Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I've been reading William Short's book Poverty and Joy, an introduction to Franciscan spirituality. As I read today a section discussing the significance of St. Francis' stigmata in the Fransciscan tradition, I found myself thinking about the 1999 movie Stigmata.

The movie is your typical conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas piece and isn't too bad as conspiracy-theory/bash-the-Catholic-Church/promote-the-Gospel-of-Thomas movies go. That is, the theology is terrible but the action is good. Of course, I'm not the type who can just let the terrible theology bit pass.

In the movie, a young woman receives the rosary of a devout priest who has recently died and begins manifesting the stigmata in graphic horror-film style. The priest sent by the Vatican to investigate naturally points out that this usually only happens to the holiest of people -- so far, so good. But it turns out that the woman has been possessed, as it were, by the recently deceased priest. OK, so that's wierd, but it still isn't what was really bugging me today.

The thing that was really bugging me is that the reason the priest was possessing this woman was to let someone know where they could find a copy of a gospel that might have been written by Jesus himself -- a gospel which the Catholic Church had attempted to repress. That's the movie-world description of the gospel though the "opening words" reveal it to be the Gospel of Thomas.

Now I have nothing in particular against the Gospel of Thomas. The thing that gets me about this is that the stigmata are, in this movie, completely incidental -- nothing more than a stepping stone to get to the real meat -- the lost book. A sign and symbol of the cross of Christ is used to point to a book that says the Gnostics were right all along. It's something like the Virgin Mary appearing to reveal the location of an ancient book forbidding the veneration of the saints.

But there's something more here that I'm not sure I can quite put my finger on. The whole fascination with lost gospels (Gnostic and otherwise) is a part of it, but so is the evangelical dogmatism about the Bible. We don't want God -- we want a book. We have taken the ad fontes of the Enlightment and run with it until our very relationship to the ancient text has become a reductio ad absurdum argument against the ad fontes approach. If God has not been living and active in the world, what difference could it possibly make what some ancient book says?


Chris said...

I LOVED that movie. It's one of the few non-Barney, non-Dora, non-Elmo movies that I actually own. (In addition to the original Star Wars triology, one of the only other movies that I own is Brother Sun, Sister Moon, the 1972 St Francis-as-singing-hippie flick).

Surely the idea of a deceased priest possessing someone simply because she came to possess his rosary was a bit odd. And with you I roll my eyes at conspiracy theories and hyper fascination with non-canonical gospel texts. But . . .

Something I loved about this movie, however, was the way in which the investigating priest had to wrestle with the idea that possibly God was doing something through this most unreligious, unusual person. For me, the contrast of where we expect to see God and where God chooses to act was the most powerful aspect of the film. Surely it was creepy and horror film-esque, but I loved that in this film God was somehow speaking to the church and world through a someone who is decidedly not-churchy.

Andy said...

But was it really God acting, or was it just the spirit of the dead priest? Maybe in a gnostic framework there's not a huge difference.

Even so, I will agree with you that the way the investigating priest wrestles with his faith was pretty good.

Pastor David said...

Andy -

I'm with you on Stigmata. (A) The Gospel of Thomas is not all that shocking, (B) repressing what was viewed as heresy is not the same as a conspiricy of repression by the church's hierarchy, and (c) the theology was aweful.

I think it was Robert Jenson who said that if we happened to find another letter of Paul, and could 100% verify that it came from his hand, we still wouldn't change the canon. The canon was an issue decided by the church ecumenical, and if the church was wrong about that then the thing we call "church" which has been handing on the teaching must be something else.

That is, either the Spirit has been with the church for two thousand years ... or this is not any church now and there never will be. This is for me where the Roman magisterium and Grundtvig's high ecclesiology balance out the remarkable similar threats of absurd rationalistic individualism on the one hand and evangelical bibliolatry on the other.