Thursday, May 25, 2006

What would CS Lewis say about the DV Code?

Debunking the Debunkers
By Joseph Loconte
Posted: Friday, May 19, 2006

The Wall Street Journal
Publication Date: May 19, 2006

Religious leaders and others distressed by Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code -- and its movie debut this weekend -- might take a cue from an Oxford don steeped in medieval literature, C.S. Lewis.

A former atheist, Lewis became one of the most beloved Christian authors of 20th century. He was not only a master at exposing the fault lines of modern, secular thought. As a layman, Lewis also could see the weaknesses of the church with unusual clarity -- a skill he likely would apply to the furor over this latest challenge to orthodox belief.

here are few things more easily corruptible, Lewis observed, than religious belief and practice. "We must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better," he wrote a friend, "it makes him very much worse." Stories like The Da Vinci Code and Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers carry a special appeal for people who are vividly aware of the historic failings of the church: the anti-Semitism, the persecutions, the soul-crushing legalism, right down to modern-day sex scandals.

As a scholar and a devoted churchman, Lewis was familiar with them as well. "If ever the book which I am not going to write is written," Lewis cautioned, "it must be the full confession by Christendom to Christendom's specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty." Nevertheless, Lewis would insist that a confession of Christianity's sins does not absolve us of the obligation to think: Conspiracy theories are no substitute for calm and clear arguments about matters of faith.

In a short yet brilliant 1959 essay, Fern Seeds and Elephants, Lewis debunked the debunkers of his own day -- those who held that the Gospels were the product of myth, legend and outright deception. He began by drawing attention to the "shattering immediacy" of the Gospel stories, the often brash realism of Jesus' encounters with ordinary people.

Mark's Gospel, for example, sets the scene of Jesus' arrest this way: "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind." We're never told who the man was or what happened to him. Luke describes a tax collector named Zacchaeus, who was too short to see over the crowds following Jesus. "So he ran ahead," Luke reports, "and climbed a sycamore tree to see him." It's irrelevant to what follows. Likewise, the Gospel of John tells of a woman caught in adultery and dragged before Jesus, who "bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger." Nothing, absolutely nothing, comes of it.

Any serious reader of the Gospels knows that their many references to the divinity of Jesus are thoroughly embedded in these earthy details. Here is a narrative style that anticipates the modern, realistic novel. "I have been reading poems, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life," Lewis wrote. "I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this."

Lewis, I suspect, would also point out that theories about massive cover-ups presented in fanciful works such as The Da Vinci Code ignore an elephant-sized fact: There are any number of people and events in the Bible that are frankly embarrassing to believers. Recall, for example, that the family tree of the Messiah includes a prostitute (Rahab), a king who commits adultery and murder (David) and another king who leads his nation headlong into religious idolatry (Manasseh). Yet the earliest Christians failed to excise these characters from their story.

The first "conspiracy theory" about Jesus, in fact, actually appears in the Gospel of Matthew. After the crucifixion, religious leaders ask Pontius Pilate to post a guard at the tomb of Jesus because they suspect his disciples "may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead." Why keep a story about a possible conspiracy lodged at the heart of your sacred text if you're determined to cover up a deception about the credibility of that text?

Here is the real harm of these modern conspiracy theories: They may appeal to our emotions, but they violate our common sense. They reject reason, just as surely as they reject revelation. "I do not wish to reduce the skeptical element in your minds," Lewis explained. "I am only suggesting that it need not be reserved exclusively for the New Testament and the Creeds. Try doubting something else."

Sounds like good advice to moviegoers this week -- for the skeptics as well as the faithful.

Mr. Loconte is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a regular commentator on religion for National Public Radio.


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