Friday, March 18, 2011

The Lure of Heresy

As Alister McGrath shows in his brilliant and compelling book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, heresy has enormous appeal to the postmodern mind. Consider Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code. Risibly inaccurate and absurd as it is - there are shelf-fulls of books and articles refuting it on every point - millions of people believe its fabrications to be the real story, the suppressed truth of the history of Christianity.

McGrath's book analyzes the dynamics of heresy's appeal and I won't try to summarize it. In my experience, the attraction is similar to that of conspiracy theories in general. Believing that, say, 9-11 was a government conspiracy - which millions do despite all the evidence to the contrary (Popular Mechanics took apart the most widely believed theories, but with no discernible impact on popular belief) - enables one to bask in one's own intelligence and cleverness. We are not duped like everyone else - said as if we were a small group of people in the know, rather than millions. Such conspiracy theories and heresies rest not on a serious examination of evidence, but on a will to challenge tradition, orthodoxy, inherited wisdom and belief. Modern art rests on this desire to shock and offend, on the denial of beauty and tradition. There is something of the permanent adolescent about all this, as the German writer Martin Mosebach points out in Heresy of Formlessness in relation to art and liturgy:
The 20th century cult of youth culminates in a cruel curse: while the aging process cannot be stopped, the aging human being is not allowed to mature. and is condemned, until his life's end, to play the long-dead games of his youth. This is most clearly seen in the world of art--which is so closely related to religion--where the avantgardisms of 1905 are still being repeated again and again, as an ossified ritual, a hundred years later. And, with her famous aggiornamento, the Church thinks that, in order to survive, she needs to 'open herself' to these senile avantgardisms! (Mosebach, pp.81-82).

These thoughts came to mind after a recent trip to the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu. I usually check out the sections of religion and philosophy and once again I was struck by how the Christianity shelves give more space to heresy than to orthodoxy, to Crossan and Spong than to Benedict XVI. Brant Pitre's 's brilliant and bestselling book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper was not to be seen, nor was the pope's great work of lectio divina, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection. Does this reflect consumer demand or the bias of the B&N buyer? I don't know.

In any case, it was something of a relief to come home and find Fr. Robert Barron's take on John Crossan at his Word on Fire site. Here it is:

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