Page from the Gospel of JudasSt. Paul informs his readers that he is “astonished” that many in the nascent church(es) in Galatia are turning to “a different gospel – not that there is another gospel” in the Letter to the Galatians. He’s pretty ticked off in the whole letter, in fact, and engages in a passionate defense of his ministry and his legitimacy as a real Apostle; and, by extension, the legitimacy of the particular gospel message he proclaimed when he was in town. If he’s not legit, then neither must his gospel be.

We contemporary readers find it surprising, in some ways, to hear Paul say this, since, as we all know, there’s only one Gospel, right? And there’s always been only one Gospel, right? Well, yes and no. I’m of the persuasion that Christ proclaimed just one. I’m also of the persuasion that Paul proclaimed just one. And so did John. So did Peter. So did James, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews. But were they all exactly the same? Ehhhhhhh. THAT I’m not so sure about.

Neither were the early Christians. Paul’s flock(s) in Galatia and throughout the Aegean were getting conflicting reports about what “the Gospel” was and what was important, and there’s plenty of examples of this within the New Testament itself. Paul recognizes this in Galatians and elsewhere, and so does John in the Letters, where the writer pleads for some sense of unity. The second century saw the publication of some two dozen gospel texts, including the four in the New Testament.

Today, of course, we’re inundated with “other gospels,” by which we always mean “other than the one that I subscribe to… which is the real one the Jesus proclaimed and that Paul received!” We’ve got the New Prosperity Gospel, the Pacifist Gospel, the Republican American Gospel, the Born-Again Gospel, the Purpose-Driven Gospel, the Anti-Poverty Gospel, and a host of others. This doesn’t even include recent takes on the NT Four and the various gospels of the Disciples that were rediscovered in the last 60 years. (Let the reader understand…) In other words, nothing’s changed since a clearly exasperated Paul wrote those words back in the middle of the first century, has it.

But why the popular attraction of the DaVinci Code, James Cameron’s new film in the works, the Gospel of Judas, and so forth? Besides the media blitz on these, which would be a good topic for another day, I think it’s because so much of the public is disgusted and generally just completely put off by what many perceive to be the dominant flavor of Christianity in this country and/or Western history in general. People are simply not being fed; evangelical Christianity is so “yesterday;” postmodern Christianity is so “relative;” even “emergent faith” is becoming institutionalized, despite its best efforts; Protestant Christians are all bookish and head-knowledgeable; Catholic and Orthodox Christians are all just ritual bells and liturgical whistles, and so forth. I think that the popularity of “other gospels” today, both textual and ideological, reflects some serious unrest, desire, and need in expressions and practice of our faith today. People want to get beyond literalism and avoid both reductionism and relativism. Christianity is all academic, or it’s over-spiritualized, or it’s hidden and bogged down with cultural and ritualistic accretions, or compromised by political ideologies. People are sick of seeing these guys always supporting the “Christian” status quo, whatever it is and whatever it is perceived to be. People want to see some life here. They want to see a Jesus who struggled with what it means to be human; a Paul who had major doubts and identity crises; a John who agonized over the role of Christians in a world of Empire.

Can we provide that? Yeah, and we need to get to work. Hand me the hammer and the nails. I’ve found a carpenter who needs an apprentice.