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Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, The Laughing Jesus: Religious Lies and Gnostic Wisdom. Harmony Books (Crown Publishing/Random House), 2005.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price

Immanuel Kant was so disgusted with the religious violence of the eighteenth century that he wrote his classic Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, in which he offered an olive branch for future peaceful coexistence among faiths. His palliative was Enlightenment Piety, the rational religion of pure morality. If rival religions would concentrate on the moral core they hold in common instead of majoring in the minor doctrines that separate them, there would be no more jihads or crusades or pogroms. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy are following in Kant’s footsteps, writing in the wake of the religious violence of our own day, symbolized most dramatically by the attacks on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. They offer their own prescription for religious peace, and theirs is the rejection of literal dogmas in favor, not of ethical monotheism, but rather of the Gnostic mysticism they discern as the underlying essence of all faiths. If we could all agree to journey inward, we would meet in the same still point, safe in the eye of the theological storm. It is a noble effort.

The book calls forth another historical parallel, that of the rebellion against hidebound, ironclad Lutheran Orthodoxy in the eighteenth century. Two very different movements made common cause against the orthodox juggernaut: Pietism and Rationalist biblical criticism. Both had good reason to try to throw off the chafing yoke of Lutheran orthodoxy. So for a while they embraced a strategic alliance, like the Communists and the Kuomintang united against the Japanese invaders. As soon as the common foe was defeated, however, the two allies sprang apart and began mutual sniping, and thus Fundamentalist pietism and the Higher Criticism are bitter foes today. Likewise, Freke and Gandy represent an attempted union of biblical (and history-of-religions) criticism and mystical piety (which, painting with an exceedingly broad brush, they call “Gnostic”). Whether the twins will begin again to fight in the womb remains to be seen.

The book encourages a root-and-branch repudiation of Literalism in all religions, claiming that all fundamentalisms are fossilized shells and husks from which the living essence has either withered or escaped long ago. They divide the book into two sections, “The Baby” and “The Bathwater,” suggesting what the reader ought to reject and retain. In this the authors follow Marcion’s precedent in composing a set of “Antitheses,” a ground-clearing exercise drawing a dramatic contrast between Literal and Mystical forms of faith. I will deal only with the first, critical half, the demolition job, since the second is more in the nature of a motivational or devotional exposition, not the stock in trade of this journal.

The criticism of the doctrines and scriptures of traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam is unrelenting and unsparing. Much of it smacks (as I have already hinted) of rationalistic, almost “village atheist” religion bashing. The moral blemishes of the ancient writings are paraded as unworthy of these scriptures’ inherited and idolatrous position as the ostensible Word of God. Though the authors, in the second half, will back up and calm down a bit, allowing that a nostalgic, aesthetic, and metaphorical use of scripture and ritual may be salutary, in the first half they are merciless. “Paul was right about the Tanakh being crap” (p. 52). Of course it is his previous achievements and his remembered smug pride in them that Paul disdained as crap, not the sacred texts of his tradition. But whatever Paul meant, it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater so to dismiss the whole Old Testament.

The authors try to show how no scripture is what it is cracked up to be, especially by Literalist idolaters. To that end, they survey Old Testament Minimalism to demonstrate the utterly non-historical character of Israelite narrative, not that that is a fault, but it sure yanks the prayer rug out from under Literalists. Some of the claims made in passing invite debate, such as the claim that “the Tanakh… was written, compiled and extensively edited, to serve as the mythological justification for the Hasmonean desire to rule all of Palestine.” (p. 40). But why would a Levitical dynasty go to the trouble to create a Messianic paradigm that gave them so much trouble—by making the royal line Davidic? Well, that’s just one question to be pursued elsewhere.

One observation/contention that has added relevance, more than the authors themselves seem to realize, is that the saga of Joshua was of very recent vintage, stemming from Hasmonean times (p. 64). If that is true, then the burden borne by traditional Christ Myth theorists (Freke and Gandy’s own forbears) like J.M. Robertson and Benjamin W. Smith is lightened: they argued for the survival from archaic times of a hypothetical “Jesus/Joshua cult” that resurfaced in the first century as the Jesus myth. But if Joshua was a recent invention, then little separates him from a similarly mythical Christian Jesus.

The criticism of Islam and Muhammad (a “mobster”) also harks back to the Rationalist and Christian polemic against Muhammad as a faker and false prophet. That is a bit of an oversimplification, as most historians of religion would admit these days. On the other hand, it is refreshing not to read a Politically Correct whitewash job like Karen Armstrong’s either. And while Freke and Gandy are trying to demolish the credibility of the Koran, it is surprising they do not utilize the recent radical criticism of Gunter Luling, Michael Cook and Patricia Crone and others. These scholars have shredded the conventional model of Islamic origins quite as severely as the Minimalists have shattered the Old Testament “history.” One intriguing hint Freke and Gandy do provide, though, is this: “The Qur’an makes some impressive claims about itself. It states categorically, ‘This is the book wherein is no doubt.’ Yet even this statement itself is open to doubt. It can’t be a revelation from God to Muhammad, because in Muhammad’s lifetime there was no ‘book” (p. 86). Bingo! All such references are grossly anachronistic, giving the lie to the notion that the Koran was a compilation of fragmentary transcripts and oral traditions. They rather demonstrate and presuppose that the Koran was written within a fictive frame of reference, as if the authors of the Bible were to refer to “the Bible.”

Freke and Gandy’s characterizations of Fundamentalists of all faiths seem at first to be severe to the point of caricature, but, virtually in all cases, a moment’s thought shows the caricatures are self-portraits painted by the Fundamentalists themselves. The criticisms are damning yet largely accurate, it seems to me. One regrettable point, however, is this book’s sharing of the liberal tendency to lump worldly Methodist George W. Bush in with prancing shamans and brutal theocrats like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Similarly, the authors’ idea that, had the President simply announced that America forgives its jihadist enemies and invited them to come to the table for dialogue, we would have entered upon the path to millennial peace, is perilously naïve. It is precisely such gestures that our enemies, with all the feverish fanaticism Freke and Gandy ascribe to them, view as signs of decadence and cowardice, prompting them only to further acts of violence against what they perceive as a spent and pathetic paper tiger. One wonders that the ivory tower these authors inhabit managed to survive the frontal assault upon it by the hijacked airliners of 9/11.


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