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amy_welborn

What’s your history of classroom tech?

The racket of IBM Selectrics in typing class? The square holes of data cards? (I can’t even type phrase that without hearing it in my Indian college professor’s voice.) Did you – or if you’re old enough, your parents – collect grocery receipts for Apple IIe computers? Mario Typing? Channel One?

It’s a history of promises and utopia, isn’t it? Promises of:

  • Individualized, self-paced learning
  • Global connections and awareness
  • Classroom and system efficiency
  • Parent-school cooperation
  • Financial savings
  • Preparedness for the workplace and the modern world in general.

How much has been written on these issues? Millions of words. I don’t want to add too much to that. What I have to say is particularly directed at Catholic education, which, in this country, has – not surprisingly – jumped right on the Tech Train, seeking, as it does it so much else, to do nothing more than ape public education.

The lack of critical, counter-cultural thinking in Catholic education is not surprising, but still continually disappointing nonetheless.

What I have to say today is pretty simple, and I’m going to say it mostly by quoting from others. I’d encourage you to follow the links and read more.

Bottom line:

The push for screens and internet-based learning to replace books and paper is sold to us as an inevitability that is, of course, best for students.

I invite you to never, ever, accept that premise, and to question it, from top to bottom every time it’s presented to you. 

Because the push for screens and internet-based learning is not about students. It’s about profit and data. 

Let’s go back to the dark ages – the 1990’s, when Channel One entered classrooms. It’s an instructive example because it was so controversial at the time, and what’s happening now with computer-based learning, particularly Google Classroom, raises similar issues, but does not seem to be raising the same kinds of questions.

The deal was this: Whittle Communications provided classroom televisions and satellite receivers to schools in exchange for schools having their students watch a daily news show provided by the company – called Channel One.  I taught in a school that took this deal, and yes, every day after opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, we had to watch this – what, maybe 10-15 minute news show with advertisements (that was the controversial part).

As I said – it was controversial – accusations of schools selling out students, forcing them to watch advertisements and whatever editorial slant Channel One offered in its programming.

And those are questions that should have been raised. It was certainly problematic – not to speak of being a pain and an intrusion. But hey! We got free televisions!

What’s happening now is no different – well, it is different – because it’s worse. What’s happening now in so many systems is an unquestioning, eager acceptance of faulty premises about what’s best for students, allowing tech companies to simply take over education, set the standards, and dominate every aspect of the process from pre-assessment, to instruction, to testing to information infrastructure.

And all the while scraping your kids’ lives for data.

Tomorrow I’m going to take the issue on from a more personal perspective, ranting about sharing various experiences my own kids have had with this in their classrooms – amy-welbornsince I haven’t taught myself since the advent of intensive, intrusive classroom tech – in my day  – it was a big deal to get one classroom computer, period.

Today, I’m just going to leave you with some citations from other writers. I don’t agree with everything every one of these writers have to say about every issue – some of them tend to tilt definitely more leftward than I do, and many are hard-core opposed to charter and private schools – but on these matters, I’m indebted to their passion.

Here’s where I stand – before I get to the links:

  • Education – even up through high school – should be as screen-free as possible. I really don’t see any reason at all for elementary students to use computers or screens. Their brains need the holistic connection between mental and physical activity that comes with reading real books and writing on paper and using concrete manipulatives.
  • Everything I have read indicates that reading retention is stronger from reading from printed paper pages than it is reading from a screen. There is an aspect to spatial awareness that assists in retention. I know this is true for me because I can often, when trying to remember something I read, can retrieve it by thinking about where I read it on the page – top, bottom, middle. I don’t have that with a screen, which is why the only books I read on an e-reader are out-of-print books I can’t find anywhere else, for the most part. For sure, if I am reading non-fiction – serious history or theology – I must read a book – I must be able to have that experience of holding something physical in my hands, flipping back and forth, physically highlighting.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that students tend to prefer printed material, as well: “real books.” There are serious questions, as well, about the physical impact of all-day screen immersion, not only on brain chemistry and attention, but on other aspects of our physical health.
  • As the links below will emphasize, this is mostly about perceived financial savings (by schools and systems) and financial gain (by corporations). It is disappointing, as I said, to see Catholic schools buy into this.
  • Classroom tech does not improve efficiency. At all. It takes time to learn, there are bugs and disruptions, the Internet goes out, the power goes out, it presents distractions.
  • While there are great teachers out there, teachers as a group are not noble saints immune from human weakness. As I said, great teachers still work out there – my children are sitting in the classrooms of some excellent teachers as I write this. But – again – teachers are not saints or superhuman or uniformly excellent. There are lazy, inefficient, ignorant teachers whose worst habits are encouraged by classroom tech. I mean – who among us hasn’t encountered the teacher who does nothing more than hand out worksheets? Now he/she has a classroom full of kids who can be told to work in their Chromebooks and call it a day.

So yeah – basically, for me, it comes down to : The tech needed in a classroom is going to vary: kids studying AP Physics might need to use it more than they do in English class (or maybe not – I sort of have my doubts on that score, too). But the presumption should be: less tech is better. 

Now for the links:

Dear teachers: Don’t be good soldiers for the tech industry

There is an entire parasitic industry making billions of dollars selling us things we don’t need – standardized testsCommon Core workbook drivel, software test prep THIS, and computer test crap THAT.

We didn’t decide to use it. We didn’t buy it. But who is it who actually introduces most of this garbage in the classroom?

That’s right. US.

We do it. Often willingly.

We need to stop.

And before someone calls me a luddite, let me explain. I’m not saying technology is bad. It’s a tool like anything else. There are plenty of ways to use it to advance student learning. But the things we’re being asked to do… You know in your heart that they aren’t in the best interests of children.

I know. Some of you have no choice. You live in a state or district where teacher autonomy is a pathetic joke. There are ways to fight that, but they’re probably not in the classroom.

It’s not you who I’m talking to. I’m addressing everyone else. I’m talking to all the teachers out there who DO have some modicum of control over their own classrooms and who are told by their administrators to do things that they honestly disagree with – but they do it anyway.

We’ve got to stop doing it.

Corporations want to replace us with software packages. They want to create a world where kids sit in front of computers or iPads or some other devices for hours at a time doing endless test prep. You know it’s true because your administrator probably is telling you to proctor such rubbish in your own classroom so many hours a week. I know MINE is.

….

The EdTech shell game is not about improving student learning. It’s a commercial coup, not a progressive renaissance.

Think about it.

They call this trash “personalized learning.” How can it really be personalized if kids do the same exercises just at different rates? How is it personalized if it’s standardized? How is it personalized if it omits the presence of actual people in the education process?

It’s teach-by-numbers, correspondence school guano with graphics and a high speed Internet connection.

Personalized Learning Without People – An Education Scam from the 1980s Returns

This is seen as a way to save money by teaching without teachers. Sure, you still need a certified educator in the class room (for now) but you can stuff even more children into the seats when the teacher is only a proctor and not responsible for actually presenting the material.

The teacher becomes more of a policeman. It’s his job to make sure students are dutifully pressing buttons, paying attention and not falling asleep.

Moreover, this is sold as a way to boost test scores and meet the requirements of the Common Core. You can easily point to exactly which standards are being assessed on a given day and then extrapolate to how much that will increase struggling students’ scores on the federally mandated standardized test when they take it later in the year.

In fact, students’ answers on these programs are kept and recorded. They are, in effect, stealth assessments that can be used to judge and sort students into remediation classes or academic tracks.

Co-opting the Language of Authentic Education: The Competency Based Education Cuckoo

That’s what the whole program consists of – forcing children to sit in front of computers all day at school to take unending high stakes mini-tests. And somehow this is being sold as a reduction in testing when it’s exactly the opposite.

This new initiative is seen by many corporate school reformers as the brave new world of education policy. The public has soundly rejected standardized tests and Common Core. So this is the corporate response, a scheme they privately call stealth assessments. Students will take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’ll be asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers will make it look like a game. The results will still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

On “Competency-Based Education” ….and B.F. Skinner:

Parents, here’s the moral of the story: if you want your child “constantly interacting” with whatever corporate testing company your state has contracted with, and if you trust that company to be your child’s teacher, then by all means, CBE is for you.

And then a general rant from a couple of years ago – with good links. 

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, once believed that technology in the classroom could solve the problems of modern urban education. No Luddite, he had received his Ph.D. in computer science from Yale and had moved to India in 2004 to help found a new research lab for Microsoft; while there, he became interested in how computers, mobile phones and other technologies could help educate India’s billion-plus population.

Rather than finding a digital educational cure, he came to understand what he calls technology’s “Law of Amplification”: technology could help education where it’s already doing well, but it does little for mediocre educational systems. Worse, in dysfunctional schools, it “can cause outright harm.” He added: “Unfortunately, there is no technological fix…more technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is non-technological.”

From Ed Week:

What this discussion boils down to is a concern about student learning and a skepticism regarding the idea that technology is always necessary or appropriate. New tech tools might promote engagement, but students might also enjoy colorful pens and giant pieces of chart paper as a change of pace in environments that are proudly, and rigidly, paperless. Virtual discussion boards might be crucial for drawing out introverted students; they might also give students permission to sit back and type canned responses.

In his 2003 book The Flickering Mind, author Todd Oppenheimer argued that education technology had failed in its promise to transform education and that it may paradoxically impede learning. Oppenheimer, a journalist who visited a range of schools and institutions in the United States to examine how technology was shaping education, found that educators often conflated sleek but content-thin presentations with evidence of deep learning.

Educators also erroneously assumed that the use of tools like PowerPoint counted as relevant skill-building for the workplace. Oppenheimer suggests in the book that students are more likely to prosper if they develop “strong values and work habits,” and master “the art of discussion.”

 

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Eh, it works. Let’s try to knock this out in the time between the first rising noises and the appearance outside the door, bookbag in hand.

Update: He beat me. Next goal: get it done in less than fifteen minutes and move on.

Reading: Because of some watching (see below), I didn’t make much progress on I was Dancing, but will probably finish it today. I also remembered that last week I’d started Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the CountrySo that will be next, after the O’Connor.

Writing: Well, all I got done yesterday was blog posts because I remembered that we were serving dinner at one of the women’s shelters in town, and I hadn’t picked up our designated item, so I had to leave earlier than planned for the school pickup and make a Tuesdaytrip to Sam’s Club for that.

Listening: To people complaining about school. Does that count?

Watching: Yes, yesterday was Better Call Saul, and it was good, but not worth an entire post this week. It’s not where my mind is at the moment anyway, because I made the mistake (or not) of watching the new AMC series that they’ve position after BCS – Lodge 49. 

I’d heard a bit about it, but I usually don’t watch shows right when they premiere – it took me a year to get to Breaking Bad – my heart has been broken too many times! Mostly by HBO shows that I got all excited about and intrigued by, settled down to watch the minute they aired, but which then turned out to be overstuffed, pretentious duds – I’m looking at you, Carnivale and, come to think of it, John of Cincinnati, which immediately came to mind when I heard of the premise of this show:

Lodge 49 is a light-hearted, endearing modern fable set in Long Beach, California about a disarmingly optimistic local ex-surfer, Dud (Wyatt Russell), who’s drifting after the death of his father and collapse of the family business. Dud finds himself on the doorstep of a rundown fraternal lodge where a middle-aged plumbing salesman and “Luminous Knight” of the order, Ernie (Brent Jennings), welcomes him into a world of cheap beer, easy camaraderie and the promise of Alchemical mysteries that may — or may not — put Dud on the path to recover the idyllic life he’s lost.

I also thought: trying way too hard. 

But, um..guess what.

really liked it.

Not loved. Not thought was the Best Show Ever. But I’ll keep watching it, for sure. Here’s what I liked – and guess what – depending on the direction of the show over the next couple of weeks, yes, a full post on it will be coming. Because guess what – there’s a definite Catholic sensibility about the piece, something I can smell a mile – or a continent  – away, and sure enough, from an interview with the creator of the show, short-story writer Jim Gavin:

The first image in the book is of martyrdom! You can’t escape a Catholic childhood. My parents made a lot of sacrifices to put us through Catholic school. I’m a typical lapsed Catholic and have problems with the church for all the reasons you might imagine, but in my adult life I’ve discovered some of the theology and find a lot of beauty in it. There’s so much beauty in something like Dante.

Isn’t Dante best known for writing about the nine circles of hell?

(Laughs). Yeah — the beauty of hell! I’m a weird Catholic nerd. I like theology and the idea of mercy really runs through the book. A lot of the characters secretly wish for the world to take mercy on them for just one second. It’s very un-American to ask for help — we almost have to be taken by the collar.

So what’s the Catholic sensibility? I won’t commit fully yet, but right now, two episodes in, it’s about seeking wholeness and a place in the world despite loss, disappointment and a continual sense of indebtedness that seems to define the life of every character: everyone owes someone, everyone’s scrambling to meet that debt, everyone’s life is defined by the debt. Is there hope for restoration? Is there a way to lift the debt? Is there mercy – anywhere?

The answer seems to be maybe. And maybe it’s in this place, a place that Dudley, the ex-surfer at the center, happens upon. He finds a lodge ring in the sand on the beach, unsuccessfully tries to pawn it, and then runs out of gas in front of the lodge, a place he’s lived near his whole life, but never recognized for what it is until now because he’d just happened upon a sign.

So yearning, brokenness, an intuition that there’s something more and then finding it – perhaps even being led to it –  in a place rich with signifiers, a place where people gather in community, a place where mystery – perhaps even a merciful mystery –  is encountered: Catholic.

Ernie: Once we can see that you are dedicated, there's a whole secret 
ceremony.
Dud: Cool, a secret.  What happens at the ceremony? 
Ernie: Well, I can't tell you that.But basically, there's a solemn oath, 
and then, we will begin to entrust you with the mysteries.
Dud: Entrusted with the mysteries.That's so cool. That's all I ever wanted.

I’m prepared for disappointment, but yeah – for the moment, I’m in.

What else did I like about it: The cast and the look is refreshingly diverse – the Lodge’s membership is male and female, of varied backgrounds.  It’s got some familiar faces in it – David Pasquesi, who plays Selina Myers’ ex-husband in Veep is a delightfully loopy “apothecary” here and Adam  Godley – Elliot in Breaking Bad – is the British liason from Lynx HQ to Lodge 49, apparently.

Eating/Cooking: We ate the Ropa Vieja last night, and it was excellent.

 

 

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amy-welborn

I am probably going to regret this, since by tomorrow something else will have popped up that I’d rather write about, or I’ll feel overwhelmed by All The Thoughts, but I’m going to go ahead and commit to this: a week’s full of posts about tech – by which I mean, not the engine on your Toyota or the microwave, but, of course, information technology. That Damn Internet.

I’m calling it Tech Week. Those of you involved in the theater (I’m not) know Tech Week as Hell. It’s the series of rehearsals in which all of the technological aspects of the production – mostly lighting and sound – are painstakingly worked out. It’s painful, but necessary, and here, more than a useful pun. The process of putting all of that into place is difficult – but that tech is at the service of something very human: real flesh and blood people telling a story to other real flesh and blood people.

The question that’s at hand is not unrelated: what does modern information technology do to our humanity? Are we enslaved – or is there any way that it can be managed so that it serves us and helps us tell our stories more powerfully to each other?

Is it hopeless?

I’m not a philosopher, so these thoughts will be my usual fly-by-night stream-of-consciousness nonsense. I’ll try to keep it all as succinct as I can – which is why I’m dividing it up into different posts:

  • Monday: Some…thoughts.
  • Tuesday: Churches, evangelization and technology
  • Wednesday: Education and tech – the basics
  • Thursday: Education and tech – specific issues
  • Friday: What all of this brings out of us: the worst and the best

A couple of years ago, I reread Fahrenheit 451 as my son tackled it for Freshman English. I was quite taken with it. It struck me not so much as book About Censorship, as it’s usually thought of, but a book about Powers absorbing the individual – about making the individual believe that nothing in her life as she is living it today in this real world of earth and sky is as interesting as what is being presented on an ever-present, all-enveloping screen or fed into her earbuds.

I’m serious – read it. Bradbury’s prescience on this score gave me chills.

Inspired by that, I decided to pull out an ancient paperback copy of Marshal McLuhan’s Understanding Media. I’d read it and then pull Bradbury and McLuhan together to make some brilliant commentary on The Present Day. That’s what I was going to do.

Well, honestly – I couldn’t make head nor tail of McLuhan. I couldn’t keep track of the hot-cold stuff, partly because I kept trying to translating into the present day, and it just AMY-WELBORN3didn’t work. Mostly I am just not philosophically-minded and can’t follow arguments like this, just like I could never keep track of the characters in Deadwood. It’s a similar problem: everything just melds together: men with big moustaches spouting profanities – long sentences about structuring and configuring and vantage points – I just get hopelessly lost.

To be sure, there are brilliant nuggets in Understanding Media that I’ll be quoting, but I am not sure whatever it is he is arguing still works as an argument. Circumstances have changed so quickly, and the shape of media is quite different.

For there are two things, it seems to me, that Bradbury, McLuhan, Orwell, Huxley and most other visionaries of that era missed about “The Future.”  They envisioned information technology that would be able to dominate populations and shape culture and society: manipulative images on large screens, voices in earphones, an unrelenting, controlling Presence.

What could they not see?

First, the role that non-government entities would play in creating and maintaining that pervasive presence. The assumption, naturally enough, is that only government would have the power or interest in controlling information, communication and images, but we see that’s not the case. It’s an extremely profitable enterprise, and while corporations and governments are certainly all in this together for their own motivations, feeding off each other, the Google-Apple-Amazon-Microsoft regime is also different than the authoritarian single-government Big Brother that’s the framework for so much of mid-to-late 20th century prognostications.

Secondly – and this is what intrigues me the most. What hardly anyone envisioned (although those of you more well-read than I can certainly correct me on this score!) was the shrinking of the technology to the point that what kids carry around in their pockets is exponentially more powerful than computers that filled rooms just a couple of decades ago and – even more importantly – this tech gives not only the power to see and hear, but to create.

It didn’t take much to envision a future in which every corner of our lives would feature a screen. The plot twist has been the camera, microphone, printing press and projector that everyone holds in their hands.

Image: from the 1957 film Desk Set starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy . 

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— 1 —

First, take a look at this. It might have appeared on your social media feed as it did mine. It’s singer Alfina Fresta, who has spastic dystonic tetraparesis. She is supported here by Stefania Licciardello, president of the Neon Cultural Association, which offers performers with and without disabilities the opportunity to perform together. 

It’s lovely. It’s what the world should look like: no one invisible, mutuality and support simply a way of life.

— 2 —

Last week, I linked to Emily Stimpson Chapman’s moving post on the adoption process. Well, earlier this week, Emily and Chris’ son Toby was born. As Emily says in her post: We have been snuggling non-stop ever since and are completely in love. Continued prayers are greatly appreciated, though, both for his birth parents and for this little guy, who is going to have a rough few days as some bad stuff works its way out of his system.

— 3 —

I read a most unusual book this week. It’s called Raising the Dad. As you can tell from the listing, the reader reviews don’t average out very well, but I liked it. It was nothing like I expected. The premise is that a father long believed dead is revealed to be alive. Consequences ensue. Going into it, I’d assumed that the dad had been, I don’t know – off in Italy or in Tahiti for thirty years and reappears, but that’s not it at all. This particular plot point might stretch credulity, medically speaking, but I went with it, and found it quite thought-provoking.

Without spoiling much, I’ll just say that the novel challenges, in an unusual and unexpected way, the contemporary assumption that only lives that embody certain qualities are worth living, and that the only meaningful relationships we can have are with fully conscious individuals.

Worth a look.

— 4 —

Speaking of books – I finished writing one this week. Actually, just today (Thursday). I’m ecstatic and relieved. Can you feel it? See, it’s not due until January, but I was determined to get it done before my 8th grader started back to school.  This might be my last “free” year for  few years, since we are probably going to home/roadschool high school with this one. I didn’t want to spend the first part of the (school) year working on a project that is more of an assigned thing rather than one that’s more dependent on my creativity, when I’ll actually have time and space to Think.  Yes, the words I bring to this project are my own and are far from formulaic (I hope), but still – there’s a template, and my job was to fill it in.

Not that I turned it in. It could be published right now (with some editing…I guess…), but it will be better if I let it sit and come back to it with, as we say, fresh eyes. So I’ll do that – let it sit until December, open it back up, hopefully not weep from despair, do some edits and tightening, add any new good stories that have popped up, and ship it off in January.

And in the meantime, I sent a file of the manuscript 1) to myself – since my main file cabinet these days is my email and 2) to my daughter, just in case. 

— 5 –

Morbid? Maybe. I prefer to think of it as “prepared.”

With, I admit, a dose of superstition.

For you see – and may remember from previous posts – before I go on big trips, I always send my adult kids very detailed itineraries, along with my attorney’s information, health and travel insurance information, passport copies and so on. We now call it “The Itinerary of Death.” As in “Mom’s going to Japan – she should be sending the Itinerary of Death soon.”

The motivation is twofold. Yes, I want as little trouble as possible in case something happens. Mike didn’t have a will, and that was a mess. My dad had a will, but was unprepared in other ways when he died, and as the only child and executor, I was left to straighten it out. I want things to go easily for those I’m leaving behind – especially if it happens suddenly.

Secondly, yeah, I’m superstitious. As in: If I overprepare, nothing’s going to happen. 

Obviously, that’s not going to work forever. But I’ll keep trying.

— 6 —

Speaking of books – look!

I finally got my copies!

You can find it at the Loyola site here and Amazon here, and hopefully at your local Catholic bookseller soon, along with all the rest of the Loyola Kids books – a great matched set to gift your local Catholic school and parish – every classroom needs a set, don’t you think?

I’ll write more about the book next week. 

NOTE: If you really want a copy soon – I have them for sale at my online bookstore (price includes shipping)  Email me at amywelborn60 AT gmail if you have a question or want to work out a deal of some sort.

— 7 —

No family travel or movie-watching this week. One kid did a youth group paintball excursion, while the other went with a friend to a water park, so at least some people got out while Mom was feverishly, obsessively finishing a project that isn’t due for five IMG_20180726_222819.jpgmonths. (Oh, did I already mention that?) The older one worked several evenings, and the younger one did watch a couple of movies on his own, but again – I was in here, writing, checking off a box, writing some more, checking off  another box.

(I am a fairly disorganized, reactive, INFP, come-what-may person in general, but when it comes to this kind of project, I am very, very organized – I make a schedule, I write that schedule out, and stick to it. Simply put: I want to keep projects like this in their proper place in my life, freeing myself up to be all drifting and meditative for the rest of the day. Boxing this type of work in a strict schedule is the way to make that happen.)

I did watch, late one night, a bit of Lost in Translation. I’d seen it in theaters when it came out, and recall liking it – and had intended to rewatch it before we went to Japan – I’m glad I didn’t waste my time. I do like Bill Murray in almost anything, but wow, this film struck me as so simplistically racist and willing to exploit stereotypes. Yes, the scene in the beginning  where the commercial director goes on and on for a while, a speech which then the translator says to Murray comes down to “look to the right” – was funny because it echoes my experience in convenience stores, where the cashiers just talk and talk in a way that seems almost ritualistic, and really, all they’re saying is, “Thank you, and here’s your change.”

But I ended up only watching half of it. I was so deeply annoyed at the Scarlett Johansson character for being so helpless and unadventurous, I couldn’t stand watching her any more.  There’s also a way to capture that fish-out-of-water experience without resorting to stereotypes, and Coppola didn’t do it here.

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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And here we go with chapter 4 of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.  This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

(Why do this? Because her feast is Sunday – July 22.)

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader  epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

For the entire book, available for Kindle for .99 – here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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Continuing with my “reprint” of portions of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. (For previous chapters, just scroll down or click back…) This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some have asserted present Mary Magdalene as the special companion of Jesus and the leader of the real Christian movement, suppressed by the patriarchal Peter and his ilk.

In a way this is old news, for much of this moment seems to have passed beyond ten or so years ago when, thanks to The Da Vinci Code and other books, “Magdala Christianity” was all the rage in some quarters. It’s still around though. And these gnostic writings are still widely misread, so it’s worth reviewing what they are – and aren’t.

Over the past twenty years, interest in Mary Magdalene has exploded. Books, websites, seminars, and celebrations of her feast day on July 22 have multiplied, as many in the West, particularly women, look to her for inspiration.

Ironically, though, much of this interest in this great Christian saint is being fueled by texts other than the Christian Scriptures. The popular websites devoted to Mary Magdalene refer to her as “The Woman Who Knew All” (www.magdalene.org). One of the more popular treatments of Mary Magdalene, The Woman with theAlabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, by Margaret Starbird, emphasizes Mary as “Bride 9781879181038_p0_v2_s118x184and Beloved” of Jesus. And, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, the mega-selling novel that has brought these depictions of Mary Magdalene to a mass audience. Brown’s novel brings it all together in one convenient package: Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, bore his child, and was the person he really wanted to lead his movement. This movement, of course, was about nothing the New Testament suggests it is, but was rather a wisdom movement dedicated to help humanity reunite the masculine and feminine principles of reality.

So in this context, Mary Magdalene was the “real” Holy Grail, since she was the vessel that carried Jesus’ child and his teaching. But she’s more: she’s a “goddess” — a mythical figure through whom the divine can be encountered.

It’s all very confusing. It’s also ironic, given the constant modern criticism that the claims of traditional Christianity are suspect because they can’t be “proven,” or because the texts upon which its claims are based are too ancient to be trusted. The modern devotion that so many seem to have to this figure of Mary is actually based, in part, on far less trustworthy sources and has no relation to the Mary we meet in Scripture.

So where does it start? Of course, much of this revisioning is rooted completely in the present, in a mishmash of conspiracy theories, false history, and wishful thinking that we will address in the last chapter. But the truth is that Mary Magdalene wouldn’t be the subject of interest from many of her contemporary fans outside traditional Christianity if it weren’t for some other ancient texts: the writings produced by Gnostic Christian heresies.

Secret Knowledge

Here’s the short version. From about the second through the fifth centuries, a movement that we now call “Gnosticism” was popular in many areas around the Mediterranean basin. “Gnosticism” is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means“knowledge.” Although there were various Gnostic teachers and movements over the centuries, most of them shared a few common characteristics, succinctly described by Father Richard Hogan in his book Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001):

“Gnostics claimed a special knowledge,a gnosis. Included in this special gnosis was an understanding that there was God Who created the spiritual world and a lesser anti-god who was responsible for the material (evil) world. Gnosticism represents a belief in dualism.There is a good and an evil. Evil is material and physical. Good is spiritual and divine.

“According to the Gnostics, a disaster at the beginning of the world had imprisoned a divine ‘spark’ in human beings, i.e., in the evil world of material Creation.This divine element had lost the memory of heaven, its true home. Salvation consisted in knowing that this ‘spark’ existed and liberating it from the human body.” (Hogan, p. 43)

The creation myths of Gnosticism that describe this imprisonment are quite complex and intricate. Just as intricate were the Gnostic visions of what salvation was about. The emphasis, naturally, was on knowledge, rather than faith, life, or love. The way to salvation involved knowing the truth about human origins and then knowing the way to progress, both in this life and the next, through the various layers of reality that were imprisoning that sacred spark.

Early Gnosticism, which predates Christianity, drew from many sources, including Platonic philosophy and Egyptian mythology. Christian Gnosticism used the Gospels 516ywedgjtl-_sx321_bo1204203200_and other Christian traditions, eliminating elements that were not consistent with Gnostic thinking. So, for example, Gnostic Christian teachers taught that Jesus was not really human — since the material world is evil. Valentinus, who lived around the year 150 in Rome, taught an extraordinarily complex story of Jesus being the product of the yearnings of Sophia — the personification of wisdom. Historian David Christie-Murray describes it in the following way:

“Christ,who brings the revelation of gnosis (self-consciousness), clothed himself with Jesus at baptism and saves all spiritual mankind through his resurrection,but had only a spiritual body. Men can now become aware of their spiritual selves through him and return to their heavenly origin. When every spiritual being has received gnosis and becomes aware of the divinity within himself, the world-process will end. Christ and Sophia, after waiting at the entrance of the Pleroma [the center of spir-itual, divine life] for spiritual Man, will enter the bridal chamber to achieve their union,followed by the Gnostics and their higher selves, their guardian angels.” (A History of Heresy[Oxford UniversityPress, 1989], p. 29)

This is just one example, but Gnostic Christianity is really simply a variation on this theme: Creation is evil. Jesus was not fully human. He did not suffer or die. Redemption cannot, of course, be achieved through such a means, for it involves the material body, which is sinful anyway. Salvation is not available to all, but only those with special knowledge. This way of thinking infiltrated many other systems of the time, including Christianity.

Those who tried to merge Gnostic thinking with Christianity produced writings, some of which survive, mostly in the context of quotations in the works of Christian writers arguing against them. In the late nineteenth century, some Gnostic Christian texts, not seen before, were discovered, and even more in the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of these texts caused a stir among some who believed that, more than giving an insight into a Christian heresy, these texts opened a world to what they believed could be the real story of Christianity that was concealed by orthodox Christian leaders.

Consequently, over the past century or so, these Gnostic texts have been rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some have taken their existence as proof that there was a whole other, and long-hidden, response to Jesus’ ministry, one with roots as ancient as those we see in the Gospels, and just as legitimate. The modern re-visioning of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride, as the special recipient of his wisdom, and as the foundress of an alternative mode of Christianity owes much to the fascination with these Gnostic writings.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — what we actually know of the history of early Christianity just can’t back up these exalted claims for Mary Magdalene or even of any substantive link between Jesus’ ministry and Gnostic Christianity and Gnostic writings.

The simplest way to put it is this: Gnostic Christian texts tell us a lot about Gnostic Christian heresies in the second through the fifth centuries. They tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, or the origins of Christianity in the first century.

So what follows is that these Gnostic texts tell us nothing substantive about the real Mary Magdalene, either, and that all those who use them in that way are engaging in, at best, misguided efforts, and, at worst, deceitful misuses of historical materials.

But it continues, nonetheless, and for a reason: this technique of suggesting that the Gnostic Christian texts reveal secret truths about early Christianity and who Jesus “really” was and what he “really” taught serves to undercut not only the New Testament but also the Church that produced it and is formed by it.

As I’ve done talk radio shows discussing this matter, I’ve heard it again and again: “All of these works were written so long after the events they describe — they’re all equally dependable and undependable. What version of Jesus you choose doesn’t matter, for there’s no way to know the truth, anyway.”

That’s just not true. Early Christianity was an enormously complex movement, about which we cannot claim to know everything.

But we do know — and any serious scholar will affirm — that Jesus did not teach Gnostic platitudes and did not marry Mary Magdalene, who then embarked on a life of teaching Gnostic platitudes of her own and emanating divine energy.

It just didn’t happen.

But because these Gnostic texts are so important in so many contemporary treatments of Mary Magdalene, we definitely need to look at them and understand what they’re really about.

Know Nothing

It’s somewhat challenging to describe Gnosticism because it wasn’t an organized movement, a religion, or even a homogeneous philosophical school. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the self-help movement of our day. For some reason, in the last part of the twentieth century, this notion of the importance of self-esteem took hold in our culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of life, including religion.Two hundred years ago, Christian thinkers and preachers of any denomination would have been appalled at the suggestion that a goal of Christian faith is to help the believer feel better about herself or help her overcome insecurities and self-doubts. On the contrary, despite their differences, Christians and Protestants alike would have described the goal of the Christian life as believing rightly and shaping your life in a way that meet’s God’s standards and spares one an eternity in hell.

Gnosticism was, of course, more complex and cosmic than this. But it’s a decent example to start with, for, like the self-esteem movement, Gnosticism wasn’t confined to groups that identified themselves explicitly as “Gnostic” and separate from other religions. It infiltrated and impacted almost everything it rubbed against, including Judaism and Christianity.

You can see the problems. Gnosticism wasn’t a minor movement. In most major cities of the Roman Empire during these centuries, Gnosticism and even Gnostic Christianity thrived. Most of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity comes from its Christian opponents, great theologians like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who all wrote against Valentinus, for exam-ple, and quoted copiously from his writings in doing so.

But independent copies of some Gnostic Christian texts do exist, and it’s these texts that form the basis of the modern, non-Christian devotion to Mary Magdalene.

Ancient Words

In the nineteenth century, several discoveries broadened scholarly comprehension, and eventually popular understanding, of Gnosticism. An ancient work of the Christian Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, lost for centuries, was discovered in 1842 in a Greek monastery. This work, of course, quoted many heretics, including Gnostics. More important to many was the rediscovery (in the British Museum) and then translation of Pistis Sophia (into English in 1896), a probably third-century work in which Mary Magdalene — and Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the way — figure prominently in dialogue with Christ. Snippets of other Gnostic texts existed, but the real revolution in this area came in 1945 with the discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Coptic texts, bound in leather, and dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, that included many Gnostic works (as well as a partial copy of Plato’s Republic). Hidden in jars and stored in caves, it is thought that the library belonged to a Gnostic Christian monastery.

The Nag Hammadi collection contains fifty texts in thirteen codices (a form of book), three of which — the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior — are of interest to those intrigued with Mary Magdalene. Other Gnostic texts believed to mention Mary Magdalene, and found outside the Nag Hammadi library, are the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. These texts emerged from different periods and reflect different strands of Gnosticism. All are discussions between Jesus and various other figures, mostly about the nature of the soul, the after-life, and the end of time. Let’s take a brief look at how each of them treats the figure called “Mary.”

Pistis Sophia (third century)

This work consists of extensive dialogues between Jesus, who has been on earth teaching for eleven years since the Crucifixion, and others, including women. Mary, his mother, takes an enormous role, and several times a “Mary,” not explicitly identified as either his mother or anyone else, including Mary of Magdala, is mentioned and praised for her understanding, and is even the subject of envy by other disciples.

The Gospel of Philip (third century)

This work is made up of dialogues and sayings of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. It mentions the Magdalene, “who was called his companion,” along with “Mary his mother and her sister,” as three who “always walked with the Lord.” The passage, quite provocative to some, ends with the sentence, “His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”

This work also contains the passage describing Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving,asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Jesus’ answer is obscure, but implies that she is more enlightened than they are. Those who see this kiss bestowed by Jesus as an expression of a unique companionate relationship are missing the point in a big way. In Gnosticism, the kiss is symbolic. As one scholar points out: “The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss” (Jorunn Jacob-sen Buckley, quoted in The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, by Katherine Ludwig Jansen [Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 27).

The Gospel of Thomas (third century)

This, the most well-known of all the Gnostic writings, is a collection of sayings, many of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, but with a heavy dose of the androgynous themes that contemporary readers find so appealing. A “Mary” is mentioned once (the other female character is a “Salome”), as Peter asks Jesus to make her leave. Jesus, in a passage that is not often quoted by modern fans of this gospel, says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gospel of Mary (third century)

This is another dialogue, this time beginning with Jesus but ending with a “Mary,” who is identified as the one Jesus loved “more than the rest of the women” and as the primary teacher, in a rather subtle competition, it seems, with Peter.

A ‘Few’ Problems

These, then, are the basic texts that modern devotees of Mary Magdalene use to support their case that she was an important leader of early Christianity, and probably in an intimate relation-ship with Jesus — but even if not, that her wisdom was esteemed by him above the other male disciples, and that there was friction between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. This friction, in the eyes of some, reflects a real, historical division in early Christianity between those who followed Mary as a teacher and those who followed Peter.

There are numerous problems with using these documents to support this view of Mary Magdalene. Let’s look at a few of them.

To begin with, this position assumes that the Gnostic texts reflect first-century events. The simple truth is, they do not. No scholars date any of the texts earlier than the second or third centuries. The view they present of Jesus, his teachings, and his ministry are radically different from what we read in the Gospels, which were all composed before the end of the first century. Scholars of all types consistently consider the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to be the starting point for studying the history of early Christianity. They may disagree on what the texts mean, but none would suggest, for example, that the Gospel of Mary is of equal value with the canonical Gospels in determining what the early Jesus movement was all about.

518hvfnbhsl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_No, the Gnostic texts “tell” us exactly what they should: namely, the ways that Gnostic Christian heretics took the basics of the Christian story and molded them to fit Gnostic thinking. Since some elements of Gnosticism were interested in questions of gender and androgyny, that concern is reflected in some texts, and in the roles played by female figures. They might reflect a greater role for women in some Gnostic sects, or they might even reflect a desire to demean the role of Peter, recognized as the chosen leader of orthodox Christianity.

But if you take the time to read these works yourself, you’ll see that they are radically different from the canonical Gospels in tone and content. (The Gnostic texts are not long, and all are available on the Internet. The Gospel of Mary, at least the fragment that we have today, is reproduced in full in Appendix B of this book.) The canonical Gospels, with all of their very human, flawed figures, are reflective of an attempt to present events accurately, through the prism of faith, certainly, but accurately nonetheless. The Gnostic writings are preachy, tendentious, obtuse, and . . . well . . . Gnostic in their concerns.

So the contemporary thinkers who suggest that a strand of “Magdalene Christianity” was born from Mary’s early leadership that was eventually suppressed by those loyal to Peter are basing their conclusions on the most tenuous of threads: that these Gnostic writings, written some two hundred years after the fact by Gnostics, reflect an ancient, hidden relationship between Mary and Jesus.

Let’s take this one step further. Who’s to say that the “Mary” mentioned in all of these writings is, each and every time, Mary Magdalene?

After all, there are only a couple of incidents — in the Gospelof Philip and Pistis Sophia — in which the Magdalene is specifically mentioned. The much-vaunted Gospel of Mary speaks only of a “Mary,” does not specify the Magdalene, and gives no identifying clues to tie her into the historical figure of Mary Magdalene, despite modern editions tacking “Magdalene” on to the title. Even the Gospel of Philip, which has been held up by many as evidence of a “companion” relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is not as clear as it seems on who that Mary is. A close reading of the text indicates, a growing number of modern scholars suggest, that the female figure is a composite, mythical “Mary,” representing the feminine aspect of reality.

One of the features of some contemporary celebrations of Mary Magdalene is that the Gnostic writings indicate a tension between her and Peter and the other disciples, thereby implying a separate strand of “Magdalene Christianity.” Entire books have been written on this. That view, of course, is dependent on reading these Gnostic texts as if the Mary in conflict with the disciples is, in fact, Mary Magdalene. That’s by no means certain.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as being in conflict with the disciples. On a couple of other occasions, another Mary is described in the same way, and many assume this Mary is Mary Magdalene, although she is not explicitly identified in this way. However, some scholars — looking at the way this Mary is described, as “blessed among women” and “called blessed by all generations” — believe that a case could be made for identifying this Mary as Jesus’ mother. At the very least, it is not certain at all that she is Mary Magdalene, who does, in turn, play a prominent role in the dialogues in Book Two of the work.

Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:

In summary then, the Gnostic Mary’s identity is by no means a simple matter, nor is her identification with Mary of Magdala as certain as it is frequently asserted in modern scholarship. The particular spelling of the name Mary is in no way a reliable criterion distinguishing the two women, even though this is the most frequently advanced argument in favor of the Gnostic Mary’s identity with Mary of Magdala. If anything, the spellings Mariam and Mariamme appear to favor an identification with Mary of Nazareth, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament fail to resolve this problem, since they show both Marys to have equally been important figures in early Christian memory. Even the Magdalene’s role as apostola apostolorum in the fourth gospel does not tip the balance in her favor, since in early Christian Syria, where it seems most likely that the Gnostic Mary traditions first developed, it was believed that Christ first appeared to his mother, Mary of Nazareth, commissioning her with a revelation to deliver to his followers.

Moreover, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, there is significant evidence that early Christians occasionally imagined Mary of Nazareth in situations similar to those in which the Gnostic Mary is found: she converses with her risen son, expounds on the cosmic mysteries, and reveals her son’s secret teachings to the apostles, with whom she is occasionally seen to be in strife. Such is especially evident in the Pistis Sophia, a text whose interpretation has been tightly controlled by the last century’s interpretive dogmas. Both this text and the Gospel according to Philip make clear that the Gnostic Mary traditions do not have only a single Mary in view. Although many will no doubt continue to take refuge in the Gospel according to Philip’s description of Mary Magdalene as the Savior’s favorite, we should not forget that the New Testament identifies Mary of Nazareth as the ‘favored one,’ who has ‘found favor with God.’ (“Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition,” Journal of Early Christian Stud-ies, 9:4, pp. 588-589)

Why take so much time to unpack this? Because it’s terrifically important in getting Mary Magdalene right. Many contemporary activists have adopted Mary Magdalene as a representative of an alternative vision of Christianity, based partly on wishful thinking, partly on her role in the canonical Gospels, but confirmed, in their minds, by the evidence of these Gnostic writings. In them, they see traces of an ancient tension, an ancient movement within the followers of Jesus that held up Mary Magdalene as a wisdom teacher, as the one Jesus designated as his successor.

Their vision sounds plausible to those unfamiliar with the original texts, or even to those who only read them in translation, interpreting them according to the assumptions of the promoters of “Magdalene Christianity.” But ancient texts are usually not as simple to interpret as we think or would like to think.

A careful, objective reading shows, quite simply, first, that the figure of Mary of Nazareth played an unquestionably important role in some Gnostic texts. Why hasn’t she been chosen and celebrated by modern interpreters as the special chosen one of Jesus? Second, while Mary Magdalene does appear in these texts, most of the evidence for “Magdalene Christianity” is derived from the presence of a “Mary” who is, in fact, not clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, and is probably either a mythical composite female figure or Mary of Nazareth. Most importantly, though, all of the figures in these Gnostic writings really function on a level of symbol more than historical reality. Scripture scholar John P. Meir sums up the case quite well:

“I do not think that the . . . Nag Hammadi codices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT [New Testa-ment].What we see in these later documents is rather the reac-tion to or reworking of NT writings by . . . gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,Vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1991], p. 140)

As we will see throughout the rest of this book, Mary Magdalene is a great saint, and a woman worthy of our interest and honor. But there is simply no evidence that she was who her modern interpreters would like her to be. The Gnostic texts that they use to make the case tell us nothing about early Christianity in the first century, and the “hints” that some read in them, suggesting an ancient tradition being preserved about a leadership role for Mary Magdalene in competition with Peter, are by no means certainly about Mary Magdalene, and in some cases might even refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Further, if you read the documents yourself, you will see how ambiguous they really are, how easily they lend themselves to selective reading, and even how, in parts, the Gnostic writings contradict what their modern proponents would have them say.

In short, when dealing with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the Gnostics, don’t trust the interpreters. Go right to the source.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
  2. How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
  3. What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?

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— 1 —

I’m still working on a couple of Japan wrap-up posts. I’d thought I would use one of them here, but nah. I’ll just toss up some recent news and links, instead.

First, saints:

Lots of interesting saints coming up this week (well…there are always interesting saints coming up in our calendar, aren’t there?), among them Camillus de Lellis – former gambler, soldier of fortune –  on July 14.

I wrote about him in The Loyola Kids’ Book of SaintsLoyola didn’t choose to excerpt from my book for the entry for their “Saints Stories for Kids” webpage, but you can read most of it at Google Books, here:

camillus de lellis

(Kateri Tekakwitha, whom we also remember on July 14, is also in the Loyola Kids Book of Saints, but the available excerpt on Google Books is pretty minimal, so…..)

— 2 —

Summer time for us usually means a lot more movie-watching in the evenings – a time for Mom to say…you get to play your video games and watch your stupid YouTube videos about video games, so now it’s my turn to pick. 

It’s not always easy. They get it. They understand that what we watch might be a little challenging for them to access at first, but that I try my best to share movies that are substantive and still engaging for them. By this point, they mostly trust me. I think what turned it was (speaking of Japan) The Seven Samurai. At first, they were deeply skeptical – a 60+ year-old dubbed, black-and-white movie? Even if it is about samurai?

Well, of course, it was fantastic. We split the viewing over two nights (this was last summer) and they were totally absorbed and engaged.

So, yeah, they trust me. Mostly.

— 3 —

This summer has been different. My older son works, and most of his shifts are in the evening, and much of the time he’s not working, he’s off doing other things. That’s how it goes! And it’s good – because you want them to be shaping their own lives.

So we’ve not watched a lot of movies this summer so far. Two recent viewings, though, one before Japan and one after:

On the Waterfront.  This was a film I used to show my morality classes in Catholic high schools. It is, of course, a great discussion-starter about the cost of doing the right thing, but it also offers a great opening to talk about evangelization and what it means to take the Gospel into the world – embodied, of course, in Karl Malden’s character, Father Barry:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up! Taking Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow, that’s a crucifixion. And every time the Mob puts the pressure on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen, it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows that happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of our Lord to see if he was dead… Boys, this is my church! And if you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming!

Verdict: They though it was “a little slow” in parts, but liked it, especially as it built towards the end.

— 4 —

Earlier this week, we took on The Great Escape another long one, and another success. It’s based, of course, on a real escape from a German POW camp, and I’d say is about 60.2% faithful to history – with characters and time conflated of course, and well, you know there was no Steve McQueen racing a motorcycle to the Swiss border, right? That didn’t happen. Sorry.

Verdict: Very positive.

This, from the Telegraph, is a great graphic and verbal summary of the history behind the escape.  

On the night of March 24, 1944 a total of 220 British and Commonwealth officers were poised to escape by tunnelfrom North Compound, Stalag Luft III, the main camp for allied aircrew prisoners of war at Sagan in Nazi-occupied Poland.

The subsequent events, thanks to numerous books and the 1963 Hollywood epic The Great Escape, have become the stuff of legend. However the real story had nothing to do with Steve McQueen on a motorbike and over the top derring-do by a few men – in reality some 600 were involved.

Despite being meticulously planned by the committee known as the X Organisation, the escape was a far messier affair than we have previously been led to believe. Events unfolded in chaos with numerous hold-ups and tunnel collapses. Some pushed their way in line; others fled their post altogether.

Now, after corresponding with and interviewing survivors, and seven painstaking years of trawling through historical records in archives across Europe, prisoner-of-war historian Charles Rollings throws new light on the night of the ‘Great Escape’.

SPOILER ALERT: (Seriously, don’t read if you haven’t seen it, know nothing about it, and want to see it) – Be warned that if you’re thinking about showing this to younger or sensitive children: one of the things the movie is accurate about is the fact that most of the escapees were caught and killed. The jaunty theme and occasionally comedic aspects might lead you to think this is  a hijinks-and-fun-caper flick, but don’t think that. It’s very fast moving, enjoyable, has quirky characters and a couple of amusing set-pieces and has good lessons about resilience and standing up to injustice, but just know…most of them don’t make it.

— 5 –

Ah, okay, I said “links.” Here’s a link – a wonderful one:

How this classical Catholic school welcomes children with Down Syndrome:

Students with Down syndrome study Latin and logic alongside their classmates at Immaculata Classical Academy, a Catholic school in Louisville, Ky., that integrates students with special needs into each of their pre-K through 12 classrooms.

The school emphasizes “education of the heart,” along with an educational philosophy tailored to the abilities of each student. About 15 percent of students at Immaculata have special needs.

“When you look at these students with Down syndrome in a classical setting, it is truly what a classical education is all about — what it truly means to be human,” the school’s founder, Michael Michalak, told CNA.

— 6 —

Last week under this very take (#6), I shared a link about a former Catholic church in Boston being, er, transformed into a Dollar Tree store. 

Well, here’s some good news – another perspective from Baltimore:

Baltimore City is hurting. It is bleeding. It is in need of hope and healing. It needs Jesus Christ in the Eucharist—the source of all hope.

And yet, because of the danger in the City I have to close the Basilica at 4 PM every day. It can’t be open without a security guard. And we only have enough money to have a guard until 4PM.

THIS MUST CHANGE!

In my prayer, I know God is calling me to open the Basilica. He is calling me to make Him available to the people of Baltimore every single day in Eucharistic Adoration. He is asking me to offer his forgiveness in confession at all hours of the day. He is asking me to walk the streets and invite the people who live in my neighborhood to get to know Him. He is asking me to provide a sanctuary for those who are ill, lost, homeless, and hopeless. He wants young adults in our neighborhood to have a refuge to flee to after work and school.

I must provide that refuge here in the City. I honestly KNOW that God is demanding this of me.

I agree. I’m ready to help!

But in order to provide this refuge, I need your help. I will explain exactly what kind of help I need in a moment. But first I want to lay out what God is asking me to do at the Basilica.

— 7 —

While you’re waiting for those last Japan posts (should be over the weekend), in case you haven’t seen them – here’s what I have so far:

Also check out Instagram for photos. 

Some previous trip entries:

Mexico – spring 2018

London – spring 2017

Belize and Guatemala  – summer 2017

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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