Yes, Virginia, there really is a lunatic fringe on the ideological spectrum. We commonly hear perspectives described as left-wing or right-wing. Beyond that, the descriptions become more precise in terms of radical right and radical left. If we cross the border beyond the radical of right or left, we enter into the domain of the lunatic fringe. There is a lunatic fringe on the right, which would include neo-Nazis, skinheads, and the like. On the radical left there is also a lunatic fringe that would include within it radical conspiratorialists and even academicians who are educated beyond their intelligence. For example, the Jesus Seminar represents the lunatic fringe of the theological world. The proper response to their views is not patient, critical analysis but scorn and ridicule. Their theories and hypotheses are not worthy of serious rebuttal.
In the realm of ideological discussion, there is always a curious phase called the “journalistic phase.” The journalistic phase is the phase that feeds upon sensationalism. It grabs the headlines and the interest of reporters because it is so far out that it is news. The Jesus Seminar has fascinated news makers by virtue of its being so radically new. The same sort of thing catches headlines with the cultural success of a book like The Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code sensationalizes historical evaluations of the New Testament documents and their portrait of Jesus of Nazareth.
We are a people absorbed by finding flaws in the famous. We are incurably iconoclastic, relishing the fall of the mighty. We love to sing “O How the Mighty Have Fallen” when we see famous people caught in criminal acts or moral improprieties. Notice the attention given to the criminal trials of high-profile people such as O.J. Simpson. Whenever the mighty or the hero of the culture falls into corruption, it provokes juicy discussion with delicious elements for a public hungry for controversy. No one in the historical stage of history is represented with less flaws than Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, even beyond the church and her confession, Jesus is often perceived as being flawless. Yet there is no more delicious target for sensational fiction writing than Jesus. To sully His character by salacious innuendos is the ultimate form of iconoclasm. Add to the mix the appetite for conspiracy and cover-up, and it’s easy to see how The Da Vinci Code can be catapulted to the top of the best-selling list. It adds to the critical exposure of Jesus’ hidden love life, the additional cover-up involving clues from one of the most high-profile artists in history, Leonardo da Vinci. The famous painting of the Last Supper itself supposedly reveals one of these enormous clues.
Why are we so gullible as to take this kind of thing seriously? The author, who is writing a fictional work, nevertheless claims to be basing his story on real historical data. That claim adds to the fictional dimension of the book. We have here fictional fiction with a fictional claim to historical sobriety. The claims of historical knowledge in this book rely on completely non-credible sources. The actual historical source for the salacious speculations of the behavior of Jesus is found in the pseudo-gospels of the second and third centuries. Very early in church history these pseudo-documents were exposed as frauds that were advanced by the early Gnostic community.
Who were the Gnostics that produced such fraudulent literature? The Gnostics were so named because they claimed to have a special type of knowledge that was unavailable to other people. They borrowed their name from the Greek word for knowledge, which is gnosis. The Gnostics eschewed normal categories of knowledge, such as found universally in human epistemology, namely that we learn what we learn by a combined use of sense perception (empiricism) and rational deduction from the data (rationalism). The Gnostics rejected both and claimed a superior way of knowing through immediate apprehension of truth by mystical intuition. These people who claimed to be “in the know” advanced their intellectual theories as being superior to the insights given by the first-century apostles. They claimed to have a knowledge that superseded the knowledge of the first-century eyewitnesses of Jesus. There was no end to their fanciful speculations that they claimed were rooted in their own special mystical revelation. In a word, the Gnostics were anti-science and anti-sober history.
It’s important for us to understand the rudiments of Gnosticism in as much as we live in what has been called a neo-gnostic culture. Our culture has been defined by an intoxication with New Age theories that share many things in common with Gnosticism. The most obvious point of commonality is the substitute of mystical insight for rational and empirical investigation. We also live in an age that is characterized by the embracing of philosophical and moral relativism. Relativism and Gnosticism are not one and the same thing, but they have so many common elements that they are compatible with each other. Once relativism is embraced, there are no brakes on the roller coaster of sensational epistemology. It opens the door for the kind of literature that makes The Da Vinci Code well read and its author, Dan Brown, famous. The flaws of this book reveal far more about the flaws in the character of its author than it does about alleged flaws of the most impeccable character in history.