You know you're living in weird times when something as arcane as The Gospel of Judas becomes a pop culture phenomenon. National Geographic needed to recoup its million dollar investment in the Judas project, so they poured on the sensationalistic marketing ("a story that could create a crisis of faith"), and aired a TV "documentary" filled with foreboding music and pompous voiceovers. They got what they wanted -- plenty of attention, knowledgeable or otherwise -- and now a crumbling, 1,700-year-old document that normally would be of interest only to academics has become the subject of at least three books, a wave of newspaper stories and countless radio talk show discussions.
But the Judas bandwagon is more than an odd cultural event. It's also the latest blow to the image of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, a group many Americans, including numerous Catholics, already view as excessively secretive and overly concerned with its own power. One more story about an ancient text being suppressed by the early Church can only reinforce the frightening, not to say paranoid, view of Vatican politics presented by the king of religious conspiracy tales, The Da Vinci Code.
People may be talking about The Gospel of Judas, but that discussion pales before the cultural juggernaut that is The Da Vinci Code. It's almost as if the Western world has become consumed by everything DVC. The novel by Dan Brown has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and the film starring Tom Hanks, which will debut next month, could wind up being the blockbuster of the year. Walk into most bookstores these days and you'll see whole tables dedicated to DVC and related "product," including a big-bucks illustrated version of DVC, Da Vinci for Dummies, travel books for the Paris-bound who want to visit locations from the novel, even The Da Vinci Fitness Code and The Diet Code: Revolutionary Weight Loss Secrets from Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio. And that doesn't count the DVC videogames, DVDs, CDs and posters. Personally, I'm holding out for a DVC ashtray, and I'm sure I won't have to wait long.
Even though this consumerist glut is inspired by a novel of dubious craftsmanship (Salman Rushdie, at Davidson College last year, mocked it as "badly written" and "moronic"), it says all you need to know about Americans' current obsession with dark, fanciful religious conspiracies -- especially if they involve the Roman Catholic Church. It's not surprising that more people view the Church hierarchy as conspiratorial and rigid, especially in the wake of some bishops' attempted cover-ups of pedophile scandals and the election of John Paul II's ideological hatchet man as the new Pope, or as some have dubbed the German-born Benedict XVI, the Popenfuhrer.
Meanwhile, Bishop Peter Jugis, the nominal head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, recently made headlines by firmly reminding priests that if they chose to wash parishioners' feet during Holy Thursday services, it had to be men's feet only. Now there's some visionary leadership, huh? At a time when American Catholics are deeply split between liberals and conservatives, Jugis chose to fan the flames of controversy. In an era when women direct the day-to-day operations of most parishes because of the Church's dire shortage of priests, the bishop thought it'd be a good idea to insult more than half of his flock by splitting hairs on a minor issue. Pick your adjective here: "clumsy," "ham-fisted," "clueless." They all apply. Local liberal Catholics I spoke to about Jugis' move ranged from "saddened" and "embarrassed for the Church" to "furious."
Jugis says the foot-washing ceremony needs to reflect the New Testament story in which Jesus washed the feet of his 12 male apostles. He claims he's only following Vatican guidelines, although the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says each bishop can set his own rules. I liked the reaction of Teresa Berger, theology teacher at Duke Divinity School, who told the Observer's Ken Garfield, "If we are trying to duplicate what Jesus did, then we should find not only 12 men, but 12 Jewish men, preferably 12 first-century Jewish men."
Some local priests let Jugis know they weren't happy about his mandate, which angered conservative Catholics who say the bishop is due complete obedience. The problem with that view is that in the modern world, and particularly in the US with its deep traditions of individualism, that kind of blind obedience doesn't sit well with many Catholics. There's no doubt that the "obedient sheep" model of Catholicism is still alive and well in the US. But to an ever-increasing number of sincere Catholic seekers, demands for uniformity by the Vatican, and by its hand-picked conservative messengers like Bishop Jugis, seem totally medieval, not to mention lacking in common sense. The vast majority of American Catholics, for example, ignore the Vatican's edicts against birth control without a hint of guilt, and many parishes struggle every day to find ways of opening their rites to more diversity. To those Catholics, the rigid stubbornness chosen by Jugis, and by his Vatican boss, brings history to life. Unfortunately, it's the kind of history illustrated by the suppression of a variety of viewpoints, such as what happened to the Gnostic Gospel of Judas.