Monthly Archives: August 2015

Elspeth on Shelby Spong… again

I couldn’t decide where to place this, so in revealing that I have yet more blogs, I will put a link to my all spiritual one here, and my post about the American ex bishop and my latest brush with him. I am neither liberal in the usual sense nor evangelical in the usual sense. See what I make of him

It is unashamedly a long post, extended essay length, though much looser in style, so be prepared to scroll!

Wrong Colour, Wrong Spong

Leave a comment

Filed under spirituality

The Gospel according to Sylvia Browne

A response to “The Two Marys”

Yes, the author is that Sylvia Browne, the psychic, who is also a Gnostic Christian and church founder. This leads to my first issue. The miracles in the Gospels are a bit far fetched, Sylvia says. Feeding of thousands? More like a few hundred or less. Rising from the dead? No, a faked faint with feeble as possible whippings and beatings and cleverly aimed nails so that the Lord could recover in the tomb and then sneak off to travel and minister and die happily in France with his family at the age of 84.

So – Jesus can’t rise from the dead or do miracles, but Sylvia can see the future and receive messages and pictures from her personal discarnate spirit. We’re asked to accept her beyond the rational gifts, but not those of someone somewhat more established and famous and revered?

The tone of this piece matches the one that Sylvia often writes in. Occasionally, she’ll give interesting, more scholarly insights, such as when and how the cult of the Virgin Mary really gathered speed, with statements that sound like informed research (I am mindful of the word ‘fact’ for philosophical reasons). Then she’ll say: Jesus revealed himself to his French friends by “letting the cat out of the bag”. So much for the Messianic Secret! She makes oft use of the lazy “a lot” and calls many other psychics – who are the same as prophets to her – “nuts”. Worse still, these ‘nutters’ might become occultist, which she abhors – no reason.

Her view is that Jesus was crucified for preaching a loving, forgiving God…. interesting, but not expanded. We don’t get many quotes from the Gnostic gospels that her views depend on – least of all, discussions of their translations and authenticity.

Although badly told, she does rationalise her version of Easter. Everyone was in the trick – there’s no outcast, self murdering Judas; Joseph of Arimathea and of course his beloved Marys all knew. Even Pontius Pilate was malleable with a bribe. She explains this is why Jesus was crucified so close to the Sabbath, when no dead bodies were allowed left hanging so he could be on the cross for minimal time, not have his legs broken, and be snuck off to a powerful man’s tomb ready for revival and escape. The vinegar on a stick was opium to help him bear the pain and lose consciousness. The Noli Me Tangere moment on Easter Morn was – don’t touch, my wounds still hurt. Then Jesus shows his earthly wounds – for what spirit has them, she asks (hasn’t she heard of ghosts appearing with the last known body?). And then Jesus becomes master of disguise, does a bit of globe trotting, including America (how could he miss you out) and then retires to Languedoc as “David”.

For anyone of a non Gnostic Christian bent, Jesus’ faked death is shocking on many levels. Traditional theology is that Jesus’ death is the telos of his mission; Christmas matters because of Easter, and those teachings are mere aperitif to the main course – his passion.

If it’s true that as Lynn Picknett gleefully states in her book on Magdalene, that there have been a spate of dying and rising gods, then Jesus needs to do something extraordinary – and that would mean a bodily resurrection after an actual, bodily death.

To me and many Christians, Jesus’ subversion of death and overcoming it on the cross is essential.

Many Christians see the unthinkable emotional as well as bodily suffering as a sign of Jesus’ love for them – that he wanted to bring us back to God so much that he would endure this for us. Julian of Norwich would not get along with Sylvia Browne!

My understanding of the Cross is different to mainstream Christianity, but this view is spreading: I believe not in atonement and penal substitution, appeasing an angry God’s thirst for blood to pay off an insurmountable debt of sin. The cross is about saying God is nothing to do with this world of violence, punishment, payback and worldly might. I love Hildegard of Bingen’s view of sin (as told by Ilia Delio) being the exile of unrelatedness and the refusal to grow; I wonder if every personal block to God and each other, including what we would consider acts of evil, is covered by that definition. Sin is what stops us from living authentically.

But all Christians can agree that Jesus did something unique and essential for the human/God interface, and that he overcame death – our greatest fear and enemy. Sin in all its forms and definitions has been dealt with – that exile is over, that impediment is removed, and light, not evil now prevails. So a few pokes and a opium-fuelled doze with fictitious angels as alibis for the bribed tomb guards misses the whole point.

If Jesus preached a loving forgiving God, it would be more powerful to demonstrate him.

Sylvia says Jesus needed to get crucified to fulfil his Chart – but she obviously misses off most of the reading, for its not in minimal suffering and a ‘sham resurrection’ (her phrase) that his destiny is fulfilled. How could Jesus say “It is FINISHED” or as I see it “It is accomplished”, or better still – “Consummatum”, all things brought together, if he did not complete his mission? And why would Jesus commend his Spirit to his Father and feel forsaken if he only had a half death? And dissembling is breaking one of the Decalogue.

I struggle to see why Sylvia refers to Jesus as Lord, although I am intrigued to look again at his sayings – the ones she upholds – and see if Jesus is Lord enough through just them.

There’s also something wrong with the family narrative – that of the Marys and Jesus travelling, of Jesus being a husband and dad, of his favouritism for Mary Magdalene over the disciples, and his and both Marys’ royal lineage. No overshadowing from the Most High is needed in this conception, and there’s no assumption into heaven – just retirement to the Essene community with its celestial nickname and a boringly ordinary death of old age.

The childhood friend bride feels uncomfortable from a personal relationships view: so Jesus couldn’t meet someone later in his life, and she had to come from the right sort of background to be suitable. It felt like the sort of fairy tale I’d like to see die out.

Like Shakespeare, Jesus’ appeal comes from his ordinary, non conventionally educated background. I abhor the notion that neither Will of Stratford nor Jesus of Nazareth could possibly be who we think without blue blood and academic training. That says, only the aristocracy are worthy of admiration; only official learning is true knowledge, and worst – that class and feudalism rule: just what I thought God wasn’t about.

Jesus is meant to come from King David’s line but he was born to a carpenter, to people too poor to get favours and posh lodgings but have to sleep and deliver a baby in a stable.

Why would Mary his mother sing the magnificat about the powerful and poor being switched if she was royal and rich herself?

And to cast the harlot’s mantle off Magdalene, we have to give her ermine.

For the Jesus being married part – a thesis now well known due to books soon to be mentioned – Sylvia argues that Jewish men, especially those called Rabbi, were always married. It would controvert the Genesis command to multiply if a man did not have children. But how easy is it to generalise about beliefs and practices? We know people whose relationships break the mould. I love that Jesus does everything topsy turvy and unexpected. We value money and property – he doesn’t appear to have any. He lives in a commune and travels – we value rootedness and stability. We don’t read of his ordination in the established religion – he simply preaches, al fresco often (it avoids room hire and permissions). His teaching and his death and resurrection are revolutionary, in the literal sense of turning over, as he does to tables of those misusing money and places of worship. He breaks the Sabbath to heal. He talks to a Samaritan woman. He puts spit in a blind man’s eyes. He assumes temple authority. Jesus’ non conforming to the ‘go forth and multiply’ custom says that humans are not defined by procreation. I query that phrase as a mandate, but it is too controversial to properly take up here.

Sylvia’s argument that the wedding at Cana must be Jesus’ own initially has more credence. For how else could he be expected to worry about the shortage of wine and ask servants to do things? Why would his mother bring this concern to Jesus if he weren’t the groom?

In the previous chapter of John’s gospel (the only one to tell the story), Jesus is called Rabbi, before we have heard him speak or do anything. So he’s already been spoken to as teacher, and his so-called wedding is yet to happen. It is the next – ‘third’ – day that Jesus is ‘invited’ to the wedding, with his mother and disciples, implying them as equal guests. When his mother draws the wine shortage to Jesus’ attention, he says, ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time is not yet come’.  Jesus sounds surprised, as if this wedding isn’t his concern. The servants obey Jesus because Mary asked them to – why is not explained. The bridegroom is mentioned, but not named, and so is the master of the banquet, to whom the transformed water is presented. I don’t think therefore that the case for this being Jesus’ wedding, with Mary M, who we’ve not met yet, is very compelling.

Many people are comforted that their Lord is single. We don’t have a physical description of him (Sylvia does, via her spirit guide, Francine!). He was Robert Powell-esque (star of the TV series Jesus of Nazareth) and Mary his mother curvy and dark (at least one of the three had the right ethnicity for a Jew). Magdalene was red haired! More Anne of Avonlea than Mary of Magdala! (Avonlea… that’s a whole other thought….) People have appropriated Jesus to their circumstances – a black Christ so African people feel closer to him, and of course European depictions have made Jesus brown or red haired and light eyed and skinned. It’s been suggested that Jesus might be gay with the disciple whom Jesus loved (and his mates Mary, Martha and Lazarus a ‘queer’ family). But we don’t know if Jesus was married. We don’t know his sexuality, if any. We don’t know if he had children. But it means that mystique allows us to feel close to him, whatever our skin colour or family situation.

It also suggests that if the usual gospels are right and Jesus was single and not a father, that those of us likewise without spouse or offspring can feel that the most special earth dweller is like us; and if he could be complete without parenthood and a partnering, that we can too.

There’s also a massive issue with the divine and their mortal creatures having an affair – it’s one of those off bounds parings like teacher/pupil, prison officers/inmate, and counsellors/clients and adults with minors. We’re not equal, there’s a power imbalance.

Unless you believe that Jesus isn’t divine or that we are. And many think that Mary Magdalene’s surname isn’t where she’s from but her title, like Mahatma Gandhi or Lord – she’s spiritually special. So maybe not such an odd coupling?

But then there’s the favouritism issue. I heard a snatch of a sermon that Jacob’s obvious preference for his technicoloured dreaming son was bad parenting. If Jesus behaved likewise, I can sympathise with the disciples who complained of Jesus’ constant petting and partiality, and can see why arguments arose after Jesus left them.

I’d like to think that the Son of Man, let alone God, had more maturity and sensitivity, and left a better example.

*

Sylvia’s arguments do not become more bolstered by evidence or reasoning. She often refers to scholars, but gives few names – save Karen L King and Elaine Pagels. She states her view of history as fact, supported by vague research – but this is a common complaint I have with nonfiction, and it is as much in John Shelby Spong or the tomes I’ve just read on exegesis and the Gospel canon as it is here.

There’s a later chapter which has little to do with the Marys and more about tolerant beliefs. I do support Sylvia here – for in her crude offhand way, she says – let love and acceptance be the heart of living and let us not judge, let alone persecute or silence those with other beliefs. She sees the canonising of the Bible as a deliberate attempt at political control and mind steering, leaving out the best and truest parts of the Bible and editing the four chosen gospels to focus on Peter as leader and downgrade both Marys, and the message of love.(The book I read on the canon argued against this, but my suspicions are at least open to Sylvia’s view).

Sylvia mentions The Da Vinci Code and its backlash with some admiration. Unsurprisingly, she references the Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln book, which her view agrees with to some extent – perhaps even inspired her (she does not credit it), and The Last Temptation of Christ. She calls this 1988 film “somewhat weird” and offers a warning to viewers. She seems unaware that Scorsese’s film is based on Nikos Kazantzaki’s  novel. And that the point is, that unlike her Jesus, coming down from the cross before living peacefully with his wife is a temptation to refuse. The film ends with Christ on the cross, choosing to continue his torment unto death to fulfil his mission. Hence this controversial story is more orthodox than Sylvia and books on the holy grail and bloodlines.

A brief word on that line: The offspring of Jesus would be demi gods – or would they be fully human and divine too? And why is a bloodline so vital? Sounds like the feudal notion of purity of blood, of position by family not merit, and permanent exclusion for those not in the clan. But the whole message of Jesus is: God is widening the net (was it ever really so narrow?). Not by birth and heritage, but by belief are you included in God’s kingdom. I wonder if the Age of Aquarius is about moving beyond a particular set of beliefs to be seen as inheritor of God’s relationship – and beyond legalistic words about ownership.

It was a relief to get to the end of The Two Marys, but there’s an odd appendix – the tenets of the Novus Spiritus (why the Latin?), Sylvia’s own church. Twenty two statements in semi religious language – a few thous chucked in, not of the Buber variety; anti war, pro defence; the rejection of book of Revelation. I cannot see the appendix’s relevance to the book’s subject, unless it is another juxtaposition to suggest she too is a messenger of a new spiritual movement for this newly dawning age. Is she letting a cat out of the bag?

Sylvia seems to regularly hint of her own specialness – she compares Magdalene’s loss of her husband and mentor to the loss of her psychic grandmother. In the first chapter called Powerful Women (note Sylvia’s gender) she says, I’m not putting myself near our Lord, but I know how busy travelling and teaching can be and how it feels to be crucified by the press.

Sylvia and I come from a different world view. Hers is that Jesus isn’t divine, that we are, and that Magdalene is a great teacher but not a goddess (unlike Lynn Picknett’s view) and that Mary the Mother isn’t the Lady of Heaven – that’s another deity we’ve confused.

Despite the book’s title and my original intent to write this about Magdalene day, Sylvia’s focus is less on either Mary and actually makes Magdalene less than many see her – this is really the Jesus story, bookended by a close maternal relationship. We don’t hear what Mary Magdalene preached or understood and she seems to have little to add of her own – it is propounding her husband’s ideas – not so empowering for women or Mary.

Sylvia’s shockingly unorthodox view of Christ isn’t compatible with her own world view. Gnostics have a more positive view of humans, yet Sylvia believes that humans are flawed and in need of enlightening; even if we don’t need traditional salvation, death does need overcoming, I think, and Sylvia’s Jesus doesn’t do that – his exit strategy is somewhat tepid compared with the rising and ascension of the gospels. And for Jesus to half die is worse – for it doesn’t signify or accomplish anything. Sylvia doesn’t ‘bother’ with much of the Bible, especially the first part, though she does imply she understands that Jesus preached a new understanding of God, but on whose previous heritage we do not need to dwell.

Her chief source of knowledge is Francine, who isn’t introduced as her guide is familiar to her readers in previous books. Francine seems slipped in at will and at difficult parts of Sylvia’s depiction as her incontrovertible proof. Sylvia seems to just know – which as a modern Gnostic (not one of those ancient dualists with all the rules), would be entirely consistent. I too believe in inner knowing over empiricism, but I also know I need to be able to present an argument too. Intellectually, she’s not convincing, and her writing style is often flavourless and flippant and not focussed. She spoils the ending of the Jesus and Marys story, so we know they all die in old age in Europe long before she reaches that part of her book. I cannot resist another reference to that careless phrase of hers – that she lets the cat out of the bag too early. So I have issues with her theology but also her writing style and revelation – I’ve got you Sylvia, and for me, I’m not feeling enlightened or like following.

It has given me ideas to follow – my disappointment with Jesus and the royal line of David, and to re-read the gospels – how special are Jesus’ teachings and is he portrayed as God? And what of my original Mary Magdalene quest?

These are all likely to appear on my blog another time.

Leave a comment

Filed under spirituality