Friday, February 02, 2007

Book Review: Stolen Identity

This is a book review I recently did for the Journal of Youth and Theology (which is a great journal if you don’t already subscribe).
Hopefully it will be published in the November 07 issue of the journal, but that's uncertain. Enjoy.


Stolen Identity: The Conspiracy to Reinvent Jesus
By Jones, Peter, Victor (Colorado Springs, Colorado; Paris, Ontario; Eastbourne, England: 2006), 233p. ISBN 0781442079 (pbk).

For some decades, social commentators have noted the emergence of a new spirituality in the West. This new spirituality is a mix of New Age, pagan, Christian and Eastern religions. Peter Jones, the author of Stolen Identity, suggests that this new spirituality be best understood through the thought forms Gnosticism. Jones believes that Gnostic ideas are a growing force in western cultures, promoted by academic groups such as The Jesus Seminar, the popular novel The Da Vinci Code, and media fascination with Gnostic texts, particularly those found at Nag Hammadi. Whilst an earlier book by Jones, Cracking Da Vinci's Code, sought to address Gnostic ideas promoted by the Da Vinci Code novel, his book Stolen Identity broadens his treatment from one novel to Gnosticism in general. Jones believes, like the church fathers who condemned Gnosticism in the third and fourth centuries, that Gnostic concepts are incompatible with biblical ideas. Moreover, Jones argues that the Gnostic ideas lead away from, rather than towards, the living relationship with God that youth ministry practitioners desire for the young people under their care.

In the introduction to Stolen Identity, Jones establishes a contrast between Gnosticism and Biblical Christianity. By Gnosticism, Jones means the philosophical system espoused by ancient Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Philip, and also modern Gnostic converts such as Elaine Pagels and Gilles Quispel. By Biblical Christianity, Jones means traditional orthodox Christianity as taught in the Bible and the creeds. Jones proposes that whilst Gnosticism and Biblical Christianity both identify Jesus as their religious hero, each has a radically different conception of who Jesus actually is. Thus, the first nine chapters of the book examine nine different aspects of Jesus’ identity, first from a Gnostic perspective, then from a Biblical Christian perspective. Of these nine chapters, chapters 2 to 7 examine aspects of Jesus’ identity, such as his preaching, humanity, divinity, devotional habits, sexuality, and morality. Whilst these are essential elements for any understanding of Jesus’ identity, they are less pivotal for Jones’ overall argument than chapters 1, 8 and 9.

Chapter 1 covers the concept of God, as taught by Jesus. Jones first outlines the Gnostic understanding of God as the ultimate Father of All, as differentiated from Yahweh who is conceived of as the misguided and evil creator of matter. To contrast, Jones outlines the Biblical Christian understanding of God as Yahweh himself, the good and loving creator of all. Chapters 8 and 9 address Jesus’ death and resurrection, respectively. Firstly, Jones explains the Gnostic idea that Jesus did not physically die, and rose only in a spiritual sense. In contrast, Jones shows that the Biblical Christian Jesus did physically die an atoning death, and physically rose as the first fruits of the new creation. These three differences in Jesus’ identity, in regard to God, death, and resurrection form the foundation for the last two chapters of the book.

The last two chapters compare and critique the Gnostic concept of Jesus against the Biblical description of Jesus. Having given the reader lots of information in chapters 1-9, the final two chapters integrate the data. Chapter 10 is titled ‘Your Choice’. Jones endeavours to move the reader toward rejection of Gnostic ideas and acceptance of the Biblical Christian understanding of Jesus. Jones forcefully argues that the Biblical Jesus and the Gnostic Jesus are incompatible. Furthermore, Jones suggests that Gnosticism and Christianity are actually two separate religions that use some similar vocabulary, but with different meanings. Jones encourages people to make a choice about which Jesus is the true Jesus, dispelling naive notions that it is possible to choose both, or that there is some third impartial stance that can be taken.

Chapter 11 is titled ‘My Choice’. The first half of the chapter is Jones’ own testimony of how he came to reject Gnostic concepts and believe in the Biblical Jesus as his own personal saviour, and the saviour of all creation. The second half of the chapter deals with ancient manuscript evidence and dating. Jones argues that the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas should be dated in the second century or later, whilst the Biblical gospels should be dated in the first century. He also suggests the Gnostic gospels may be factually unreliable, whilst the Biblical gospels are more dependable.

This book achieves its main objective of clearly presenting both Gnosticism and Biblical Christianity, whilst also commending Biblical Christianity to readers. Biblical Christianity is presented in an accurate and uncompromising manner. Moreover, Jones’ background in studying ancient Gnostic manuscripts is exemplified as he succeeds in simplifying Gnostic teaching into nine digestible chunks. His ample quotes from Gnostic texts and Gnostic scholars give credibility to his arguments. Jones also successfully connects ancient Gnosticism with trends in popular thought and culture. However, at times Jones may overstate his case. He gives the impression that the Gnostic and the Biblical understanding of Jesus are the only two possible views. Thus, he tends to absorb all of Buddhism and Hinduism under the heading of Gnosticism, and essentially ignores the cultural influence and ideas of both Islam and secular materialism. Arguably, the book would have been stronger if Jones acknowledged that Gnostics and Biblical Christians are not the only philosophical groups proselytising in the Western world.

As a piece of writing, Stolen Identity appears either rushed, or poorly edited. Occasionally the chapters appear to ramble, or material that has little bearing on the discussion is inserted. At one point Jones mentions that he knew John Lennon at high school for no apparent reason (p56). Likewise, the subtitle of the book, whilst sounding intriguing, is not representative of the book’s content. Neither ‘conspiracy’ nor ‘reinvention’ are ever discussed explicitly in the text. Furthermore, the structure of the book, with nine chapters of data before any significant analysis, may leave readers flagging by chapter 6. As a result, some readers may cease reading before reaching the engaging material in chapters 10 and 11. Unfortunately these style and packaging problems mean the book’s great strengths are harder to appreciate.

The genre of Stolen Identity is that of popular apologetic. As a result, those doing graduate research or teaching in Gnosticism will find other resources, such as those mentioned in Jones’ bibliography, offer more depth on the topic of Gnosticism than this book. Rather, this book may be helpful to youth ministry practitioners in two ways. Firstly, it may be a good book to give to individual Christian or non-Christian youth who are intrigued by concepts in The Da Vinci Code, modern paganism, or Eastern religions. The book may help such teens to differentiate Biblical Christianity from Gnostic ideas that use Christian language, but are divergent from the Bible. Secondly, this book may be helpful for those youth ministry practitioners who perceive ideas from The Da Vinci Code, modern paganism, or Eastern religions to be a challenge to Christian youth in their context. The book may help such practitioners to clearly identify and address incorrect ideas about Jesus. Ultimately, the book’s specific topic of Gnosticism will mean it is relevant for some youth ministry contexts yet not in others.

1 comment:

Edna said...

Great work.