Ross Douthat titles part two of his critique of American religion: “The Age of Heresy.” He opens with a description of the work of Professors Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, the latter a once-upon-a-time evangelical who graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College seen in photo on the left, on the “lost gospels.” He refers to the two of them as the “prominent popularizers of early Christianity’s . . . revisionist story.” So they are. The blitz which followed the release of the Lost Gospel of Judas in 2006 provides the perfect contemporary narrative to show how far the radical denial of the orthodox account of Jesus of Nazareth had taken some scholars. Within six months of the dramatic release of this material Rice University professor April DeConick found that “several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field.” This, adds, Douthat, is an academic way for saying the National Geographic team had “botched their work.” The Gnostic heresy was once again at work but now it had the attention of the popular media to support it.
So Douthat concludes, quite correctly I believe, that “Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself, and every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’” From Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and from Joseph Smith to Mary Baker Eddy, America has been producing noteworthy heretics for a long time.
So what is the difference now? Douthat believes that “amid the post-1960s decline of institutional Christian faith, the question has taken on a new urgency, and the various answers have won an ever-wider audience.” Thus heresy, he believes, has a newfound dominance! It is this thesis that is at the center of Bad Religion. American Christianity has always been able to churn out heresies but since the 1960s something fundamentally changed that allowed for the current debates to flourish.
From serious academics to new-style popularizers alternative portrayals of Jesus are the rage today. We seem to have forgotten that “Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character.” In fact, no figure in human history has so many different interpretations of his life and/or teaching. Here is Douthat at his best: