Thursday, October 11, 2007

Why the Forbidden Gospels?

I have been asked by some why I named my blog "The Forbidden Gospels." So I thought that it would be fun to reflect on that today since I have just had a nice chat about mysticism and social activism with Andrea Jain, a graduate student here at Rice who studies Hinduism. Most of us at Rice in Religious Studies have some interest in mysticism. For many of us it is the core of our study.

The name of my blog is tied to mysticism, even though it may not appear that way at first glance. Of course it is a "fun" reference to para-biblical gospels. But more than that it is a serious reference to the "apple" in the Garden that Eve ate. But it is not the disobedient act that I reference. Rather it is a reference to Eve's yearning for knowledge against the ruler, the god, who dominated her, and her choice to achieve it against his wish. It is a gnostic and a mystic reading of Eden.

I call this type of hermeneutic "subversive". We could also call it "transgressive". It is the type of hermeneutic that mystics live by, because it represents the calling into question of received knowledge, of religious traditions and social conventions that govern us. The mystic has transcended the conventional; he or she has literally come face to face with God beyond the walls of the synagogue or the church. Transformed in body and mind, the mystic has transcended the rulers of this world and joined the gods.

So scripture, as it is conventionally interpreted, cannot be appropriated by the mystic from the traditional perspective, which is meant to maintain the status quo and the power structures of male authorities. Rather it is turned inside out, like the mystic has been him- or herself. It has a message, hidden within, that transcends convention and structures of power, a message that subverts and challenges these. The call of this subversive hermeneutic is usually a call to individual conscience, to listen to the "god within", and to step forth in the community as a voice whose only authority is its own.

The literature produced by these kinds of people is not well-liked by the conventional or "orthodox." It becomes suppressed literature, not only in the sense that the ancient people burned the books, but they forbid them too, and created a demonic aura about them to keep the flock away from their "deviant" views.

But to return to the Eden story and its subversive meaning. The subversive story is about the human being "coming of age." Discontent with parental rules that stifle his or her own emerging self, the human sets out on the journey to become an authentic individual of conscience and choice, truly becoming "like God." It is about thinking for yourself and acting on it. How different would our world be if this wasn't a subversive interpretation of Eden?

So the name of my blog is a reference to this subversive story, and the challenge of religious studies which seeks to examine religious traditions beyond the conventional and the apologetic interpretations.


Phil Snider said...

I really can't resist this. How does this particular 'subversive' story affect your hermeneutical stance that we have to remove our theology from our studies? Isn't this a deeply theological understanding of what your blog is about? I don't even want comment on the theological merits of what you are saying, I just want to see how this squares with your repeated comments against Christian scholars importing their theology into their studies when an unkind critic might take this post as clear evidence that you do as well.


gdelassu said...

So scripture, as it is conventionally interpreted, cannot be appropriated by the mystic from the traditional perspective...

Cannot? That seems a bit strong to me. At most, this is true of only one sort of mystic. There are, after all, mystics whose mysticism ends up bolstering orthodoxy (one thinks, for instance of St Bonventure or, more recently, Padre Pio).

April DeConick said...


And I can't resist back.

Come on! It is not a theological position that it is a valuable thing for a historian to think for herself, examining and challenging apologetic "historical" religious interpretations. This post-Enlightenment position
represents turning away from God and the supernatural, and not allowing theology and church authorities to control my decisions.

This idea happens also to be reflected in a subversive reading of Genesis which I find very humorous. The subversive reading which the gnostics pointed out centuries ago, is actually a very humanist stance! Now that is something to think about.

By the way, the first time I noticed this point was last fall when I taught a course on Gnosticism. I've been a non-apologetic historian and have studied these texts since 1987. So I hardly think that this Gnostic reading of Genesis has influenced my views as a historian!

Deane said...

It's interesting that the 'subversive', the esoteric, the 'transgressive' was the very norm of biblical interpretation in the very period when these texts were becoming the Bible. (Well, the method was 'subversive' and 'transgressive' from 'our' historical-literal perspective, whereas the people who were doing it thought they were arriving at the 'most true' deeper, and orthodox meaning of the text, of course!)

I see that James Kugler has just released an Introduction to the 'Old Testament'/'Hebrew Bible' (Sep '07), that puts the views of modern bible scholars side-by-side with the ancient interpreters. He makes a good description of the method of these ancient interpreters:

"they had a rather idiosyncratic, even quirky, way of interpreting the Bible. For example, they believed that the Bible did not always say openly what it meant; it was full of cryptic hints, and when these were carefully studied, all manner of hidden meanings could be revealed. In reading this way, ancient interpreters sometimes deduced the existence of whole incidents or teachings that the Bible had never mentioned -- indeed, they often "found" here and there doctrines or ideas that came into existence only centuries after the biblical text in question had been written. Their interpretations soon became what the Bible meant."

If you want to read a great piece of writing, try the Appendix to his book, which is available on the 'net:
Apologetics and “Biblical Criticism Lite”

Man, this Appendix thrilled me!

Phil Snider said...

A couple of points.

First, we may have to clarify what we both mean by the term theology. I had suspected that you would baulk at having it applied to you and your work, but I did so anyways because I honestly think this is the best term for what you are describing in this post. For clarity, I am using the term as discourse about God which, frankly, the (re-)telling of Genesis really is. That is, whether taken in a traditional or a gnostic/mystical reading, the 'subversive' story you are talking about is, at its root, a discussion about our relationship with God. That, at any rate, how I'm using the term. Perhaps you could say what you are hearing in term, so we can both see if there is some common ground in our understanding of the term.

Second, I have no serious difficulties with you "think[ing] for herself, examining and challenging apologetic "historical" religious interpretations. This post-Enlightenment position
represents turning away from God and the supernatural, and not allowing theology and church authorities to control my decisions.". Okay, I have problems with the whole post-Enlightenment stance, but I certainly think you have the right to pursue it as far as you wish. What I'm contending is that this post is at odds with that ideal. I recognize that you don't think so, but, from the outside, I really did have to ask the question: which story are you promoting here? That is, how can you reconcile the gnostic/mystical story of 'subversion' and the post-Enlightenment ideals you espouse. To my eyes, I can't see how you can reconcile these two stories and stay in the post-Enlightenment stance in which you (and I, to a lesser extent) are trained.

Third, I would defnately challenge the characterization of the retelling of Eden as humanist, at least, in its origins. I've read the same (I think) re-tellings and I just can't see how that story can be seen as anything else but theological. Perhaps, we are having a confusion about the term humanist, but, honestly, to my eyes, it takes some contortions to get to draining out the concern with God in this passage. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here.

Lastly, even if I accept all your other points, you have made a ringing declaration of bias against traditional/patristic sources. Again, I'm not saying you don't have the right to do so nor am I going to engage in an argument of the whys and wherefores, but I wonder how well this squares with the post-Enlightenment virtue of disinterestedness or the hermeneutic of suspicion which is so promiment in this type of discussion. That is, what would happen if we applied both this virtue and this hermeneutic to your own statements in this post. Would we not have to conclude that ths counter-privileging of gnostic sources is going to cause as much distortion as any traditional theological stances could?

Really, I'm not goading you to abandon your position (that is altogether another argument or set of arguments), but I am challenging you on what look to me to be disconinuities in your statements. I'm sure you've thought about the implications of what you are saying, but I'm just not getting how can reconcile them.


gdelassu said...

It is not a theological position that it is a valuable thing for a historian to think for herself, examining and challenging apologetic "historical" religious interpretations.

Oh come now, how is this not a theological position? Granting that it might well also be a "post-Enlightenment position" which does not allow "theology and church authorities to control my decisions," that is still necessarily a position loaded with theological import (albeit of a rather heterodox variety).

April DeConick said...

Boy have I had a chuckle from some of these comments, which are bordering on the ridiculous (except Deane who appears to be the only one of my commentors who understood the post; btw, I recommend the link Deane provided)!

1. I am not a Gnostic, nor a mystic for that matter.

2. I do not hold as my theology Gnostic tenets, nor do I engage in Gnostic rituals, nor do I attend a Gnostic church, nor do I care what Gnostic priests or other authorities have to say.

3. I happen to be a scholar who studies marginalized individuals and groups to understand them for themselves (with no "orthodox" judgment or apology, thank you very much).

4. My studies have led me to conclude that the marginalized people are usually at the center of the religious issues, which is why they are threatening and marginalized, especially when they are subversive and critical of the mainstream. Why is this sounding familiar?

5. Because I find humorous the fact that a subversive "gnostic" reading of the Genesis story is very close to a humanist reading, and named my blog this, has absolutely nothing to do with "my theology", although I do try to be a good historian and think for myself. I recommend it as a good approach to scholarship.

I have nothing more to say on the subject.

Phil Snider said...

For the record, April, I didn't accuse you of adopting a Gnostic theology (nor have I seen anyone else do so), but rather that you have theological/ideological assumptions (though you don't want to admit them) which predispose you to reject orthodox texts and ideas without necessarily examining them as 'empathically' as you say you deal with the apocryphal texts. In point of fact, your particular theological/ideological stance is not Gnostic in the sense that it is usually mean (as far as I can see here), but rather closer to a humanist/feminist stance which finds the apocryphal texts useful to subvert what you conceive 'orthodox' Christianity to be about. This is pretty much what you said in this piece and as far as I would be prepared to go.

What bothers me about this post is the same thing that has bothered me from the beginning of this blog. I still don't see how you can reconcile the 'disinteredness' of your scholarly, humanistic stance with this undertone of 'empathic' understanding of your texts which leads you to privilege only 'marginalized' persons. Setting aside the consideration that we simply don't know how 'marginalized' these groups actually were, I just can't see how to reconcile these two conflicting hermeneutical stances.

As a final personal comment, it bothers me how quickly this exchange has led to an assumption that I'm accusing you of Gnosticism. If I had, I apologize, but I just can't see where I did in my posts. Perhaps the inconsistency that I see is just not that apparent, but I have insisted on asking you about it because I think you are a good scholar, even if I disagree with your take on the Apocrypha.


April DeConick said...


This is it. The humanist stance is the historian's stance. It cannot be otherwise. We cannot combine a need to be theologians with a desire to be historians. Theology and history are two separate ventures, unless all one cares to write is history to support the church.

I do not ever "reject" orthodoxy or its ideas. Who ever said such a thing? What I do is study both mainstream and marginalized traditions, with no personal judgment either way. The marginalized have equal value to me as the mainstream, because as a historian I need both to understand what in the heck was going on.

I write and teach on all early Christian writings equally. In fact, if you have been following this blog this semester, you will see that at the moment my research seminar and my undergraduate class are grappling with Acts and Paul, trying to figure out what (if anything) we can know about early Christianity from that enterprise.

Phil Snider said...


I think we've probably come to the limit of useful discussion on this topic. I hear what you are saying, but I have to say this is not how I've been reading your comments nor am I entirely convinced that I've been misreading you as badly as you seem to be implying. Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps my own suspicion of post-Enlightenment thinking is affecting my reading of what you are writing. Perhaps I may be partly right in my criticisms. I'll leave you to decide.

In a situation like this, I usually bow out of the discussion and offer the peace (of God, if you like) as a way of saying that I recognize the impasse, but I have not taken anything personally and hope that you haven't either. So, in that spirit, I offer you the peace and look forward to discussions on other topics.