My book club is reading a really thick book by Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Cloud. It is divided into three sections which is fine with me. There is no way I could have read 600 pages between meetings. We read only the first section and will be getting together this Thursday night to talk about the book.
We call the group The Spirituality Book Club because that identifies the types of books we always choose. We thought once to find a more clever name but everyone drew a blank so we stuck with the title as it is. Although of us have our roots in Christianity and most still worship in Christian communities, we have studied many books about differnt religions and spiritual paths. Contrary to what some people might think, studying about the beliefs of other religious groups does not necessarily cause people to stop being Christian. My experience has been that the opposite is true. Learning about other faiths can deepen one’s faith as a Christian. That is the point of the last book we read: Without Buddha, I Could Not Be Christian by Paul Knitter. That is certainly true for me, though not easy to explain, especially to my fellow-Christians. Don’t think, however, that something has not changed as I peek behind those other faith doors. I feel a bit like Paul Knitter in that other faiths actually offer me a fresh look at the words and actions of Jesus. I feel sometimes, as though the church has not really understood him.
Lately I have been reading a lot of the apocryphal writings. These are gospels, letters, lists of the sayings of Jesus, and apocalypse-type writings that were written within the first 300 years after Jesus but not included in the Bible. The various writings were discussed at the Council of Nicea (325) but it wasn’t until 367 that Church father, Athanasius, created the list of 66 books that became the Bible as we know it.
So what is the point of this little history lesson? The point is that there were many writings besides those chosen that were considered but not included and some those at Nicea didn’t even know about. Some of these ancient writings were known about throughout the centuries , but not by those of us sitting the pews. I suppose the church figured we could just handle so much. Some of the writings were discovered by archeologists in the last century stored in jars and caves and ancient monasteries throughout the Middle East. You may have heard of the many scrolls (972) found near the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist used to hang out. These are the writings that have peaked my interest. The more I read the more I seem to be finding.
As I read these writings, I realize that Jesus said a lot more than what was recorded in our four gospels. That seems obvious, if you give it the least bit of thought. I mean, if the Bible included all that Jesus said, he’d have to say the same things over and over again to fill the three years of his public ministry let alone his whole life. Not only did he say more but sometimes I find passages that are slightly different than Matthew,s or Luke’s recollections. One of my favorites is Luke’s reporting of the call of the fishermen. After a catch that just about broke their nets, Jesus told them to come follow him and they would learn to catch men. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus telling about the “wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea. He drew it out of the sea full of small fish. The wise fisherman found among them a large, good fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without hesitation.” Whoa! That kind of shines a new light on things. I have always heard the interpretation of Luke’s story to mean that we Christians should go about preaching and pulling people into the kingdom of God and the more the better. Jesus in Thomas’ report suggests that maybe we need to be more selective as we share the good news. Share it with those who are ready to listen, for whom the good news would actually feel like good news to them.
As I read, I can understand why some of the writings would have been rejected. But, if truth be told, there are some that ended up in the Bible that I wonder whether they should have been accepted. I am talking about those that are wrathful, violent, or condemning. You know the ones I mean – the ones that are the favorite of the fire-and-brimstone folks and the ones that are used to justify hatred, prejudice and war. Of course, hind sight is 20-20 vision. I suppose the committee doing the choosing tried their best. They couldn’t have anticipated how Christians over the years would mess with the words.
I have a lot more to say about this, but I will save my thoughts for another day. I need to go do some more decluttering.