Blogger of the Month for August 2007
Brandon Wason Interviews April DeConick
Editorial Note: April DeConick authors the Forbidden Gospels Blog athttp://forbiddengospels.blogspot.com/.
BW: April, thank you for participating in this interview. I have sincerely enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to reading your responses.
AD: Brandon, the pleasure is mine. Thank you for taking the time to put this all together. I have enjoyed reading your interviews of other bloggers, and commend you on tailoring your interviews to each blogger’s personality and contributions. This cannot be an easy task, especially given the fact that many of us have never personally met.
BW: To start off, tell us about your background. How did you become interested in pursuing a career in biblical/religious studies?
AD: When I was in my teens in high school, I could never have imagined that I would become a biblical scholar. A medical doctor maybe, but not a Ph.D. I grew up on a farm in rural Michigan, so I had no idea that a degree called a Ph.D. existed, let alone what it was. The word “humanities” was not even in my vocabulary. As for college, I thought that it was just more of high school, although vocationally oriented. So when I started college, it was on the fast track — to get a 2-year degree in Nursing from a community college, and get on with my life (whatever that was supposed to mean?!).
I lasted one semester in Nursing. At the tender age of 17, I just was not cut out for the profession emotionally. So I bailed and ended up in the dean’s office. To make a long story short, the dean sat me down and explained university education to me and shared with me his appreciation for the liberal arts. He gave me the best advice anyone ever could; he told me to elect courses that looked interesting to me, and see what happened.
So I ended up in pottery and textile art classes, psychology, anthropology and sociology courses, biology, organic chemistry and horticulture labs. But nothing I took in those two years thrilled me enough to want to major in it. Toward the end of my time at the community college, I needed one humanities course to finish my associates degree, and the only one that I could make fit my schedule was Medieval History. I was not looking forward to it because my high school history courses had been duller than dull. But when I walked into that classroom and came face-to-face with the literature produced by the ancient people, I was stunned. It was like entering another world, and it was a world that utterly fascinated me. When I transferred to the University of Michigan the following semester, it didn’t take long for me to find my way into classes on the bible and early Christian literature. It was then that I knew that I had found my path.
My fascination with the bible goes back to my early childhood which, in terms of religious affiliation, was marginally Protestant — we went to candlelight services on Christmas Eve, and lily services on Easter morning. The defining religious moment for me had no connection with formal religious activities though. It happened when I was ten years old on a sunny afternoon on the grassy lawn in front of our farmhouse. I heard my mom talking to one of her friends about God. I had never thought about God before that moment, had no conception of God at all. After the neighbor went home, I approached my mom and asked her, “What is God?” She looked at me and very sincerely said, “April, that is something that you will have to find out for yourself.”
Many people might think that my mom’s answer was not concrete enough for a ten-year old, or that she was dogging the question. But I know as an adult that her answer to my question came from her own belief that every person’s spiritual quest is unique with roots that run deep within. Even after all these years, I remember that moment as an epiphany. Indeed it awoke something that had been sleeping deep within me. It sparked a fascination with religious literature and practices and started a journey of self-discovery that remains ongoing.
BW: What drew you to blogging? Were you reading blogs before you started your own?
AD: I am not too much in the computer world — or at least I haven’t been until recently. In fact, I’ve tried to ignore the web for as long as possible because I just didn’t want to make the time investment. I am so busy now writing and teaching and keeping up with the field, that the world-wide-web just appeared to me to be a place to sacrifice time I didn’t have.
It was my husband, Wade Greiner, who followed the blogs and list-serves in the morning before breakfast. Over breakfast, he’d mention things that were being discussed in the blogsphere that he thought I might be interested in. I know he regularly read (and still reads) Mark Goodacre, Jim Davila, James Tabor, and Loren Rossen. He daily uses Goodacre’s blogroll to find other blog postings of interest to him.
When he began telling me things about the field that I didn’t yet know — things about upcoming events, newly released books, web discussions between scholars — I realized that by remaining off the web, I was keeping myself out of the loop. So one day I started looking around the blogsphere and saw a real community of people, many of whom were already my personal friends or colleagues. And I thought “why not?” Later that evening, Wade showed me blogspot.com where he keeps our family blog, and I started up the Forbidden Gospels Blog.
BW: In what direction do you see the future of blogs going?
AD: I really don’t know much about the past history of blogs to comment about the future of blogs. What I can say comes only from the little observation I have done in the last six months since I started blogging. I think that as long as a blog is active (daily posts) with a defined purpose, and is (1) informative or (2) entertaining or (3) authored by someone famous, there is a long life for it. I think that blogs are creating a space for voices to converge that would not otherwise, and a place to disseminate information quickly to parties who are interested. This seems to me to be a unique function of blogs, a niche that will help keep blogging going.
If an active blog is attached to a permanent website, I think that it makes it even better in terms of a long-running web presence. The permanent website becomes a place to archive information and post more generous details about the blogger and the blogger’s activities. Then the blog itself functions as a fresh web presence because of its daily updates.
BW: If you were to guess, what kind of audience is your readership? Do you write for a specific audience?
AD: This is a good question, and again I can only conjecture from my statistics, the comments on my posts, and e-mails my readers send me. I think my audience is very mixed. It includes scholars, graduate students, undergraduates, and people from the general public who are interested in religious studies for one reason or another. Some of my audience is religiously-affiliated, some is not.
I have set some parameters in place for my posts. I do not consider what I write on my blog to be publishable or even ideas to publish in a traditional format. So I am not writing what I would consider “academic” writing. I am also not writing a personal diary of the life and times of April DeConick.
What I do on my blog is more like professional journalism — op. ed. news and reviews in my field. Much of my material comes from issues that arise during the day — responding to something I’ve read or something that came up in a class I’ve just taught or a comment a reader has left.
When I write a blog post, I do it as a teacher. I understand my blog to be a virtual space for education to happen, a space whose only physical boundary is the computer scene. When I write a post, I usually envision it as an extended university classroom or conference seminar whose audience includes interested and conversant people, students and colleagues.
I also use my blog as a space to make public announcements about book releases, upcoming lectures and conferences, and to celebrate major events and recognize professional achievements in my life and the lives of my readers, things like winning awards or successfully defending a thesis or publishing a book.
BW: What does a day in the life of April DeConick entail?
AD: This really depends on the day of the week, and the season of the year. During the academic year, I try to set up my teaching schedule to block my time so that I have two or three days of teaching activities, and two or three days of research activities. This means on teaching days, I’m in the classroom instructing or in the office grading and preparing lectures. On research days, my door is closed and I concentrate on research and writing activities.
I’m a 9-5 M-F professor. When I leave campus, I leave my office and my computer and my books behind, and I go home to be with my husband and three-year old son. So I resist taking work home in the evenings or on the weekends unless it is absolutely unavoidable. This means that when I’m on campus, I can’t spend a lot of time around the water cooler. And it means that my summer months have to be used productively. Summer is not vacation for me. It’s more like an intensive summer camp at the university catching up on all those projects that I promised everyone I would do, and hoping to get to the projects that I really want to do.
As for a daily log — my days start at 6:30 am, preparing breakfast, getting my son ready for school. I walk him to school and then continue on, walking to the university. I get to my office about 9 am, and try to handle administrative tasks before teaching or turning to research. I leave the university by 5 pm, pick up my son, and head home. I then stand looking in the refrigerator wondering what the heck I should prepare for dinner that my three-year old will eat (and is not mac and cheese again!) and won’t take more than 30 minutes. By this time, Wade has arrived home and sometimes we look at each other and say, let’s just go out. And we walk across the street to the Village and grab a bowl of Thai noodles or a plate of spaghetti. After dinner, I try to throw in a load of laundry, wipe up the kitchen floor, or run the dust rag over the furniture. My day is usually drawn to a close with reading my son some stories and tucking him into bed. When all is said and done, these are very good and happy days.
BW: The term “Gnosticism” is widely used, but also often criticized. Would you mind discussing the nomenclature for this field of early Christianity to educate non-experts like myself?
AD: First, Gnosticism is problematic to use in historical discussions because it is a pejorative term. It has come to mean “heresy.” Since historical discussions should try to assess the past as fairly as possible, this sort of pejorative language can be a liability, even when the scholar is not using it pejoratively.
Second, Gnosticism is problematic because it is a word that was created in the 18th century. It is a modern construct that did not exist in the ancient world, but which we have imposed on the ancient literature.
Third, Gnosticism is problematic because it is a word that has compressed a variety of forms of early Judaism and early Christianity into a singular entity, a religion that did not exist historically. There was no Gnostic religion separate from or revolting against Judaism and Christianity. Rather there were a variety of Gnostic groups that were distinct from each other cultically and hermeneutically, while having similar demiurgical mythologies.
For these reasons some scholars are suggesting that we should stop using the term altogether in academia. In my own writing and teaching, I try to avoid using the “-ism” word because I don’t want to give the impression to my audience that Gnosticism is a singular entity or ancient religion.
I retain, however, the word “Gnostic” because I feel that I can control its nuances much better. It is also a word that the ancient people used to describe themselves. And it wasn’t necessarily pejorative as we know from Clement of Alexandria.
So “Gnostic” at least is a term that I think has utility when it is used to discuss groups that shared a common demiurgical myth. This commonality was the consequence of real historical interactions between the different Gnostic groups.
“Gnostic” can also be useful to describe these same groups whose members felt that the religious practices in synagogue or church were not enough, and needed to be supplemented or supplanted. So these groups were doing something different from the synagogue and the church in terms of cultic activity and literary production. They understood these supplemental or replacement activities in terms of achieving “gnosis,” the experience of God and his Kingdom through special (often secret) initiatory rites.
And finally, the word “Gnostic” is useful to discuss these same Jews and Christians because they laid claim to the authority of revealed knowledge — “gnosis” — in ways that the synagogue and the church were trying to avoid.
BW: Ignoring the academic folk for a moment, what importance is there in the early Christian “Gnostic” literature for, say, the person in the pew?
AD: Brandon, this is a very difficult question, and one that I am constantly asked. I’m not sure that I have ever given a satisfactory answer, but I will try.
For many Christians, the Gnostic literature is not going to be particularly meaningful for two reasons. One, the person is quite satisfied with his or her own Christian tradition and has no interest in learning about other forms of Christianity or religiosity. Second, the Gnostic materials have a high learning curve. They assume complicated mythologies, theologies, and hermeneutics that are arcane to modern sensibilities. Like philosophical texts, it takes a lot in terms of education before a person is able to read the literature and understand what the heck it is talking about.
For some in the pew though, this material is very important. I meet these people everyday. They are the Christians who feel that their churches’ positions on contemporary issues are “bogus” or “antiquated” or “unjustified” (i.e., women’s roles; birth control; homosexuality; etc.) or that their church isn’t nurturing them spiritually. The Gnostic literature provides these people with examples of early Christians whose claim to authority was largely personal and internal — that is, their consciences, which the Gnostics understood to be God embodied. Their interpretations and convictions were the result of personal revelation and decision, because for them God was immanent as well as transcendent. So the Gnostics openly challenged religious leaders and criticized those Christians who just “did” what their leaders told them to do without thinking it through themselves. If it came down to one’s conscience or a rule of the church, the Gnostic opted for the former. I think that this call to conscience, to the God-Within, is what is attractive to certain Christians today.
Additionally, the Gnostic literature seems to provide Christians today with alternative spiritualities. I don’t mean this in a New Age sense. I mean that they provide Christians with some of our oldest forms of esoteric religiosity. They are very attractive because they represent a mystical element of earliest Christianity that has been forgotten or marginalized in contemporary Western Christianity. Like the ancient Gnostics, some Christians today are looking for supplemental practices and study, to nurture them as God’s children in ways deeper than the traditional faith and practices are doing. The ideas that appear to be attractive to these Christians include: the immanence of God; the male-female God; the female (rather than the neutered) Spirit; inclusion of women in leadership; direct personal experience of the divine; spiritual resurrection; alternative interpretations of the passion and death of Jesus; and contemplative devotion.
As for history itself, I think that Christians want to know where their traditions came from and how they came to be. To know this means that one has to look carefully at the second century and the Gnostic literature. Without the Gnostics, Christianity as it is today would not exist. It came into being largely by responding and dialoguing with the Gnostics, and marking borders that defined them as heretics and us as orthodox.
BW: There are a plethora of books being published on the Gospel of Judas. Yours, called The Thirteenth Apostle, is scheduled to be published later this year. For readers wanting to know which book to purchase, how does yours differ from the others on this subject?
AD: As you know, the prevailing interpretation published in all books on the Gospel of Judas so far released, have followed the interpretative line put forward by National Geographic — that Judas is a hero and Gnostic.
When I started translating the Coptic, I was looking for this Gnostic hero too. But I didn’t find him anywhere in the Gospel of Judas. In fact, what I found was Judas the Demon. When I had finished translating the Gospel of Judas and I saw the types of English translation choices that the National Geographic team had made, I was startled and concerned. The text very clearly called Judas a “demon.” Why did the team feel it necessary to translate this “spirit”? The text very clearly says that Judas will be “separated from” the Gnostics. Why did the team feel it necessary to translate this “set apart for” the Gnostics? And so forth.
Unfortunately all the books released so far are either based on NG’s English translation, or highly influenced by it. So I felt I had to write this book on the Gospel of Judas because to remain silent might mean that this Gospel would continue to be misunderstood. In fact I start the book by saying, “I did not write this book because I wanted to. I wrote this book because I felt I had to.”
My book offers what I consider to be a more accurate English translation of the text and a very compelling reading of the text as a Sethian Gnostic narrative. I set this gospel thoroughly within the second century debates over issues like cultic practices and interpretations of Jesus’ death. I read it as a genuine Sethian Gospel based on the Gospel of Mark. Its main purpose is to point out problems with mainstream or apostolic Christianity. The biggest problem that the Sethians point out is that the doctrine of atonement makes no sense if the one who made possible Jesus’ sacrifice was a demon — Judas! Because Judas is a demon sacrificing to a demon god (the Archon Saklas), the eucharist cannot be effective, they argue. I discuss the importance of this criticism for the late third century development of the concept of the Devil’s Ransom, particularly as developed by Origen.
BW: On your website you wrote: “To understand the complexity of the origins of Christianity, the heretic must be resurrected alongside those who defined the normative.” Do you feel that the discipline of early Christian history is coming around to this fact? In other words, where do you think the discipline stands in relation to where you would like to see it headed?
AD: To some extent. There are a number of scholars who understand this, particularly those who have studied the Nag Hammadi literature and/or postcolonial theory. The normative only becomes what it does in response to those it defines as heretical. And even more interesting, often the heretical becomes so after it was the normative. Think about this in terms of the Ebionites, the Christians in the second century who observed Torah, Sabbath, Jewish holidays, etc. A type of Christianity which was the progenitor became the heretical. These normative boundaries though are difficult for scholars to bring down because their maintenance is part of contemporary Christianity. So there are many in the academy who continue to resist this direction of thought, especially those scholars who are theologically invested.
BW: The Gospel of Thomas remains to be one of the most controversial writings of early Christianity. Briefly, what do you see as the role of the Gospel of Thomas, and what are its benefits to the study of early Christianity and pursuits such as the quest for the Historical Jesus?
AD: Yes, the Gospel of Thomas is a text that continues to be mistreated. It was mislabeled years ago pejoratively as a representative of a generic form of Gnosticism. And it hasn’t been able to shake this label, even after years and years of excellent scholarship demonstrating otherwise. The text is actually formed in eastern Syria and represents exactly the religiosity of early Syrian Christianity. In Syria, prior to the fourth century, permanent chastity and celibacy was a requirement for baptism and admittance into the church. This is why the Gospel of Thomas talks frequently about the monachos — the celibate or single person — as the model Christian. The Gospel of Thomas also represents a form of Christianity in which mysticism was central, including self-knowledge, heavenly journeys and visions of God. As such, it is a precursor to eastern orthodoxy and a product of early Jewish/Christian mysticism. So the text is extremely important for the study of early Christianity because it is our earliest witness of this form of Christianity, emerging in Syria by 120 CE (about the same time the Pastoral Epistles were written).
As for what it can tell us about the historical Jesus. If it is possible to recover the historical Jesus (a project I have deep reservations about), the Gospel of Thomas is helpful. My study of the Gospel of Thomas (Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas) reveals that its earliest form was very apocalyptic. The world is quickly ending, judgment is upon us, preach urgently from the rooftops, rely on God for everything in these last moments, and so forth. This core Thomas — what I call the Kernel — contains sayings that I think are very early in the tradition and should be incorporated into any scholarly discussion of the historical Jesus. These sayings appear to come from a period between 30-50 CE, predating Quelle and Paul. By their content, it is clear that Jesus is not a wisdom preacher. He is an apocalyptic Jew.
Once the end of the world doesn’t happen, the Kernel is modified and sayings begin to be added to the core (beginning around 60 CE), so that the eschatological perspective is toned down while the mystical is intensified. The external apocalypse becomes internalized, along with all of its promises. This theological transference is completed by 120 CE when the Gospel text starts to stabilize. Jesus the apocalyptic preacher had become the mystagogue.
What the Gospel of Thomas reveals most about the “historical Jesus,” is that he really is a construct of our time. For the Christians who created the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus was a presence that continued to live with them in history even after he had died. He, as the “living” Jesus, continued to teach them and they continued to record these revelations in their Gospel, adding more recent sayings along side the older ones.
BW: We often ask this of our interviewees: Tell our readers something about yourself that they might not otherwise know. Any special skills or talents?
AD: I hook rugs. I play the fiddle. And I ride horses. At least I used to, before I became a mom (which supersedes all other activities, talents, or interests!).
BW: Thank you, April. Your responses are much appreciated! We wish you the best.