Monthly Archives: September 2009

Christianity’s Real Roots

Neither Eastern Orthodoxy nor Catholicism can trace themselves back to the church that Jesus instituted, for the simple reason that Jesus did not found  a church. He did initiate a Jewish sectarian reform movement based on the claim that his ministry embodied the radical inbreaking of God’s kingdom. This “church” was just one more q’hal – a “gathering/community” – among many other, sometimes competing, Jewish schools. When Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel talks about founding his church, he is talking about founding a Jewish reformist movement, his “gathering/community” that would exist among, and also in distinction to, other Jewish groups.

Later Christianity’s claim to “the Apostolic Succession” is largely mythical inasmuch as it is claimed by Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic communions.

The really legitimate apostolic succession was the one that devolved upon James, Jesus’ brother, who was the acknowledged head of the movement after Jesus was executed. The book of Acts says that at the Jerusalem Council, Peter gives an opinion, but it is James who leads the Council, ratifies that Noahide rules should apply to Gentile converts, sends out Paul and Barnabus with letters explaining his ruling, who later on sends delegates out to check up on Paul’s dubious practice of Gentile table fellowship, and who has Peter’s obedience and loyalty.

After James, the true (Jewish) apostolic succession continued to fall mostly to members of Jesus’ own family, and usually to Jews. Sometimes known as “the Jerusalem Caliphate,” this true (Jewish) succession was composed of Jesus’ Jewish relatives, and this institution was the real “Jesus Dynasty,” not the phantasmagoric succession from The Twelve/Peter, Paul (and sometimes John) put forth by current mainline Christianity.

Moreover, ancient Rome was aware of this situation, as was exemplified by the emperor Domitian when he sent a police squad to Judea to arrest relatives of Jesus for possible revolutionary crimes. The Emperor was acting pragmatically in doing this because even during his reign it was known that Jesus was of the House of David and that his relatives were still living in Palestine, connected to the executed Messiah and continuing to uphold his original “church” there.

Shockingly, the real – that is, the true Jewish – apostolic succession may not have existed in the West since the year 318 C.E. It seems that at that time, six years before the Council of Nicea, the entire Gentile church was excommunicated by Mar Yosip, “the Patriarch of Jerusalem in Exile”! According to some sources, the Jewish Jerusalem church had been petitioning Pope Sylvester for recognition of its apostolic Hebrew roots and the legitimacy of its bishopric. Sylvester refused and the Jerusalem patriarchy responded by excommunicating the truly heretical – that is, the non- (and sometimes anti-Jewish) Gentile church. Regardless of this story’s literal truth, Christian history seems to have devolved in a way consistent with the story’s core theme.

Since the time when this little remnant Jewish community of Jesus’ successors broke koinonia (communion) with the Roman-Greek  Gentile churches, the West has parodoxically been cast adrift from that original Judean group originated by Jesus

If mainstream Christianity really derives from an apostolic succession (or some reasonable facsimile thereof), then obviously, its current ecclesiology, soteriology, christology, and pneumatology rightly ought to primarily be Jamesian/Jacobite and Petrine/Jewish-sectarian… not the current amalgam of Pauline/Trinitarian theology and christology with which we are so familiar.

The original, true Jewish church and Jewish apostolic succession were swallowed up in a Paulinism interpreted by Greco-Roman bishops, developed by Hellenistic philosophers, embraced by pagan converts – and strangest of all – ultimately mandated by Roman imperial decree.

In that process, the historical succession was not only lost, but more or less consciously rejected, by non-Jewish Christianity.  But, thankfully, it can be partially reconstructed by reading between the lines of the NT,  deliniated in non-canonical sacred texts, retrojected from the descriptions of heresiologists, from archaeology, and from the work of scholars such as James Tabor, Alan F. Segal, Larry Hurtado, Henri Danielou,  Amy-Jill Levine, Raymond Brown, Joel Carmichael, Keith Akers, Marcus J. Borg, James Charlesworth, Geza Vermes, Hugh J. Schonfield, Bruce Chilton, Robert Eisenman,  and others.

Fortunately, then, it can be said that the small flickering flame of original, Jewish Christianity still burns bright enough to illuminate the search for the real Jesus and his original Jewish successors.

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The “New” Testament’s Novelty

The New Testament is a product of the Christian Church. The first Christians did not have a New Testament, nor does the New Testament itself depict any disciple, apostle or lay believer writing any new Christian scripture. The New Testament, then, is concretly a church document,  written mostly in post-Apostolic times and selected and canonized much later.

Once the Church had condensed and preserved its new sacred documents from a much vaster body of literature,  Christian interpretation of these new texts began. These interpretations varied according to the differing theologies, christologies and soteriologies of the exegetes that were doing the interpreting.

The Hellenistic “Church Fathers” supplied their own interpretations and commentaries, as did itinerant teachers, holy hermits, saints… until the monarchical episcopate – the network of bishops – assayed to set its own interpretations as final and universally binding. But since these importantly historically-positioned clergymen did not agree among themselves about interpretation (or christology) – and thus were keeping the Empire spiritually divided –  ultimately the emperor Constantine put an end to their frenetic squabbling by forcing them to hammer out binding doctrines in a series of “committee meetings” (the Church Councils).

So the Protestant-ish suggestion that Jesus, returning today, would obviously ally himself most closely with any church that teaches the biblical truth about him is not very helpful, since all churches, past and present, claim to teach exactly that truth. Nor can a solution be derived simply by a  devout, prayerful reading of the New Testament, since that very document is the Church’s product, and reading of it ought to be informed relative to the Church’s motivations, as far as those can be reconstructed. This methodology flows naturally from the critical biblical principle which insists that all scriptures must be read informed by the probable conflicts, biases, and social realities of the communities that originally birthed those texts.

The significant fact here is that the New Testament did not create the Church; rather, the Church produced the New Testament. The solution, if any, is to be found in a critical analysis of the New Testament and a careful, attentive reading of the New Testament period, from Maccabean times, through the fall of the second Temple, to the accession of Theodosius to the imperial throne.

In the Church’s infancy – especially during its earliest  Jewish-sectarian and early “Pauline” period – many differing views of Jesus existed, and only after much political ferment did a  “New,” specifically Christian scripture, emerge as a second “word of God”.  Prior to that time, the Church’s only scriptural text  was the Jewish Torah and the Prophets. This early situation was far removed from the Protestant-fundamentalist stereotype of an original Church guided sola sciptura by a specifically Christian scripture:  that very early Church would not produce and sanction its  “new scripture” for many years after the death of the last Apostle.  Until that time, Jewish scripture sufficed for Jews and for Jesus and his Jewish and Gentile followers.

“Exorcist” Eisegesis: Fraudulent Child Molestation Theme

[Note: This is a long post. But please bear with me. I think it is necessary to step up and defend Exorcist author Blatty’s depiction of character Burke Dennings against a scurrilous and completely unjustified indictment.]

A current theory states that The Exorcist’s demonic possession of Regan MacNeil is a metaphor for child molestation. Theorists suggest that Regan was being molested by her mother’s film director, Burke Dennings. This idea is sheer unsupported speculation; moreover, it contradicts author William Peter Blatty’s own text and intent. It is to be found in neither the Blatty novel nor in the Blatty-Friedkin film.

“Reading out” of a text material that really exists in the text is called exegesis. “Reading into” a text material that does not exist in the text is called eisegesis.  Eisegesis is the projection of inappropriate, “foreign” themes onto a narrative.  Exorcist molestation theorists are guilty of eisegesis, and a very sloppy one at that.

Blatty’s own depiction of demonic possession is not metaphoric. It is not symbolic. It is not allegorical, analogical, or poetic. It does not point away from itself toward some other layer, genre, theme, or metaliterary realm. Demonic possession in The Exorcist is its primary catalyst for, and explainer of, the behavior, reactions, decisions, and actions of those who witness it.

In short: Regan’s possession “advertises” only itself, and it is Blatty’s clear intent to depict it as a real, authentic, genuine intrusion into the normal world of a malevolent, discarnate, nonhuman, nonmaterial and “ancient” entity.  It contains not a hint of human intervention,  whether sexual abuse or other.

The Exorcist’s only “child molester” is the demon itself.

Burke Dennings is never enlisted by author Blatty as a potential cause of Regan’s possession. Rather, some such catalysts are suggested: Regan’s isolation and loneliness; her playing with a Ouija board; her father’s absence; her reaction to the onset of early adolescence. In not one of Blatty’s suggested causes is a direct, abusive human element presented.

It could be argued (using sociological principles not greatly widespread when Blatty wrote the novel) that the author should have included a possible molestation scenario as catalyst. However, this idea is a retrojection of current concerns into a decade when such considerations had not yet become “public domain” and common literary themes. So if there is any flaw here, it is not Blatty, it is the times in which he was writing. In any case the essential point here is, of course, that Blatty did not use the molestation theme.

Therefore, Burke Dennings is no more a molester than is any other Exorcist character (one wonders why the domestic Karl is not equally put foward for this role, since the novel shows him in constant proximity to Regan, and emphasises his great physical strength and darkly mysterious taciturnity).

On the contrary, Blatty describes Burke Dennings as a reliable friend of the MacNeils – a man, who when sober, is kind and gentle. (And when Denning is not sober, he does not transform into a child molester; he simply becomes an obnoxious, verbally-not-physically abusive drunk.)   An example of this is that, on Regan’s birthday at the movie set, Dennings has the crew rewarm the lights in order to film Regan cutting her cake.

Throughout the first part of the novel, Regan sees very little of Dennings, since he is usually busy directing and going off on drunks; and when he is at the MacNeil home, he is there to see Chris, not Regan. In fact, other than the dinner party scene (and of course the fatal window push incident) Blatty never puts Regan and Burke together in the same room – not in Regan’s room, in Chris’s study, or in the basement where Regan does her artwork.

Regan’s only objection to “Mr. Dennings” is not that he is molesting her, but that he will supplant her father Howard if Chris marries Burke. Blatty’s narrative strongly implies that this is not even Regan’s own idea, but a whispered doubt supplied to her unconscious by the demon. Even so, Regan does not fear or resent Dennings. In fact, in the context of this scene, she says that Mr. Dennings can come along with her and Chris for her birthday celebration. Clearly, in her own subjective world, separate from demonic rumor-mongering, Regan is comfortable in Burke Dennings’ company.

Regarding the famous dinner party scene, Blatty shows Regan going to bed early after a short introduction to the guests. (One of the guests, a psychic, senses that something is wrong with Regan, but immediately attributes it to Regan’s Ouija-board usage, not to molestation.)

Burke Dennings is at this party, but except for Regan’s brief appearance (in which Burke and Regan have no interaction whatsoever), he is completely separated from her as he moves through the crowd insulting all and sundry as he goes. Ultimately he calls Karl “a Nazi”, whereupon Chris sends Burke to “sleep it off” in her study. And… Dennings does just that – he does not unobtrusively (extremely difficult in a crowded house party) make his way upstairs to molest Regan. He flops down in the study and Chris immediately sends Regan’s tutor Sharon into the study – to watch over Burke until he awakens (and to make sure that he  leaves without disturbing any more guests.)

At this point, Regan is a troubled child, but she is not yet fully possessed. She manifests her disturbance(s) through several strange behaviors, chief among them the acquiring of an imaginary playmate.

As a concretization of Regan’s disturbance – according to the molestation theory – this invisible playmate ought to bear some direct relation to Burke Dennings. But in reality it does no such thing. Instead, the playmate is called “Captain Howdy” – an “in your face,” obvious reference to missing Dad, Howard MacNiel. There is no molester here, no drooling Dennings or creeping Karl:  only the distillation of a lonely child’s abandonment anxiety. (Later it will be shown that the demon is using the “Howdy” identity to manipulate the child’s vulnerability. But suffice it to say that Burke Dennings in Blatty’s narrative is nowhere near the center of Regan’s disturbance.)

Again: The Exorcist’s only “child molester” is the demon itself.

Denning’s lack of criminality or evil intent in the narrative as Blatty wrote it leaves only one baffling question – the primary question the molestation theorists cling to – unanswered: What was Dennings doing in Regan’s room when she broke his neck, turned his head “completely around, facing backward,” and pushed him out her window?

Blatty does not let us know the answer. We can only guess. But from what has preceded, it is clear that, regardless of the reason Dennings went up to Regan’s room, that reason cannot include molestation. We can only theorize that he went upstairs to check on the daughter of his good friend Chris; or that Regan, undergoing a new demonic attack, cried out and Dennings rushed up to assist her;  or that the demon, acting through Regan, deliberately lured Dennings upstairs to his death.

One might suspect, rather, that Dennings died because Blatty’s story called for just this death at just this point in the narrative. Dennings’ death is the causal nexus of much of the subsequent story. Removing Dennings and his death from the narrative would completely depotentiate and unravel The Exorcist’s entire narrative.

Perhaps Dennings died because he “had” to die for authorial purposes and narrational soundness. After making that decision, Blatty only had to devise a way for Regan/the demon to kill Dennings privately, when only she and Dennings were in the house together, with no other potential witnesses.

And that is the most plausible reason for Dennings being alone with Regan in the house and in Regan’s room. Plot device, not molestation, placed these two characters together at the same time and in the same place.

The Exorcist’s only “child molester” remains the demon itself.