Earth, Ashes, Dust

Day 1 of 40:

Ash Wednesday

Earth, Ashes, Dust

The ‘four evangelists’ probably all died in the same century as Jesus did. Our four bible gospels come from the ‘naughts’, first century Common Era. They did not simply come from the hand of four individuals acting alone, with verbal inspiration (dictation) from God. Heretics like us wrote gospels.

‘Axial Age Artists’ include those of Christianity’s ‘Apostolic Age’ – but also the sages and tannaim of Talmud, more explicitly named as voices in a chorus. We know nothing of actual individuals called ‘Matthew’, ‘Mark’, ‘Luke’, and ‘John’, later credited with authorship of our four gospels.

On this first day of the 40 days of Lent, many Catholics, Anglicans, and others go to church services, to be invited to a ‘holy lent’. They are reminded of their own mortality in the words of scripture: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Disciples and apostles die – what lives on?

Try writing your own obituary – or a draft of this history of your generation in your church. What would you write – and what would others write? What was Jesus’ role, and God’s? Who are we and whose are we, freed for what or from what? What meaning or purpose matter for earth, ashes, and dust?

Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hamadi library finds of the immediate postwar 1940’s led to scholarly study using new technology. Some scraps varied, others texts provided parallels, or devotionals, from the life in communities in Jesus’ century. No original manuscript, photocopied, just heretics like us.

Recent decades sold ‘lost gospels’ or ‘gnostic gospels’ or ‘secret gospels’ in ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘investigative journalism’ style. Dan Brown and his ilk sold a lot of books, unread and remaindered copies as common as disused bibles: ‘1,000 channels, and nothing is on’.

Was there a plot by a unified church to suppress the truth and hide from the people some true gospel? Will that justify negligent abandonment of faith in our generation, by alleging scandals? ‘Go ahead, compare him with others. He’ll stand the test. It would be better, to compare him to us.’ (Soelle)

My United Church never believed in ‘verbal inspiration’ of 4 guys by God. ‘Higher criticism’ was what we called it a century ago, saying the Word was in the Book – but denying that ‘the Bible is the Word of God’.

We recognize that we need to imagine who was writing, in what context, for what purpose, with what biases, to read well. We rejected fundamentalism of a verbal inspiration of scripture dictated by God, and recognized the humanity of the project. I’m inviting you to joint another round of the game!

The slick sophisticates triumphantly discovered that ‘the audience writes the text’ – that meaning is not controlled and owned by the writer. Parish life always knew the joy of ‘reading’ a text, hearing some voices and changing our own community of discourse, semantic fields of words in our diction.

How do you imagine the communities, which asked each other about God and Jesus? They amplify some voices, sorted some ‘pericopes’ or nuggets in text. Some folks strung the pearls in new strings, and showed them off. They copied and elaborated what was most true, good and beautiful.

Were there really no women influencing the choices in those communities, of which stories were worth repeating? Of course, for God’s sake, in their ‘real world’ and mine, or parochial community, women hold up half the sky. Many women are named among the apostolic generations – more implied.

Hans Küng, building on Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigms’, wrote a magisterial set on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in this century. As in science, he says, religion shares a credible paradigm in practice, till another is developed to address limits within or change in context of the model (by heretics like us).

What community audience evoked a text like each of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? What communities rejected the ‘gnostic gospels’, or the ‘sayings gospels’, the ‘infancy gospels’? Would the axial age artists, of the apostolic generations of the ‘naughts’, recognize ‘heretics like us’?