jeudi, avril 06, 2006

"Gospel of Judas": Threat...or opportunity?

Two years ago Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" sparked a furor with its blood-drenched portrayal of Jesus as he faced his last days. Some found it an artistic, moving and cathartic. Others were repelled by its graphic violence. The movie also raised other vexing cultural questions, most notably accusations of persistent bias, among some Christians, towards the Jewish community. The announcement, on the Thursday before Holy Week, by the venerable National Geographic Society that the 1,700 year old "Gospel of Judas" has been found is also likely to stir debate, but of a different sort. This time the subject for discussion will be the character of the man the writers of the canonical Gospels blame for betraying Christ. In Judas believers see the greatest human enemy of the Savior.

Americans, who seem to have an insatiable appetite for information, misinformation and fantasy about Judeo-Christian belief, practice and history, may be as taken with this new discovery as they are about the possibility that Mary Magdelene was married to Jesus.

Found in Egypt, the papyrus manuscript is said to be a copy in Coptic of a Greek original, apparently written the century before. According to an article in the New York Times, scholars have thought such a work existed. Irenaus, the second century bishop of Lyons, referred to it in his text titled "Against Heresies."

According to the article, the writer of the Gospel believed that alone among the apostles, Judas understood the meaning of Jesus's teachings. It is to Judas that Jesus turns when he seeks someone to hand him over to the authorities, telling him that if he accomplishes this he will "exceed" the other disciples.

Who hasn't had a twinge of sympathy for Judas? In some ways, the guy seems to have been put in an impossible position.

As a new Christian convert studying Christian fiction in college, I was fascinated by the warm and passionate Judas of Nikos Kazantsakis' novel, "The Last Temptation of Christ". " In the Greek author's novel, it is Judas who convinces Jesus to fulfill his destiny. Later portrayals of Judas in pop music operettas like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar offer a tortured but all too human persona.

Some scholars quoted in the NYT seem jubilant about the possibility this find could affect the way we view early church history. Students of gnosticism, or the "secret" religious texts of the early church, have long been opposed to the view that there was one point of view in the early church. In that they are right, of course But to see this manuscript, and the discovery of various Gnostic texts, as an assault upon the authority of the canonical Scriptures misses the more essential point.

Yes, there are still, and will continue to be, Christians who believe that the Bible was written without human error. On the other end of the spectrum, there are Christians who believe that what ended up in the canonical Scriptures was an accident of history.

But the believer who grapples each day with the Scriptures call on his or her life affirms that the Holy Spirit was in charge of what got put in, and what got left out. Although not every passage is free of human error, each one is there for a reason.

Unless they have been frozen in a glacier for 2,000 years, this new discovery is not a threat to the faithful. It does not raise new questions, but some very old ones.

As we approach Holy Week and take another hard look at the person of Judas, we see our own very human struggles scrawled large, both in the canonical record and in the pages of those who sought to augment it with their own testimony. Who among us has not betrayed a friend? Who among us has not been tempted by the allure of greater material wealth? Who among us has not turned our back on the lonely figure of the Messiah, reproachful and loving, as He stands in the shadows and reaches out His hands to us? If we look at Judas and feel a little queasy, if we don't like what we see, it may because we are looking in an ancient, flawed but still truthful mirror.

mercredi, avril 05, 2006

Just say no...or yes

Fast approaching the end of the Lenten season, I realized that I had almost run out of time to make a Lenten sacrifice. My solution? Simple. If I can somehow avoid thinking about this little problem for the next week, Lent will be over and I won't have to worry about it again until next year.

Does anybody understand the mystery of will-power? Is it possible to explain how some people are able to make life-changing decisions in a dramatic and absolute way, while others make them by increments, and others never do? Last weekend, I had a conversation with a friend who is a heavy smoker. She has often struggled to give up the habit. She succeeds for a month, or two months, and then something prompts her to pick up a pack once more. Currently, the cigarettes are winning.

I walked away from that conversation thinking of how ineffectual I felt in counseling her. I'm often stymied by what to say to people in grip of an addiction because I'm not sure I have the intestinal fortitude to say no to much of anything. Ask my dentist.

Meringues for breakfast. Chocolate chips at bedtime. Online discount designer outlets know me on a first name basis. And let's not talk about putting off until next week what I should I have done last week.

Even my so-called "virtues" are driven by some inner compulsion. Take running, for instance. I've been running for enough years to be extremely, perhaps overly sensitive, to my body's internal spiritual and external physical state. From at the moment I step out of the car and put that inordinately expensive sneaker on the tarmac, I'm taking inventory. Am I mentally exhausted by the long drive home and the sad news on NPR and the prospect of finishing reading that 300 page book on Benedictine spirituality for a review that is due tomorrow? Poor baby. How's that prima donna lower spine today, Elizabeth? Sure you are up for this? As I dip into my trunk for headphones and gloves (once the temperature goes into the 70's for a week I will feel totally secure in ditching the gloves) I check that tight hamstring muscle, and hope its going to hold out for five miles. After this tiresome catechism designed to make sure I'm running from choice and not because it's good for me, it's really easier to get moving. Truly, it is.

I don't have a diet, doctrine or discipline. If it weren't for grace and disposition, I'd be in a real pickle. But I'm guessing that there are many of you out in the cyberworld who have made the decision to turn your back on self-destructive habits, and have not looked back. On the positive side of the ledger, there are also many of you who have taken on another discipline, whether it be volunteering at a local school or refraining from gossip, and have accomplished much. Have you given up booze or babes, gambling or hypocrisy (for at least a week)? We want to hear from you.

mardi, avril 04, 2006

Spring House-Cleaning

I'm no fan of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Watching him and some of his less squeamish buddies roll roughshod over Democratic members of Congress and any members of his own party who happened to get in their way was infuriating to those of us who still expect certain minimal standards of bipartisan cooperation from our legislators. But if nothing else, you have to give the guy credit for a good sense of timing. Depriving his opponents of the satisfaction of seeing him hooked like a bad act at the Apollo Theater, Sugarland's native son jauntily skipped off the Congressional stage on his own two feet. "I have no regrets today and no doubts," he was quoted as saying.

Instead, after weeks of prayerful thinking, he said he had concluded that it was time to end this chapter of public service.

Contrast this with the attitude of his former ally, the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Whether he's sorry for what he did or sorrier for being caught doing it, Abramoff, who faces many years in prison, seems positively remorseful. Representative DeLay, under indictment in his home state on charges related to his role in engineering a redistricting plan that reaped great rewards for Texas Republicans, showed only confidence about the future.

That may be good strategy for a man looking for work among his old colleagues , but it is also true to form.

Relentless in pushing the boundaries of what is ethically tolerable in Beltway political circles, DeLay has never been a man to suffer from self doubt, even when reprimanded by his own colleagues on the notoriously indolent and spineless House Ethics Committee. Indeed, his antics, and the aggressive tactics of Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle, sometimes seem to be as much a story of a down home clash of giant-sized personalities as it is one of allegations of criminal wrong-doing.

It will be fascinating to see if Earle can make the campaign-finance money laundering charges stick. It will also be interesting to watch the continuing corruption investigation centered on Jack Abramoff play itself out. Abramoff has already pleaded guilty to plotting to corrupt public officials (which include members of Congress) and apparently he is still singing.

Many Democrats are happily waiting for the ax to fall on other Republican members of Congress, while some Republicans are also nervous. It is true that, during the decades they were in power, Democrats had their own ethical problems. But the cloud of corruption investigations now gathering over the Republican-led Congress indicates that DeLay and his cronies have pushed the D.C. "pay-to-play" culture well beyond its former boundaries. It can only be good for House Republicans that he is gone, if not forgotten.

Yet joy on the part of those concerned with public integrity is decidedly premature. If one is to judge from the limp lobby reform package that recently came out of the Senate, members of that body, both Democrat and Republican, have little stomach for policing their own conduct. Democrats also have a record of re-districting to shore up their own electoral prospects and to protect incumbents. Indeed, they have shown an disquieting unwillingness to agitate for ethical reforms that would affect them directly.

In interviews DeLay has apparently commented that what he did was not illegal, nor was it unprecedented. It may turn out that he was right on the first count. That would be a darned shame.

Sadly, on the second count, we already know that, when it comes to both Republican and Democrats, the difference between him and many of his colleagues is not a matter of poles, but of degrees. It is past time for a good spring clean in both Houses of Congress. The question for the Democrats is: will the party in opposition have the integrity to look hard at its own complicity in fostering the kind of ethically lax environment in which a Tom DeLay could not only thrive, but walk away apparently convinced in his own mind that he had done nothing wrong?

Crazy busy, or just crazy?

Crazy busy. Bless you, Dr. Hallowell, for diagnosing my condition. Take last night, for example. It's not like there was anything out of the ordinary going on when I crept over into the other guy's lane near the turnpike entrance. Every Monday evening I'm supposed to pick up the kids after they have had dinner with their dad. Very rarely am I on time. Not insanely late, just an annoying and impolite five or ten minutes behind schedule. I'm tardy because I've spent an hour and a half in traffic getting home from work. That's before the rush hour hits our crowded highways and back roads. On Mondays I collapse for a couple of minutes, then quickly throw on running gear, get back in the car, and take off for a local state park. Back into the car after the run, time for a quick shower and an quicker dinner (sometimes consumed in the car). I have my phone configured so I can listen to my email while easing into a momentary crawl on Rt 100. Sometimes I even read the newspaper on the way to work (only when I have to stop at a light). You can see why, momentarily braked for red and interrogating my kids about whether they had done their homework, I might have poked one side of the sedan into the other guy's lane. I think that's what all the honking was about. The scary thing is, I'm still not sure exactly what happened. Dr. Hallowell, the compassionate psychiatrist who has written about Attention Deficit Disorder, has a term for what ails me. He calls it "Attention Deficit Trait" or ADT. In an interview in the latest edition of Time Hallowell talked about his new book "Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap-Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD." While many of us aren't genetically prone to true ADD, says the wise doctor, easy access to technology has driven a lot of us into a psychological state of distractibility, restlessness, and impulsivity. Our use of cell phones, pagers, email and answering machines isn't making us more efficient. It's just pulling us into a thousand directions, distancing us from our environment, and from the people around us. "What's the cure?" the interviewer asked Hallowell. Institute a protocol for when and where you are going to use this new array of electronic toys so you don't get used by them. Make a plan for what you want to accomplish in the course of a day. March bravely on, regardless of the lures cast out by your electronic mistresses. We still need to find time in our day to communicate, says the old-fashioned physician, face to face. Now that's one book I am going to read-when I can find the time, of course. In the meantime, my tousled-haired son has arisen from his requisite nine hours of slumber and has wandered into my room, complaining of a bad dream. Gazing into my eyes with the affectionate gravity that undoes me, he offers a heavensent opportunity to share a moment that will enrich, and not diminish, the Byzantine fabric of my day. I'd be nuts not to take him up on it.

dimanche, avril 02, 2006

The Masculine Mystique

How long has it been since we had the pleasure of getting our knickers in a twist over whether American society (read: the American woman) is subverting men's innate need to be masculine? This time our frenzy of navel-gazing has been occasioned by the publication of a book by a fellow (natch) named Harvey Mansfield. Being as he is a professor of government at Harvard University, Mansfield has genuine egghead street cred. Maybe that's why he was able to find a publisher.

While I confess that I have not read the book, I was intrigued by this portion of a review from the magazine Commentary "Harvey Mansfield sets off into America's treacherous sexual wilderness with a clear destination in mind: to rescue manliness from the bear-like clutches of its enemies, in particular feminists and advocates of a gender-neutral society. As he notes, the opponents of manliness have tried to depose the term altogether, in favor of "masculinity." They want to expose manliness as a mere social invention, a rationale for male power.

But this, Mansfield observes, begs the question of why men have always had the power in the first place. He finds the answer in manliness, which he defines as "confidence in the face of risk," an "easy assumption of authority" that leads to an abundance of corollary qualities stereotypically associated with the male of the species. If the womanly tendency is to seek intimacy and personal warmth, the manly tendency is to dominate. Mansfield concedes that the manly man is not always appealing. He can be willful and boastful, and patronizing toward women..."

If the Commentary reviewers description is accurate, and why should we doubt her, Mansfield might as well paint a big bullseye on his chest and beg outraged reviewers to throw darts at him. Which they have, of course, almost guaranteeing the financial success of the broadside. His attack on feminists has provoked a hue and cry among those who argue, as did two writers in our local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, that men really need to be rescued from social forms of "toxic masculinity."

Reading these reviews provoked a moment of moral crisis: if I could write this kind of glorified balderdash and be assured that I would reap major bucks for it, would I yield to temptation?

Then I had the chastening thought that Mansfield, and those who responded to him, actually took themselves seriously. I stopped being incredulous and began to be concerned. Why, thirty years after the "women's movement" rose and fell in American society, are we blaming "feminists" for the fact that more boys are struggling academically and more get into trouble with the law? On the other hand, why even take Mansfield seriously enough to defend these "feminists", poor dears, whoever they are?

I would hope that we could have reached a point by now where these types of labels are meaningless. Yes, workplace inequality between men and women still exists in America, as do other forms of discrimination. Yes, they need to be fought, in the courts if necessary. By the way, anyone concerned with issues of inequality needs to fight equally hard to make sure our media elites don't silence articulate and reasoned masculine voices. But periodic exchanges of invective only serve to turn our attention away from the real issues.

It's silly, on the face of it, to claim that men are more "confident in the face of risk" than women. Why bother to dignify this nonsense with a response? Starting with the preposterous ends dialogue before it can begin. If we posit, on the other hand that there are different forms and expressions of courage, then we have somewhere to go with the conversation.

How about we pay serious attention to why so many boys are falling behind in our schools, rather than blaming women for emasculating them? Where exactly does that get us? Let's talk about why little girls get socialized to be so darned mean to each other on the playground or on the school bus, rather than yakking about how boys are getting "feminized." How about addressing the root causes of poverty, on the rise in America and coming up with programs to bolster families so that little boys and girls can thrive? I have nothing against "manly men." I rather like them, (although I confess that Dick Cheney's sneer and Antonin Scalia's ambiguous hand gestures don't do anything for me).

But in the face of very real social issues I am baffled, and frankly distressed, that the mislabeled "intelligentsia" are treading the same tired old ground. American children, both male and female, are suffering in the face of a growing epidemic of poverty, hunger and violence. They need our help. Of course, they aren't, in the majority of cases, the children of the upper middle-class academic community, where this solipsistic argument is currently raging. It would be more beneficial if these self-obsessed denizens of the chattering classes woke up and realized that men and women happen to be members of the same species. Isn't it about time that we, the so-called adults, started acting like it?