Noah, Irenaeus, and Classification (Or, Look Mom My Research Does Matter)

Noah Movie ScreenshotEveryone, it seems, is weighing in on the new Noah movie that has just been released. My favorite “review” comes, unsurprisingly, from The Onion. By far, though, the vast majority of reviews of the film I have seen and read have come from evangelical Christians urging other Christians not to see the movie. This led me to stumbling upon one by previously-unknown-to-me Brian Mattson, Sympathy For The Devil. Mattson’s review is interesting for a host of reasons.

First, his review provides a stellar example of how classification works and why classification matters. For Mattson, Aronofsky was not making a movie based on the Bible, it was instead based on the Kabbalah and is highly “gnostic.” Here’s why this matters:

Darren Aronofsky has produced a retelling of the Noah story without reference to the Bible at all. This was not, as he claimed, just a storied tradition of run-of-the-mill Jewish “Midrash.” This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources. To my mind, there is simply no doubt about this.

You see, for Mattson Kabbalah and Gnosticism cannot equal anything close to Judaism or Christianity. Nevermind that many so-called “gnostics” likely self-identified as Jewish or Christian in some way, Mattson is now the one that gets to classify and they are not Jewish or Christian according to his classificatory scheme. (Aside: I will speak to “gnosticism” since that is squarely within my research and “expertise,” Kabbalah is not. Further, I say “many” and “likely” because we do have sources that survive from “gnostics” that allow us to know this, but many “gnostic” sources were intentionally destroyed or simply did not survive the accidents of history, so we must speculate about their means of identity formation.) Aronofsky, then, according to Mattson, has not told a Jewish story (or a Christian story) – regardless of the Jewish texts that contain many of these traditions like 1 Enoch, Jubilees, etc. – he has told a pagan story.

The next aspect of Mattson’s rewview that caught my eye was his use of the 2nd century heresiographer Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote Against the Heresies in which he identified “heresies” and “heretics.” Scholars have known for some time that Irenaeus is not the most reliable source, particularly in this text. For we should always be cautious about trusting one’s opponents to give an accurate view of a person or group. That would be like trusting Sarah Palin to accurately describe Democrats or trusting Chris Matthews to accurately describe Paul Ryan. Yet, this does not stop Mattson from accepting Irenaeus as gospel.

Here’s a 2nd century A.D. description about what a sect called the Ophites believed:

“Adam and Eve formerly had light, luminous, and so to speak spiritual bodies, as they had been fashioned. But when they came here, the bodies became dark, fat, and idle.” –Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, I, 30.9

Mattson does not question Irenaeus’ claims, though we know that Irenaeus and those who followed in his footsteps, like Epiphanius, often made up “heretical” groups whole cloth. Their project was about labeling those who were “in” and those who were “out.” They would list out the “heresies” and urge people to avoid them. Some descriptions were loosely based on historical groups with whom Irenaeus happened to disagree on some matters, others were simply straw men used to strengthen his position, to scare his readers about those numerous and crafty “heretics,” and to offer him a chance to denounce something that someone might come to think/believe or to denounce a group about which he had heard rumors. This is exactly the type of literature with which I work on a daily basis, which leads me to my last point.

I am in agreement with Mattson that more and more people should be reading Irenaeus.

In response, I have one simple suggestion:

Henceforth, not a single seminary degree is granted unless the student demonstrates that he has read, digested, and understood Irenaeus of Lyon’s Against Heresies.

Because it’s the 2nd century all over again.

Now, Mattson and I will clearly differ on what it means to have “read, digested, and understood” Against Heresies, but more people reading it can only mean a bigger audience for my work (right? right?!).

There is more that could be said about Mattson’s review: he rails against “Gnosticism” while apparently not recognizing the dualism and “gnostic” elements that are ever-present in his Bible (just a cursory reading of Paul or the gospel of John will reveal this); he went looking for Kabbalah, so he found Kabbalah; he legitimately believes that Aronofsky did all of this as one big, elaborate, expensive experiment to make fools of evangelical Christians; he derides the “elitism” and the prominence given to special knowledge in “gnosticism,” but advocates a clear hierarchy between “rank-and-file” Christian viewers and “Christian leaders: college and seminary professors, pastors, and Ph.Ds.”

But the most important point of all of this is that my research is relevant. The processes of identity formation are not new. Heresy and orthodoxy are both political creations of parties with something invested in who’s in and who’s out. Just as Hippolytus, Irenaeus, Augustine, Epiphanius, etc. drew boundary lines to demarcate “Christians” and “heretics,” people today are doing the same thing. The data set is different, but the process and the goals remain the same. Place arbitrary significance on some aspect of difference, put yourself in a position to name and classify, and you’ll end up in while your opponents end up out.

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