Saturday, December 09, 2006

Relax... and enjoy this

Morton Smith was a riot. The more you read The Secret Gospel, the more his disingenuity, masked confessions, double entendres, and obscene jokes leap out at you. Stephen Carlson recently noticed one here (a veiled confession). I'd like to focus on Smith's account of being so moved by the "disorienting" power of the Greek Orthodox liturgy.

Smith's memoir has been recently invoked by Dale Allison in The Luminous Dusk, which laments the loss of silence and twilight in our modern age. Allison cites Smith's recollection of Mar Saba during his first visit in 1941:
"In the enormous church, lit only by the flames of scattered sanctuary lights and candles, there were no visible walls, floor, or ceiling. The few small flames far above, like stars, burned again on the polished marble of the nave, as if other stars were an equal distance below... The painted walls reflected the dim light as if it came from a remote distance, and in the vast, vaguely luminous space thus created the huge black frescoes of the saints and monks of old stood like solid presences all around, the great figures of the eternal and universal Church, present in this realm among the stars, above space and time, the unchanging kingdom of the heavens, where the eternal service was offered to eternal God." (The Secret Gospel, pp 5-6)
In between his 1941 and 1958 visits, however, the monks replaced the candles with electric lights, and for Smith (supposedly) the magic was gone. Allison: "With the harsh, steady, cold light of electricity, the mystery was dispelled. Unbelief was no longer shadowed by doubt. Bright light squashed all feelings of the transcendent." (The Luminous Dusk, p 61) I agree, incidentally, with Allison: things are far too noisy and bright (and garish) these days. But how honest was Smith being about all of this?

Peter Jeffery thinks Smith was being disingenuous in the above passage, and cites the paragraph which follows immediately after. Smith went on:
"The words of this worship, too -- the enormous hymns of the Greek monastic offices -- were unmistakenly hypnotic, interminably ringing the changes on a relatively small number of brilliant, exaggerated metaphors, dazzling the mind and destroying its sense of reality. I knew what was happening, but I relaxed and enjoyed it. Yet at the same time I somehow came to realize that I did not want to stay. For the monks, it was truth, for me it was poetry; their practice was based on faith, mine on a willing suspension of disbelief." (The Secret Gospel, p 6)
Two things from this paragraph cry out. First is the statement, "For the monks, it was truth, for me it was poetry; their practice was based on faith, mine on a willing suspension of disbelief". Jeffery writes:
"It is improbable that Smith actually felt that way in 1941, when he was officially a student from Harvard Divinity School, preparing for ordination. In fact he was ordained an Episcopalian deacon only four years later (July 1945) and a priest not long after that (March 1946). To believe Smith's 1973 memoir, then, we would have to suppose that he had faith while studying at Harvard, somehow lost it in Jerusalem despite the glorious Byzantine services, then regained it again after he returned to Harvard and was ordained, but had lost in permanently by the time of his second trip to Mar Saba. That is more or less the opposite of what many people would do, which is find faith in Jerusalem and lose it at Harvard. The evidence reviewed in the next chapter suggests Smith lost his faith during the early 1950s." (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 127)
The second item is a howler. In his new understanding of "worship as a means of disorientation" (supposedly the kind of worship practiced by Jesus and his disciples), Smith says he was dazzled by the Greek hymns, but that although "he knew what was happening, he relaxed and enjoyed it". Jeffery notes the obscene double-entendre:
"The phrase 'relax and enjoy it' is the punch line of an obscene joke, well-known in English-speaking countries, which also circulates as 'lie back and enjoy it'. In the joke, Confucious offers this advice: 'If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it.'" (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 128)
Smith was thus having a raucous laugh at his own crackpot thesis -- that Byzantine hymns somehow pointed to Jesus initiating his disciples through hypnotic rituals culminating in gay sex. His memoir of Mar Saba is deliberately dishonest and obscene, "shaped to persuade us that what he discovered there reveals a remarkable truth about how Jesus initiated his disciples" (Jeffrey, p 130) -- disorienting them with worship, and then banging them up the you-know-what. "Relax and enjoy it", indeed.


Blogger Stephen C. Carlson said...

Thanks for this.

I like Jeffery's term "double entendre" to describe what Smith was doing. I called a particular phrase in the text ("spent that night with him") a "euphemism," but I think "double entendre" fit much better.

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