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The Gibson God.

Beyond Belief by Elaine Pagels Random House. 257 pages. $24.95.

The Enemy Is Here!: A Reorganized Synthesis of The War Is Now!, January 1977-August 1994 by Hutton Gibson Christian Book Club of America. 498 pages. $13.95.

The Enemy Is Still Here!: A Reorganized Synthesis of The War Is Now!, November 1994-March 2003 by Hutton Gibson Faith & Freedom Publishing. 391 pages.

I never know what to say when people ask me if I am still Catholic. Part of me wants to say yes. My whole family is Catholic. I attended Catholic schools, just like my parents, siblings, and cousins. I even starred in several grade-school productions of "The Stations of the Cross" (a version of the passion play). My all-girls Catholic high school, Queen of Peace, defined for me the world that I want to live in--a world where we seek to build God's kingdom on Earth, a world where social justice reigns.

But, unlike the majority of my kin, I do not attend mass weekly, though I go with my family on holy days. I can't even remember the last time I confessed my sins to a priest, but the idea of absolution still appeals to me. Images of the Virgin Mary hang in my home, but I have disliked the pope ever since I had to get up at three in the morning in 1979 to see John Paul II preach in a church parking lot at a Southside parish in Chicago.

Hutton Gibson, Mel's dad, shares my antipathy for the pope, 'albeit, for different reasons. He is the editor of a newsletter entitled "The War Is Now!"--a collection of caustic writings on the Catholic Church and its sins of the last century. Gibson belongs to a sect called Traditionalism, which demands a return to the Catholicism of the early twentieth century. The church he longs for is a church I cannot imagine, much less get excited about.

Gibson is at war with a church that has betrayed not just him but "tradition" itself. He sees the Catholic Church as falling down into decrepitude. He dismisses Pope John Paul II as "Garrulous Karolus Wojtyla, Koran Kisser." Gibson wants to go back to pre-Vatican II days and to have every Catholic celebrate mass in Latin.

"The Church is in chaos--the peculiar product of evil, the trademark of Satan," he writes in his first newsletter. "Without mass, the Church has no purpose."

This newsletter calls for holy war. He even writes "an alphabet of militant Catholicism," where A is for "Aggression: The war is now. Do not hesitate. Fight habitually. Never miss a chance. Create chances. Hit first. Hit often." I is for "Intestinal Fortitude.... Never fear, if necessary, to appear stupid, bigoted, or foolish."

He emphatically states that only through the Catholic Church can one find salvation. "Although the existence of God can be known by the exercise of human reason alone, the God of the Covenant can be known only by those who believe in the One Whom He has sent, Jesus Christ," he writes. And the Vatican II supposition that fellow Christians such as Lutherans can find salvation is nothing short of heresy.

Woe to Gibson's enemies, who include "all who promote the current deviation." To them, he writes, "we most heartily wish the end they have chosen." His original newsletter continues with a condemnation: MAY THEY ROAST ETERNALLY IN THE DEEPEST PIT OF HELL!" This sentence is not included in the book.

There surely is a place for Elaine Pagels in Gibson's inferno. Pagels is the award-winning historian whose latest book, Beyond Belief, takes on the delicate subject of religious truth.

Pagels begins her book with an assessment of her own Protestant faith. She finds herself going back to church after her young son is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She begins to ponder what draws people to mass--and what drives them away.

Pagels posits that religion is much more than a set of standardized beliefs. "What is Christianity and what is religion, I wondered, and why do so many of us still find it compelling, whether or not we belong to a church, and despite difficulties we may have with particular beliefs or practices? What is it about Christian tradition that we love--and what is it that we cannot love?"

Pagels examines how early Christian texts because codified as canon. And she explains how certain gospels--there were more than four in the first centuries after Christ's death--became the Christian canon. It is a fascinating story.

Pagels paints a picture of the gospels that would surprise many Catholics--including Gibson--who believe that the gospels are eyewitness accounts. "We do not know who actually wrote these gospels," she writes. "All we know is that all of these 'gospels' are attributed to disciples of Jesus."

This much is known: The Gospel of Mark was written 68-70 A.D., the gospels of Matthew and Luke a few years later (c. 80-90 A.D.), and John at the end of the first century (90-100 A.D.). It is likely that Mark, Matthew, and Luke were written by anonymous authors but given the names of the apostles to add legitimacy.

Scholars have not provided a definitive answer to the question of who wrote the Gospel of John, the most mystical and poetic of all the gospels. But, perhaps more importantly, Pagels points out that since the second century, most Christians have assumed that the author was John, the brother of James, and the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve disciples.

What interests Pagels is not simply the authorship, but what it meant for Christianity. The Gospel of John stands out, not only for its prose and unique stories, but for its elevation of who Jesus was. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all depict Jesus as divine but human. John alone characterizes Jesus as the same as God.

This was a drastic divergence from prevalent belief at the time. "This conviction branded him a radical among his fellow Jews--and even, apparently, among many of Jesus's followers," she writes. And it is this idea--that Jesus was God--that became, two centuries later, the foundation of Christian belief.

Pagels argues that the Gospel of John may have been written in response to another gospel of the time, the Gospel of Thomas.

The Gospel of Thomas, along with fifty other sacred texts, was found in a jar in 1965 by an Egyptian villager in the hills of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. It never made it into the New Testament. (Pagels looks at these hidden texts in her previous book The Gnostic Gospels.)

According to the Gospel of Thomas, it is possible to find Jesus, the divine light, in each human being. This stands in stark opposition to John's belief that Jesus is God, and elevated above humanity.

Into the fourth century, Christians debated the divine nature of Jesus. At this time, Roman emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and called for a bishops' council in Nicea to arbitrate this and other conflicts and to formulate a statement of belief for a universal church. The council that met eventually created the Nicene Creed, which is still recited at mass today.

After intense argument, the bishops voted on a system of beliefs that declared Jesus was "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God." Those bishops who opposed this measure emphasized that such a declaration occurs neither in Scripture nor in Christian tradition. Afterward, Pagels notes, "anyone who challenged this radical belief would be seen as questioning the orthodoxy of the emperor himself."

Despite the Nicene Creed, Christians still clung to their various beliefs and their sacred texts. In the spring of 367, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote in his annual Easter Letter detailed guidelines defining which texts were divine, and which were not. This became the earliest listing of the books of the New Testament; John was in, and Thomas was out. "It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius's order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve them, and buried them near the cliff where [villager] Muhammad 'All would find them sixteen hundred years later," writes Pagels.

But listing the New Testament wasn't enough for Athanasius; he wanted to codify the correct belief system of the books that remained. He insisted that people should not read the Scriptures subjectively or intuitively and that they could gain access to God only through the Church.

Pagels begins her book in search of religious truth. She returns to the texts of the earliest Christian writings, looking for clarity. But instead she finds diversity. Thanks to the secret act of fourth-century monks who so loved their sacred texts they hid them from destruction, she encounters a wealth of ideas that suggest new and often personal, experiential ways of thinking about Christ.

Pagels notes that those who see Christianity offering a complete belief system have a hard time acknowledging that diverse viewpoints exist. She writes: "Many tend to assume that only one side can speak the truth, while others speak only lies--or evil."

Much has been made of the anti-Semitism in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. Mel is also a Traditionalist Catholic and built a Traditionalist Church near his home to make it easier to attend a Latin Tridentine Mass. While it is unknown whether Hutton Gibson's writings had any effect on the script, it is undeniable that the father's work is full of screeds against the Jews, who practice a religion that "has no foundation or validity." (One example: Pope John Paul II said that Jews could be considered "our oldest brothers." Hutton Gibson's response: "Abel had an older brother.")

Mel's idea of God is also troubling to me. Judging by Traditionalist Catholic standards, no Catholic I know is worthy of salvation. There is no room to move in Hutton Gibson's conception of God, and his son shares this conviction. In a New Yorker profile, Mel says that even his own wife, an Episcopalian whom Gibson describes as a better person than he, will not be saved.

Despite the warnings of the Gibsons, I am not that concerned about my own salvation. I take heart in a joke I've heard about the passage into heaven. After refusing entry to some people, Peter was astounded to see those same persons in paradise. Peter asks Jesus who is letting these people in. "It's my mom, Jesus tells Peter. "She's letting them in the back door."

Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor for The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:Beyond Belief; The Enemy Is Here!: A Reorganized Synthesis of The War Is Now!, January 1977-August 1994; The Enemy Is Still Here!: A Reorganized Synthesis of The War Is Now!, November 1994-March 2003
Author:DiNovella, Elizabeth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
Previous Article:Fin De Siecle.
Next Article:More ferocity?

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