied, but clearly the gnostics held a higher view of the role of women than did their orthodox opponents.  Since the gnostics had no priests, anyone, including a woman, was free to speak at gnostic gatherings.  Some gnostic sects had women in leadership roles. 

Gnostic imagery also offered a heightened view of women.  Pagels sketches three common motifs: the divine mother as part of an original couple, divine mother as holy spirit—the trinity becomes father, mother, and son, and divine mother as Wisdom.

Why did the orthodox church move to exclude women?  Pagels speculates that part of the reason was because the gnostics did not; thus, excluding women became a mode of differentiation from the heretics.

We can see, then, two very different patterns of sexual attitudes emerging in orthodox and gnostic circles.  In simplest form, many gnostic Christians correlate their description of God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature … Gnostic Christians often take the principle of equality between men and women into the social and political structures of their communities.  The orthodox pattern is strikingly different: it describes God in exclusively masculine terms [which] translates into social practice: by the late second century, the orthodox community came to accept the domination of men over women as the divinely ordained order, not only for social and family life, but also for the Christian churches.

  • Persecution of Christians:

Martyrs and a lion While some gnostic Christians would have been victims of first and second century Roman persecutions, Pagels generalizes that it was mostly orthodox Christians who faced, and embraced death, while the gnostics mostly did not.

The examples of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Perpetua and Felicity are illustrative.  Each of these willingly and gladly accepted their deaths, repeatedly refusing the offer for leniency in exchange for demonstrating sacrificial allegiance to the emperor.


  • The True Church:

The gnostics and the orthodox drew differing boundaries that defined the true church in ways that excluded the other.  For the orthodox, the church consisted of those who held fast to the creed, participated in the sacraments and worship, and obeyed the clergy—“Outside the church there is no salvation.”  For the anti-authoritarian gnostics, the church consisted of seekers after esoteric wisdom–“the light within”–even if their search led them away from the established church.  Truth was to be found in individual enlightenment rather than blind obeisance to the dogma of the bishops.  The charge that gnostics claimed to be spiritual elites has merit.

Conclusion: Pagels offers a benign view of the gnostics, suggesting their suppression resulted in the impoverishment of Christian tradition, but she does not advocate or “side with” Gnosticism.  Yet, the historical record reminds us that orthodoxy always belittles those on the fringes, those who dare wonder, those “restless, inquiring people who marked out a solitary path of self-discovery.”  And, she suggests that current Christians again dare ask questions that orthodoxy would claim are settled:

How is one to understand the resurrection?  What about women’s participation in priestly and episcopal office?  Who was Christ, and how does he relate to the believer?  What are the similarities between Christianity and other world religions? …  What is the relation between the authority of one’s own experience and that claimed for the Scriptures, the ritual, and the clergy?

According to Pagels, if the ancient monks had not buried their library, those gnostic texts would surely have been burned and Christianity would have lost a great treasure. 

Today we read them with different eyes, not merely as “madness and blasphemy” but as Christians in the first centuries experienced them—a powerful alternative to what we know as orthodox Christian tradition.  Only now are we beginning to consider the questions with which they confront us.

Northfield daughter, author Siri Hustvedt speaks

Siri Hustvedt On a Friday evening a week ago, author Siri Hustvedt addressed a packed upper floor of the Northfield Public Libary.  Now resident in Brooklyn but born and raised in Northfield, Hustvedt said that all her writings contain memories of her Northfield childhood.  Indeed, much of her 45 minute address related to her philosophy of writing in which memory and imagination are intertwined.  For Hustvedt, the creative process of writing fiction is akin to child play and fantasizing, the alteration of reality by imagination, calling up images and glimpses of the past to realize the author’s inner truth.  She disagreed with the view that fiction writers are “professional liars” because characters are true to the author.

Northfield is a retirement community with a heavy component of former professionals—hardly surprising since the two excellent private liberal arts colleges here are significant attractions(Carleton and St. Olaf).  Northfield supposedly has the highest per capita rate of persons with doctoral degrees of any city in the nation.  This environment has allowed an organization called the Elder Collegium to thrive.  Their motto is “a questing mind never retires.”  Retired professors offer interesting courses for their fellow retirees, with a decided tilt toward art and literature.  I know one favorite class has been “the history and chemistry of chocolate” offered by a retired Carleton chemistry professor.

I mention the Elder Collegium because the works of Siri Hustvedt are being featured in a course on Minnesota writers, and the Collegium website announces that she will be present as a speaker for one session of the class offered by my friend, Jim Holden.