Have you ever read a scripture story or passage, or heard an explanation of it, that turned the entire thing on its head for you? That’s happened to me a lot lately, and I’ve written a few posts already that revisit scripture stories and passages to see something that I think is somewhat obvious now but that the filters I’d applied for so many years prevented me from seeing it before. I plan to do a couple more of those–particularly for scriptures people use to justify being mean to others–but in the meantime, I came across the term “ecclesial stardust” recently and thought it was a nice framework for these kinds of discussions.
I read about “ecclesial stardust” in the book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault. The premise of the book–somewhat obvious in the title–is that Mary Magdalene had an important, even preeminent, role as a disciple of Jesus.
She was the first witness to the resurrection–this in all four gospels. She witnessed the burial of Jesus–this is in three of the four. She witnessed and stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion–this is in all four. She was healed of demonic possession–this is in Luke and Mark, although we know very little about what this healing entailed. She was part of Jesus’s inner circle. She was the apostle to the apostles.
There is actually a fair amount of scripture devoted to Mary Magdalene, and yet, it’s hard to see. Not only that, but a lot of what we *do* believe about Mary Magdalene (for example, that she’d been a prostitute) has no scriptural basis but comes from something that Pope Gregory said about her in the year 591.
Why have those of us who have read the New Testament many times tended to flat-out miss the many passages devoted to her and the strong evidence that she was a key member of Jesus’s inner circle?
Bourgeault asserts that there is a kind of “stardust” thrown over the whole picture of the New Testament “by our habitual way of hearing the gospels heavily filtered through nearly two millennia of ecclesial theology.” Specifically, Christianity has read the gospels to tell a story in which “Jesus came to earth to found the church, instituted its principal sacrament at the Last Supper, and appointed his male-only disciples to be its apostles and priests.” Bourgeault explains that “[w]hen we hear the story through that heavily self-reinforcing logic, the role of Mary Magdalene naturally shrinks to a minor walk-on. But when we loosen our stranglehold on that picture, the role that actually emerges for her from the scriptures themselves is considerably more important.”
Bourgeault convincingly argues, based on scriptural text, that Mary Magdalene was the premier witness to the resurrection, mentioned by name. She stood firm in her loyalty and devotion to Jesus when other disciples fled. She had, Bourgeault describes, “either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching.” Again, using what is only in the text, Bourgeault reframes the way that we visualize Jesus’ crucifixion in a compelling and beautiful way:
“But why, one wonders, do the Holy Week liturgies tell and re-tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, while the steady, unwavering witness of Magdalene is not even noticed? … What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one stood by him and did not leave?–for surely this story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first. How would this change the emotional timbre of the day? How would it affect our feelings about ourselves? About the place of women in the church? About the nature of redemptive love?”
Those are interesting and beautiful questions, but the point of this post isn’t actually to talk about Mary Magdalene. Rather, this concept of “ecclesial stardust”–the ways in which our readings of scripture are influenced by and filtered through layers of tradition and teachings and meaning we have assigned or heard assigned to stories and passages–is what strikes me. What other ecclesial stardust colors the way we read and interpret scripture?
This can be quite extreme in my experience. A few weeks ago in Young Women’s we discussed the story of Zeezrom. In case you are unfamiliar with Zeezrom, he is one of the famous “anti-Christs” in the Book of Mormon. He tries to bribe Amulek into denying the reality of God. Later, the Book of Mormon recounts that his wickedness caused him to fall ill. In class, we read the following verses describing Zeezrom’s illness & healing:
5 And it came to pass that [Alma and Amulek] went immediately, obeying the message which he had sent unto them; and they went in unto the house unto Zeezrom; and they found him upon his bed, sick, being very low with a burning fever; and his mind also was exceedingly sore because of his iniquities; and when he saw them he stretched forth his hand, and besought them that they would heal him.Alma 15
6 And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
7 And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
8 And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
9 And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
10 And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man, and heal him according to his faith which is in Christ.
11 And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom.
When we were talking about what happened, one of the young women summarized it as follows:
“Zeezrom is sick because of his wickedness, so he asks for his priesthood leader to come. His priesthood leaders asks him questions and then determines that he is worthy, so he repents and Alma heals him.”
While that summary is kind of right, I was struck by three editorializations: first, her characterization of Alma as Zeezrom’s “priesthood leader”; second, that Alma judged Zeezrom’s “worthiness;” and third, that Alma healed Zeezrom. I don’t think either of those three characterizations is textually accurate and thought that her summary in many ways reflected on how she must understand her relationship with her priesthood leaders (who are responsible for judging her worthiness). Her characterization turned this account into something that sounded like Zeezrom going to the bishop’s office to repent.
I’m not saying she was completely wrong or criticizing her summary. Again, my point is just to suggest that the way we view the institution of the Church, its leaders, authority, etc., all has a big influence in the ways we read and interpret scripture and can cause us to gloss over certain things and insert others.
I’ll give one more example and then I’ll leave it to you to share yours. It’s the story of Jonah (which we’ll all be studying in Come Follow Me in a couple of weeks).
Growing up, the story of Jonah* that I heard was that (1) God asked Jonah to be a missionary in Ninevah, (2) the Assyrians in Ninevah were Jonah’s enemies, so he was afraid to go because he might be killed and did not think they would accept the gospel, (3) God punishes Jonah by having a whale swallow him for three days and three nights, (4) Jonah repents and goes to Ninevah, where God protects him while he does his missionary work and he successfully converts the people. (I don’t know exactly who and how this story was told to me, but it’s similar to this one that can be found in a 1998 Friend.)
But, as described in a fascinating podcast series (that is well worth listening to) about Jonah, that’s not at all what happened. Jonah wasn’t scared to preach to the people of Ninevah because he thought he’d be killed. (That’s nowhere in the text. I don’t know where that ever came from.) Jonah didn’t want to preach to the people of Ninevah because he hated them and did not want God to forgive them. When he finally got to Ninevah, he gave just about the worst sermon ever (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s it. That’s the sermon.) When the people accepted God despite his lack of effort, God forgave and spared them, and Jonah was so angry about it he told God he wished he were dead: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”
In other words, this isn’t a story about being a brave missionary–which is the story I heard growing up. This is a story about how difficult it is to accept that God loves everyone, including our enemies. But until I listened to that podcast episode, I saw the story through the “ecclesial stardust” of missionary work (and prophets who would never hate people). Personally, the latter, new-to-me message is a much more important message to me today as I struggle to accept the fact that God loves people that I can’t stand**–and that I need to as well.
*I don’t take Jonah literally for a variety of reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. If you spend all your time debating about whether the whale is real, you’ll miss the actual message of the story.
**Like, for example, Mike Lee. Utah voters, please vote, and please vote for McMullin. I don’t super love McMullin, but I can’t bear another six years of Lee. I just can’t.
- Does the concept of “ecclesial stardust” resonate with you? What are some examples you can think of where the plain text of a scripture or story has been distorted by layers of tradition, preconceived beliefs, or narratives? Have you ever concluded that a story or scripture means the exact opposite of what you’d thought before?
- What do you think of the examples I’ve used here? Similar or different experience in interpreting them?
Wow, so insightful. Thank you for the thought provoking morning read. Mary Magdalene Revealed is on my list and now that podcast series is to.
I know where that telling of Jonah got ingrained in us! That most horrible of primary songs, Follow the Prophet and the accompanying primary sharing time lessons always tied back to missionary work. Always some angle on scriptures in the church that are a smidge fear based and keep us focused on being more obedient as opposed to doing the deep introspective work to examine our hearts and try to love people more.
A couple of thoughts, not necessarily on reinterpreting entire stories, but just on how language can influence the “flavor”.
1. I got and read “The Unvarnished New Testament” a while ago, precisely because I was interested in getting a feel for how the New Testament might have felt to someone who did not have centuries/millennia of connotations behind certain words. So, what the translator Andy Gaus does is try to translate from the original Greek to modern English without reference to traditional ways that the various churches have institutionally understand certain contexts.
So, at a very simple example…the original NT did not have verse numberings, so neither dose the Unvarnished New Testament.
Another thing this does is it highlights that the different writers in the New Testament had different levels of Greek, different levels of writing ability, and that the NT is certainly not one “homogenous” text. (Most NT translators will try to soften the fact that “Mark” had atrocious, unpoetic Greek. Although, interesting, some people think this was intentional, an affectation to disguise his identity.)
I am aware that different translators take some issues with the approach and even the idea that it is possible to “translate the Greek as if two thousand years of Christian history had not occurred,” but it is interesting to see things in a different way.
2. part of the Unvarnished New Testament (but also other things I’ve encountered before and since) made me realize how much the vocabulary that we use changes the feel of things. For example, in the Unvarnished New Testament, you won’t see terms like “Amen” or “Sin”…instead, Jesus says, “Truly, truly,” and sin is “doing wrong.” (I understand others would make sin as “missing the mark.”
As someone who has said “amen” a lot, Even the KJV will sometimes say “Verily” or “Truly I say unto you,” but the feel of that is too archaic! I never realized what it was supposed to feel like. But at some moment, I realized that the flavor of what Jesus is getting at is similar to how in modern English, we might say at the beginning of a statement, “Really, guys” or “Not gonna lie….”
THAT’s the flavor what Amen is (at the start of a statement).
We talk about the repetitiveness of statements like that or “And it came to pass.” But we don’t get the FLAVOR of these repetitive statements…but really, if we think about a modern context, these are *filler words and expressions*. Like, how many times have I said “like” or “so” in this comment alone, you know what I mean? (There’s another one). These filler words feel invisible to me…unless I’m paying attention, I will say (and write) them too much.
*That’s* what “Truly truly” or “Verily I say unto you” or “Amen” or “And it came to pass…” represent! (“What had happened was…” = “and it came to pass” and no one can change my mind on this.)
The word I use to describe this concept is perspective. In other words, where you are looking from changes what you see. This isn’t necessarily born of dishonesty or a desire to control the narrative. Where you stand makes it so you can see some things, and you can’t see other things. This is true both physically, and ideologically.
I like the physical example of a ball of some sort with a black x on one side. Stand up in the middle of sacrament meeting in the middle of the congregation, hold it up so the x faces the back of the room. People on three sides of the ball cannot see the x. If someone at the back discusses the x, the people at the podium will know nothing about it. This doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It doesn’t mean the people at the podium are trying to dominate or deceive those at the back. They just have no experience and cannot see what those at the back have seen clearly.
The fact that they can’t see it controls their view of the matter. The fact of their authority can lead them to discount what the people at the back are seeing. After all, because they are in authority, they must be right.
Our views are very self reinforcing and difficult to escape.
Great examples. The stardust comes in the form of presentism also. It takes the development of skills and a style of critical thinking to really plumb the depths of these things and unfortunately not everyone has that in the same quantity. Truth seekers continue to grow in these areas all their life. Awesome post. Ty for it.
Thanks for the recommendation for Bourgeault’s book. Just reserved at the library and looking forward to it.
Also, maybe we could try this for Primary instead?
Jonah was a prophet
didn’t like his call
didn’t want the people to repent at all
when the people hearkened
Jonah got so mad
God had to rebuke him
for being so bad
@Lh, your right, the Follow the Prophet lyrics really suggest that Jonah was scared to fail and that’s why he didn’t go to Ninevah. In fact, he was scared to succeed:
Jonah was a prophet, tried to run away,
But he later learned to listen and obey.
When we really try, the Lord won’t let us fail:
That’s what Jonah learned deep down inside the whale.
@Andrew S, I wonder if that translation is a similar approach to Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible (where he goes back to the ancient hebrew and re-translates, trying to maintain the poetry and cadence that existed in the original Hebrew). That’s the version I have been reading this year (well, I gave up a while ago, but I had been enjoying it). Marcus Borg has a version of the New Testament where the books are presented in the order that they were actually written. I haven’t read it yet but that’s the version I’m going to use next time I read that.
Just reading a different translation can really help shed some of the ecclesial stardust. The modern translations in some ways actually make the stardust worse because they try to “explain” rather than “translate”. Alter’s is the opposite approach and it sounds like Unvarnished NT might also be.
@lws, yes, that does make a lot of difference. Perspective is part of it. But I think filters are also part of it. A filter makes people standing in the same place see things differently.
@Peter great point about presentism! One of the benefits I’ve heard about reading something like the Old Testament – which contains a ton of crazy, useless stuff – is to hone skills to “plumb the depths” like you said and find the wisdom in the weirdness. And to understand a different culture and see things through that lens. I hate to be the old crotchety person, but my kids have been resistant to that process since they can find so much information in easily digestible phone with the touch of a finger on the internet. That’s useful too, but it’s producing a lot of shallow reading and thinking and I think we need to preserve the skill of reading hard things and thinking deeply and working at getting meaning.
@it’s a series of tubes, your comment was stuck in a filter! the irony since I just commented on Angela’s post about how we try to keep that clear. Your Jonah verse is brilliant.
I will give credit that the lesson in CFM on Jonah this year is closer to the interpretation I’ve more recently come across. Progress.
Bourgeault’s book is pretty good, I also liked Wisdom Jesus (same author), although I’ll warn she’s not really my favorite writer and she is very serious. Sometimes it’s a slog. But still worth reading and enlightening. A lot of people love Meggan Watterson’s Mary Magdalene Revealed but I haven’t read that one. I think it is less academic (Bourgeault’s is very academic) and more personal.
Good analysis here. When you blow some of the ecclesial stardust off the Book of Mormon, you find out that Nephi was an insufferable self-righteous prick, Captain Moroni was a brutal dictator, and Korihor was an advocate for free speech and religious pluralism. There is a reason the Church seeks to tightly control curriculum to promote only “true” interpretations of scripture.
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so
@jack hughes totally! I really couldn’t stand Nephi for a long time once I started viewing him as self-righteous and obnoxious but was forced to think of him as a hero. A very enlightening read for me was Grant Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon”, which totally humanized Nephi as someone who has essentially failed at keeping his family together, and was looking back on his life retrospectively and putting that filter onto things. That made Nephi a *much* more interesting character than some goody two-shoes.
There’s the account of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman in John 8. The Jewish leaders state that The Law states that the woman should be stoned, but they then ask Jesus what he thinks they should do. Jesus’ response is one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This story is often used in Mormon talks/lessons to demonstrate how Jesus is ready to forgive us of our sins as well as how we should be willing to forgive others since we are all sinners. That’s all great.
However, what if we modernize this story a bit and replace the Jewish leaders with Mormon leaders, “The Law” with “The Handbook”, and stoning with excommunication (after a disciplinary council with the bishop/stake president). In other words, the modernized story is that a Mormon bishopric and/or Mormon stake presidency haul an adulterous person before Jesus and say that The Handbook says that the person should be ex’d, but they want to know what Jesus would have them do. Jesus’ new response is, of course, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to excommunicate him/her.”
Stoning a person to death is thankfully not acceptable in our society today, so of course Mormons, like pretty much anyone else today who hears this story, agree with Jesus’ response when asked if the woman should be stoned. However, it seems like Mormons kind of throw some ecclesial stardust over this story when they can’t think of stoning a person to death for committing adultery, yet they are perfectly fine with subjecting everyone who commits adultery to a formal disciplinary council that often results in excommunication. The Church’s treatment of those who commit adultery doesn’t seem to align very well with how Jesus treated the woman.
@mountainclimber479, that story gets used so often to show that while Jesus loved everyone he still didn’t condone sin – “go and sin no more.” I hear it often in debates about gay marriage, love the sinner hate the sin, etc. So in addition to your point – which is that comparing stoning to excommunication or other church discipline is the right comparison – it’s one I’ve been thinking on to understand better.
There’s also an interesting piece in that story where, before he responds, Jesus bends and writes in the ground with his finger. There is too much context to describe adequately here about what had been going the previous 7 days in the liturgical calendar, but according to Rob Bell in “What Is The Bible,” this “writing in the dust” was v. significant:
“And then he bends down and writes on the ground.
And what does he write?
Well, what have the Pharisees and teachers of the law been doing this past eight days?
They’ve been at the feast.
And what have they been doing at the feast?
They’ve been teaching, right?
And what have they been teaching?
They’ve been teaching about water.
What passages would they have been teaching?
Interesting you ask. One of the passages that was taught at the Feast of Tabernacles is from the prophet Jeremiah. The passage is about dust, which is what you have if you don’t have water. Here are a few lines
LORD, you are the hope of Israel;
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust…
So what does Jesus do? He takes one of the passages they all would have been familiar with and he turns it on them, all without saying a word. Here is living water, in their midst, inviting them to trust him, but they don’t believe him. They try to trap him. They teach about God and water and hope and new life but when it arrives in their midst in a person they hadn’t expected, they can’t do it. They cling to the familiar, rejecting the living water that’s right in front of them.
What does Jesus write on the ground?
I had a great conversation with a friend who surprised me with her fresh reading of the story of Joseph of Egypt. We had both been trained to read that when Joseph came to power in Egypt and his brothers came to him seeking food, he framed them for burglary so he could test them and see how they would react. But the text says he put the stolen merchandise in Benjamin’s sack, the youngest brother who had been innocent of the sins of his older brothers, a silly way to frame the older ones. She speculated that he did this because Joseph knew his older brothers to be evil and abusive, and he wanted to get Benjamin out of their custody and bring him back to Egypt, where Joseph could care for Benjamin himself. This interpretation makes much more sense, and this reading also happens to make Joseph loving brother instead of a man who likes to play cat and mouse games with people just to see their reactions. (I tried to get my friend to write a blog post about her interpretation of the story, but alas, I failed.)
My husband and I have discussed many times over the past few years that it is VERY hard to read what the scriptures actually say because we already “know” what they say.
Mark 15:7 “And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” When the Jews asked for Barabbas to be freed, they were not preferring a murderer to their Messiah. They were asking for the release of a patriot who had tried to free them from Roman rule, which is in fact one of the roles they thought the Messiah would fill. The basic error seems to have been misunderstanding what they should have been choosing.
The Pharisees were not necessarily wicked hypocrites. Rather, at least to some extent, they were extremely observant Jews committed to obeying the Law of Moses with exactness.
One of the problems with trying to read what is actually in the scriptures is that so often it punctures my complacency. I don’t get to happily think that I would never choose wickedness over my Savior. Instead, all too often the scriptures point out that I might have ignored something very valuable because I have been so caught up in my not quite accurate understanding. It’s much more comfortable to read scriptures knowing that I would never make those bad choices.
@april & @pws, those are terrific examples (neither of which I’d heard).
My bestie (ok not really) Marcus Borg calls his books “meeting Jesus again for the first time” and “reading the Bible again for the first time” and I seriously can’t get enough of it because it’s so fascinating to see a new angle after maintaining the same interpretation for so long.