Friday, April 27, 2012

Memorial service for Jane Schaberg

The Memorial Service for Jane Schaberg will be held at Christ Church, 960 East Jefferson Ave. Detroit, MI 48207, on May 19th at 1:00 p.m.  
Photo: © Rick Lieder - All Rights Reserved from

Dear Jane,
Your passing is so difficult for me.  You took me under your wing when I was a graduate student struggling to make ends meet and write my dissertation.  You welcomed me to teach at the University of Detroit during your sabbatical and were a guiding light when I decided to pull together my first course on Sexuality and Christianity.  Without you, I might have never become a feminist.  Without you, I might never have learned to read against the grain.  Without you, I might never have struggled with holy misogyny.  
I have always admired your courage and your conviction that the search for truth lies beneath, sometimes even in contradiction to the patriarchal storyline.  You taught me that feminist reading is about fairness, about giving voice to what was marginalized, covered up, or forgotten.  You taught me that feminism is about living with conviction and purpose even when the odds are stacked against you and what you have to say, as honest as it is, provokes disdain and anger and ugliness and suppression.
You were so brave in the face of fire when you set forth an interpretation of the virgin birth stories that rocked both the academic and church communities, when you said, look, there is something deeply disturbing going on with these stories, and I think it points to the illegitimacy of Jesus.  You were so courageous when you brought the Magdalene out of the attic, when you took on Mary and re-envisioned her through Virgina Woolf and the non-canonical sources, when you saw her as Jesus' Elisha and revealed how women like Mary are silenced who question the patriarchal order of our world. 
You dared to transgress the boundaries of tradition, and in so doing, you showed us a brave new world through your eyes.  It is a world of radical transformation for women and men, where sexism, racism, and poverty, where all the distinctions that keep us apart, dissolve.  I admire deeply how you were convicted that scholarship on the bible was not worth doing if it did not result in political and religious justice and the renewal of humanity. 
You wrote your last book even while undergoing chemotherapy.  You saw your own suffering and fear of death in light of Golgotha and the injustice of Jesus' crucifixion.  You said: "Mary Magdalene of the Christian Testament is the one who stands by the dying...Each of us wishes for one like the Magdalene to go down with us into death, to stay with us to the end.  I say this with cancer on my mind, and remembering those I did not stay with until the end, those I loved who died alone.  More than that: she is the one who did not cease to love the dead, who remembered" (15-16).  
With love and in your memory, April

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sabbatical Post 4: Starting to think about transgression

I am starting to read more deeply into explanations and descriptions of transgression in various fields.  It is a topic with a good amount of literature.  While waiting for some sociological and anthropological studies to arrive from Amazon, I delved into Foucault's "A Preface to Transgression" written in 1963.

Foucault uses transgression as a new type of sacralness, representing the modern zone of human experience where the sacred has collapsed into the profane.   With the death of God, Foucault sees the goal of human experience to be constant transgression of our limits.  Every time we cross the limits, we see the limits, and we move the limit until we find ourselves face to face with the limit of our own being, in the experience of emptiness.  For Foucault, sexuality represents the totality of human experience and it is in its transgression that God is replaced. 

Is it just me, or is this a redeployment of traditional Christian mystical eroticism in a post-modern philosophical guise?  Maybe I am misunderstanding what Foucault is saying, but I seem to hear the echoes of the Christian mystics for whom the crossing of the ultimate boundary of being was sex with God or his/her representative. 

Some quotes I found intriguing for my work on the Gnostics and their transgressive esotericism.
"The limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows.  But can the limit have a life of its own outside the act that gloriously passes through it and negates it?  What becomes of it after this act and what might it have been before?" (Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice; edited by Donald F. Bouchard, 1977, 34).

"Transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps, to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time), to experience its positive truth in its downward fall?  And yet, toward what is transgression unleashed in its movement of pure violence, if not that which imprisons it, toward the limit and those elements it contains?  What bears the brunt of its aggression and to what void does it owe the unrestrained fullness of its being, if not that which it crosses in its violent act and which, as its destiny, it crosses out in the line it effaces?" (34-35).

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sabbatical Post 3: Why Mushrooms?

So your comments continue to inspire me.  The art of Adam and Eve and the mushrooms is suggestive on so many levels.  As I study these pictures, I am drawn into the moment.  Are we seeing Adam and Eve just before they eat the forbidden fruit, during, or after?  Is the forbidden fruit the mushroom, a hallucinogen that opens their eyes to a new reality?  Or does it represent the decay of the tree after they have eaten?  Or poison that killed them?  Or does the mushroom represent the diversification of knowledge, its continual dispersal through spores nourished by the forbidden tree?  Is the representation suggesting that what Eve started cannot be stopped?  Does the image represent the salve or healing properties of the mushroom, the mercy granted by God who did not actually kill them for their trespass but set in motion the act of redemption instead? 

The mushroom as a metaphor is very apt for me and my understanding of Gnostic spirituality, because of its multivalency.  Irenaeus uses the image in reference to Gnostics as harmful fungi that grow popping up here and there and everywhere with no sustained root.  But what of other valencies?  Not all mushrooms are poisonous.  Some are medicinal.  Some are hallucinogenic.  Some are just good to eat (as long as you aren't allergic to them as I am!).  The image of their growth through spore is wonderful.  The lack of centrality and organization in their growth patterns.  Their growth in rich soil or compost.  Their need for constant damp and low exposure to sun. 

Why is this multivalency important?  My understanding of Gnostic spirituality is characterized by the transgressive.  My definition of the Gnostic sees the Gnostic as transgressive in terms of his or her metaphysics and practices.  Now you may call be to task on this, wondering who do they transgress?  Early Christianity was diverse, as was early Judaism.  So we can not talk about a dominant tradition or interpretative strategy.  Doesn't transgression imply perversion?  Aren't you being polemical like Irenaeus?

First, I would say we need to pay attention to the sociologists and the anthropologists who have studied transgression for decades.  To transgress is not the same as being different or diverse.  There is still the normative even within diversity.  Or better, diversity can represent the norm and the status quo.  It doesn't have to be transgressive.  Every culture has its norms, and religious expressions are no different.  Religions in fact are conservative and tend to renew themselves by maintaining whatever is normative for them at all costs.  According to sociological studies, the transgressor is only known as a transgressor because he or she is labeled such by others in the community.  In other words, we only know what is transgressive through the response of the community to the one who transgresses.  This response helps us to identify the norm and the parameters of the acceptable, as well as the unacceptable.  What can be acceptable in one period, may become unacceptable in another time period, even periods as short as decades.

In modern terms, let me suggest an example.  Next time you are in an elevator turn around and face everyone else and stare at someone.  Watch the reaction of others in the elevator.  You will quickly know that you have transgressed the public norm for properly riding in elevators. 

The same is true of the ancient world.  It did not take long for Christians to begin to get kicked out of synagogues, and if Paul is correct, even captured and dragged before the Jewish religious authorities.  Why?  Because they were Jews who had transgressed what were considered commonly accepted Jewish norms of the time.  We can argue about what those norms were, but they were transgressed and the Jewish community responded by expelling the unacceptable and consolidating what it perceived as normative.  We might even say that the Christian transgression assisted the Jewish community in marking its boundaries even clearer.

How the Gnostics fit into this, well, that is one of the main goals of my book.

Image from The Canterbury Psalter

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sabbatical Post 2: Creating an Image

This morning I felt creative and so I played around with some images to represent the ideas I have forming in my mind about my new book.  So here is what I came up with.

I love the central image.  What is going on here?  Adam and Eve are parading before the tree of knowledge whose limb appears to be cut off and mushrooms have taken root from the central stem.  Eve is not eating an apple here, but a mushroom?

Mural painting from the apse of Sant Sadurní in Osormort
Second quarter of the 12th century
Museu Episcopal de Vic

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sabbatical Blog 1: Mushrooms

So my sabbatical project is to write as much of my book The Ancient New Age: The Birth of Christianity and the Triumph of Gnostic Spirituality as possible.  At the moment, I have been working on honing my abstract and table of contents.  So I want to share the abstract with you in this first post on the sabbatical.

Since I am going to be making my old subject contemporary with the analogy to the New Age, I have been thinking deeply about Gnostic(ism) and about its re-insurgence in the modern period.  I keep going back to Irenaeus' description of the Gnostics as mushrooms popping up from the terrain.  I rather like this metaphor and am thinking about structuring the book around it.  Besides there is great mushroom art from the medieval Christians.  Take a look at this Eden with the mushroom as the tree of knowledge (Plaincourault Fresco).
Abstract: Early Christianity was very radical in its approach to perennial questions about God and humanity because, DeConick explains, the Christian tradition was seeded with a Gnostic spirituality from the start. DeConick argues that Gnostic spirituality itself was a brand new concept in the ancient world, a new way of being religious that emerged in 1st c. Alexandria, and quickly was dispersed across the Mediterranean.  It reflected a subversive metaphysical outlook and included an understanding of humanity as divine.  Unlike early catholic Christianity which developed traditional Jewish teachings about the mortality of the human being created in God's image and subject to sin, the Gnostics framed their teaching along Platonic lines, understanding the essential human being to be an uncreated piece of God living in exile and suffering on account of this separation.  These 2 metaphysical outlooks were diametrically opposed to each other, competing for dominance from the start of Christian history to today.  While the catholic churches were able to sustain mass conversion and the western Gnostic churches ultimately perished, Gnostic spirituality did not die.  It survived as an underground religious current.  It remains today at the root of New Age and Self-help movements, and at odds with traditional forms of Christianity just as it was in the ancient world. The Ancient New Age focuses on the way in which Gnostic spirituality has triumphed.  Not only did it foster countercultural metaphysical or “New Age” movements in past, but it continues to do so in the present, where its message of the divine human thrives.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Patio Tomb Box and the Fish

It appears that the fish controversy may have a productive "end".  Professor James Charlesworth and Robert Deutsch (an Israeli epigrapher) have found an overlooked inscription in the nose of the fish that reads in Hebrew "JONH" or Jonah.  The lines of the stick figure form an inscription according to a new report that can be found HERE

I continue to agree that the figure on the box is a fish.  And now with this inscription and photos of it, I find the evidence convincing that the artist was depicting Jonah.  Further, given that this pictorial is on a bone box from first-century Jerusalem, it is plausible that the reference is to resurrection. 

With this find, we have some type of Jew in the first century for whom the Jonah story made sense within the context of death. So I am moving in the direction that we may be seeing here evidence of an early Christian-Jewish tomb.   

The Bart Ehrman Blog

Congratulations to Bart Ehrman for creating a new blog on the early Christian world. Welcome to the world of blogging! See his blog HERE.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Pope and non-canonical sayings

Michael Peppard (Fordham University) has written a fun piece in the online Commonwealth Magazine on the Pope's recent reference to a non-canonical saying.  Take a look HERE.
Thanks to Fr. Imbelli for drawing our attention to the Pope’s homily from Easter Vigil (full text here). I am always enriched by Pope Benedict’s utilization of early Christian texts and traditions in his explication of Catholic faith and practice. The Vigil is the perfect time to recall the centrality of “illumination” (photismos) in the early Church. For contemporary listeners, ideas of illumination or enlightenment might sound more at home in Buddhism or even “new age” spirituality, but in fact, they were at the heart of early Christian initiation, especially in the east (Egypt, Palestine, and Syria). For example, when Cyril of Jerusalem describes those preparing for initiation, he often calls them “those about to be illuminated/enlightened” (photizomenoi). Moreover, the “light from light” image was so indispensable as a symbol of the idea of undiminished giving that it can rightly be thought of as the foundational image of Nicene Christology (cf. Jaroslav Pelikan’s little gem of a book, The Light of the World: A Basic Image in Early Christian Thought, 1962). 

But what caught my attention even more is the quotation of Jesus with which Fr. Imbelli’s excerpt concludes. The Pope said: “‘Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,’ as Jesus is reported by Origen to have said.” It’s true that this is one of the so-called agrapha from the early Church, things which early Christian writers said that Jesus said, but which the New Testament does not record. And it’s true that Origen said that Jesus said this, and Jesus certainly might have said this.

But another true way of reporting the quote would be: “‘Whoever is close to me is close to the fire,’ as Jesus is reported by the Gospel of Thomas to have said.” (It’s logion #82, for those interested.) MORE...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Sabbatical Blog?

Well I am finally making it to my second sabbatical in my career.  Once I turn my grades in in May, I am considering myself to officially be on sabbatical.  It is much needed, believe me, and it will be for the entire next academic year thanks to the success of a Rice Individual Faculty Fellowship generously granted to me by the Humanities Research Center at Rice University which is funding the second semester.  My project?  You guessed it.  I will be writing my book The Ancient New Age: The Triumph of Gnostic Spirituality and the Birth of Christianity.

So I was wondering whether or not to start blogging about what I am doing while on Sabbatical?  It might be interesting to log my progress.  It might help me think through the tough spots, the blind spots and the discouraging spots.  And it would be a boon to get feedback from you on some of my ideas as I am in the process of writing.

Is this something that you would be interested in following?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Nightline on the Patio Tomb

Here is a link to the Nightline featuring James Tabor and Mark Goodacre last night.  I don't have cable so I had to watch this on the internet this morning.  The link is HERE.

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"Un"Convention at Rice

This year has flown by.  Or at least it seems like it.  I have been busier than ever (in case you haven't noticed that I nearly abandoned my blog because I couldn't keep up with the blogging world, my office, my students, my research, and my home this year).

I am in the last weeks of courses here at Rice and this week Rice is having an "Un"Convention to open up the campus to Houstonians and other visitors to see what we are all up to here on the most beautiful campus in the world.  Our logo at Rice is the Owl (it is Athena's bird, the symbol of wisdom) and we pride ourselves as those who seek and teach innovative thinking, what we call "Unconventional Wisdom".

There are many activities planned over the next few days and you can find a link to them HERE.  I invite you to come to campus and enjoy some of these activities if you are in town.

An explanation from the media:
For 100 years, Rice faculty, researchers and students have believed that anything is possible — that drive, devotion and innovative thinking can turn ideas into achievements. We call it unconventional wisdom. Help us celebrate an unconventional century at the UnConvention, a campuswide open house April 12–14. As we move towards our Centennial Celebration in October, we’re inviting all of Houston to venture inside the hedges and explore Rice through tours, demonstrations, concerts, lectures, athletic events, art exhibits and more.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Book Review of The Jesus Discovery

This just published in the Winnipeg Free Press on The Jesus Discovery by Bill Rambo (link sent to me by John McGinley):
Sensational discoveries and unconventional interpretations of religious art and archeology got a black eye in the last decade with the success and backlash surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and its prequels and sequels.

Much less glitzy, but much better researched and presented, The Jesus Discovery by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici is sensational, unconventional and thought-provoking.  MORE...