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July 29, 2005
Have you read the Gospel of Philip? my new friend asked me.

I had -- we read a few non-canonical gospels last year when our Bible study group was curious about the Gnostic writings and wanted to take a look at some of them. I remember that I was a little uncomfortable with their desire: These aren't ours. These aren't the ones we ended up with. You haven't even read all of ours yet -- why do you want to go reading these others?

But I kept my opinion to myself. These were adults, and they were committed Christians. I wasn't their mother. It was okay for them to read early Christian literature that's not in the Bible if they wanted to.

I don't remember much about the Gospel of Philip -- a string of aphorisms, I think I called it at the time. I'm afraid I read the whole group of outsider gospels with a patronizing attitude, as if they were beneath my notice. Here and there was a phrase or a story I recognized as like unto something from Mark, or something Paul wrote, and I would point it out to the class.

The thick walls of orthodoxy make us feel safe by chopping off whole bodies of thought and dismissing them, and when you live within those walls it's easy to convince yourself that nothing outside is worth much. For many years, I have scorned this as the intellectual and spiritual timidity it is. It is a little embarrassing, now, to admit that I have also embodied it.

For these writings are also ancient. Some are as old than the gospels we do have. The decision process about which would and not be in scripture took a long time -- centuries -- and did not, in the end, result in a consensus anyway: to this day, certain books are in Roman Catholic Bibles and not in Protestant ones, still others are read in Orthodox churches only. The strong voice given women in some of them looked more and more unseemly as centuries of clerical celibacy piled upon one another; their frank sensual imagery frightened a church that was busily erecting much of its moral teaching on a horror of human sexuality -- surely the Song of Songs was frank enough, thanks, and didn't need any canonical company. A oddly concrete intellectualism grew in the western church, leading theologians to forget that all religious language is, in the end, metaphor, and the whole church took a sharp turn toward the prosaic. Prayer became shopping, and mysticism was for weirdoes. Once in a while there would be a movement to recover the emotional passion of a faith that united body and spirit -- but by then, these ancient writings had all been lost.

Now I have a small collection of those old texts, books that let me see more fully what Christian faith was like in its first centuries. How diverse it was. I am reading them slowly, and I remember as I read that history, including Christian history, is written by the winners, and that there is always another side to it, a silenced voice that begs to be heard.
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