When the man first struck up a conversation with me, he had no idea that I was in the religion business. Once my little secret got out, though, he appointed me mother confessor to his catalog of grievances against all the religious people who'd ever wounded him.
At great length, I heard how his mom had been an evangelical preacher, on fire for the Word, and boy did he admire her—except that he didn't know the Bible as well and probably never would. Then it was about how he wouldn't mind going to worship, but church people are full of condemnations about a nice cold beer on a hot afternoon. At last he insisted that he investigates doctrines before believing in them. He won't just buy into any old idea, unlike those Roman Catholics who swallow anything they're told. I thought his bias rather unnecessary, not to mention inaccurate, but otherwise I felt inclined to commend his ardent search for a credible faith.
Then he dropped the verbal bomb.
"What I'd really like is to get my hands on those scrolls," he said.
"Scrolls? You mean the Dead Sea Scrolls?"
"Naw, those were discovered in 1947. I'm talking about the scrolls that were discovered in 1991."
"Scrolls discovered in 1991?" I said, confused.
"Yeah, these scrolls were written by Christ himself! You know, the Roman Catholic Church is trying to cover them up and say they're heresy. But I'd sure like to see them for myself. They say there's totally different things in there!"
I was a little suspicious. "How did you find out about these scrolls?" I inquired as casually as possible.
"Well, I read about them on a Christian website. They say the forensic evidence dates them back to the time of Christ and to the very town he lived in before he died. Also," he added, "they're written in Christ's own handwriting."
I narrowed my eyes a bit. "How can they tell it's Christ's own handwriting?"
"Well," he said lightly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "they cross-referenced it."
Why do some people chase after heresy, seek out cults, accept bizarre religious dogmas, experiment with wacky rituals? Nine times out of ten it isn't because of a profound and intellectual departure from the traditional doctrine of the church. It's because the heretical thing fills some need, and the orthodox thing touches some weakness or pain.
This poor man got tripped up by the lust for gnosis, the spawning ground for heresies old and new. Gnosis, the secret knowledge hidden from the ordinary folk, sets the bearer apart and above. It's an infatuation with mystery taken to a prideful extreme. I remember well even at the age of five the extreme satisfaction I felt in knowing for certain of three people in hell: Judas, Pilate, and Hitler. Gnosis flatters human vanity and polishes it with the luster of spiritual authority.
But the Christian faith does not deal in secrets. All nations are to be baptized and made into disciples, not a privileged few. The faith is not the purview of sages and mages alone. If anything, it's quite the opposite: Jesus said to his Father, "You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants" (Matt. 11:25, NASB). The tomb is empty and the Scripture is in print: all are welcome to behold and adore.
Still, my friend's interest was understandable, if misguided: had those scrolls by the hand of Christ himself panned out, he would have known things that his mom, the church people, and all Roman Catholics put together hadn't a clue about. He'd be the best Christian. God would love him more.
For being so surrounded with Christianity, my friend knew nothing of the grace of God. All he heard and felt was judgment on his inadequacy: that he was not as fiery as mom, not as moral as church people, not as powerful as Catholics. Here was a man who needed more than anything the thoroughly orthodox word that his salvation comes by faith, not by works—in particular, not by religious works—but no one was speaking it to him. Why was the open fact of God's inviting love the one secret he didn't know about, and why were the heresies blazing in full neon color?
I take it as a cautionary tale. If orthodoxy does not lead the hungry to the Bread of Life and the thirsty to living waters, is it any better than heresy?
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.
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For more on early church heresies about the nature of Christ, see Christian History's Issue 51: Heresy in the Early Church, available in its fully illustrated print form the Christian History Store or as text online.
Wilson's earlier articles for Christianity Today and Books & Culture include:
Christ via Judaism | Lauren Winner's spiritual journey is an invaluable—and, to some, unsettling—reminder of where we came from (CT, July 7, 2003)
I Want | Thou shalt not covet (B&C, May/June 2003
Decorated with Death | Is religious jewelry just a smokescreen? (CT, Jan. 21, 2003)
Reuniting Mary and Martha | Theology is women's work, too. (CT, Nov. 1, 2001)
The Great Reunion Beyond | Death is the heartless divider—or so I thought before I watched my grandpa die. (CT, Feb. 15, 2001)
Free to Be Creatures Again | How predestination descended like a dove on two unsuspecting seminarians, and why they are so grateful. (CT, Oct. 17, 2000)
Urbane Bigotry | A review of Chloe Breyer's The Close: A Young Woman's First Year At A Seminary (B&C, Sep/Oct 2000)
SWF Seeks Marriage Partner | I've got it all. So why do I want a husband? (B&C, Jul/Aug 2000)
An Open-Door Policy | Is meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex dangerous? Is taking steps against it sexist? (CT, Nov. 11-16, 1999)
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