Pierce vs Douthat
Yet another in the very long list of things I didn't know: Charlie Pierce is a Christian scholar. And, as might be expected, he takes Ross Douthat's new book downtown. Hard:
[N]owhere does Douthat so clearly punch above his weight class as when he decides to correct the damage he sees as having been done by the historical Jesus movement, the work of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman and, ultimately, Dan Brown's novels. Even speaking through Mark Lilla, it takes no little chutzpah for a New York Times op-ed golden child to imply that someone of Pagels's obvious accomplishments is a "half-educated evangelical guru." Simply put, Elaine Pagels has forgotten more about the events surrounding the founding of Christianity, including the spectacular multiplicity of sects that exploded in the deserts of the Middle East at the same time, than Ross Douthat will ever know, and to lump her work in with the popular fiction of The Da Vinci Code is to attempt to blame Galileo for Lost in Space. First, he offers a threadbare explanation for why Pagels is wrong in her assessment of the early Gnostic texts. (His argument: St. Paul says they're wrong.) He describes the eventual calcification of the sprawling Jesus movement into the Nicene Creed as "an intellectual effort that spanned generations" without even taking into account the political and imperial imperatives that drove the process of defining Christian doctrine in such a way as to not disturb the shaky remnants of the Roman empire. The First Council of Nicaea, after all, was called by the Emperor Constantine, not by the bishops of the Church. Constantine — whose adoption of the Christianity that Douthat so celebrates would later be condemned by James Madison as the worst thing that ever happened to both religion and government — demanded religious peace. The council did its damndest to give it to him. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but Constantine was a doozy. Douthat is perfectly willing to agree that early Christianity was a series of boisterous theological arguments as long as you're willing to believe that he and St. Paul won them all.
This is about a subject about which I know almost nothing. But when Charlie Pierce writes about it, I want to know more. It's a wonderful piece for all sorts of reasons and you should read the whole thing.
As I said, this is not my field, but I do know this: anyone who thinks that Catholics had it better in the past in America are drinking communion wine spiked with acid. I just ain't so.