The Wordsmith's Forge for March
I was asked recently to sit in with our high school class on a Sunday morning. Among the things they wanted to ask me about was the existence of additional, non-standard books of the New Testament which might have been suppressed by the Church in the early days of Christianity. I replied that yes, there were several, but they weren’t “suppressed.”
There were no closed-door meetings of councils, no votes, no hushing of anything up. What books were to be considered authentic and authoritative was argued publicly for years. People compiled lists of books and compared them. In the end, books with dubious claims to be connected with the apostles were rejected. Books written from non-Christian points of view, such as Gnostic works, were rejected. Books of obviously inferior quality were rejected. Books by important Christian leaders whose works were considered derivative were rejected. By AD 365, a consensus had emerged, with the New Testament as we know it today. The Romans probably hastened the formation of that consensus by outlawing the possession of Christian scriptures back in the days of persecution; I mean, who wants to die for possessing something that isn’t the real thing?
Here’s a piece of advice: anything that you hear about the Bible or Christianity on cable TV should be taken with a very large grain of salt. But that raises a question: why don’t more people know where the New Testament comes from? For that matter, why don’t more people know where the Church’s doctrines and practices come from?
Well, let’s start with education. Schools (and colleges!) do a rotten job of teaching the humanities. Our young people learn little history. Much of what they are presented with is a jumble of stuff thrown together in politically correct fashion. Certain periods are virtually ignored in order to cover events which lend themselves more conveniently to the messages that the writers of textbooks consider important.
It gets worse when it comes to the teaching of literature. What is considered worth reading and what is not is a highly politicized process which does not equip the student to read anything other than the stuff approved of by the critics. As Tom Shippey writes, “Modern literature [has become] a weary trawl for victim-groups to patronize (without the slightest intention, of course, of giving up elite privileges)”.
Combine that with the fact that schools are scared stiff of religion, or at least, Christianity. They don’t know what Gnosticism is and they don’t know what the Church teaches. They don’t want the Bible to be taught, even as an old book. They aren’t interested in helping young people connect what they learn in school with what they learn in church because they don't think that anything the church teaches is historical — or literary.
Saddest of all, many of my colleagues — even those who are fire-breathing evangelicals who teach that the Bible is absolutely true and authoritative — thought that the required classes in New Testament Criticism and Church History we took in seminary were a colossal bore. Besides, how was that going to help them bring people to Christ? So they don’t teach any of this stuff, either. How do I know this? Because every so often an old friend will call me up and say, “Hey, Art, I got asked this question in my adult membership class the other day. Do you remember from seminary . . .?”
Nobody’s hiding anything. Nobody’s hushing up anything. The answers to many questions are lying out in plain sight, for those who know where to look. But neither school nor church has shown much interest in actually teaching them. O tempora! O mores!