Has this ever happened to you? You’re traveling through the desert on the way to the Promised Land, and it’s been an interesting journey so far: waters parting, mountain smoking, trumpets sounding, an epic fail in the form of a golden calf, the whole project almost scrapped. But the tabernacle gets built and you’re back on track, just before smacking the wall of Leviticus.
Here, according to anecdotal evidence, is where new Christians bail out of their daily Bible-reading plans. Detailed directions on four kinds of sacrifices, observances and holy days and the Hebrew calendar, instructions for skin diseases and bodily discharges and sexual relations—in no clear order, so it feels like 40 years of wandering in the desert. What is this all about? “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44).
Just what does it mean to be holy? The dictionary definition is both simple and obscure: “of, derived from, or associated with a divine power; sanctified.” Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness almost unraveled him—how are mere mortals to be holy like that? To be “set apart,” I understand, but how does it look? Is it physical and lifestyle separation? Can one be holy in a bar or at the movies? The actual shape of holiness is hard to get a handle on.
Surprisingly, though, Christians aren’t the only ones who grapple with holiness. From the beginning of time, humans have sensed a spiritual dimension to life—“fundamentally religious” is one way to describe humanity. A sense of sanctity abides, though without the Bible as a corrective, sanctity (a.k.a. holiness) sharply divides the “spiritual” from the material. Before drinking that cup of hemlock, Socrates consoled his followers with the doctrine that he would soon be free of his mortal body, and good riddance. The Platonic teachings of Socrates’ greatest student reinforced the soul-body split.
The oldest heresy in the world goes even further, preaching that the material world is evil and can be overcome only by the initiated who acquire the tokens of secret knowledge. Gnosticism (drawn from the Greek word for “knowledge”) has always been around, but as the outward walls of Christianity crumble, it’s making a comeback.
A few days after the release of the movie Noah, Dr. Brian Mattson of the Center for Cultural Leadership burned up Christian cyberspace with a post called “Sympathy for the Devil.” He makes a convincing case that the film’s frame of reference is not the Bible at all, but the Zohar, an ancient Jewish Gnostic text. Noah’s world was made by “the Creator”—not the supreme deity, but a lower god who spitefully meant to wipe out mankind and save only the animals. Lucky for us, his plan was thwarted when Noah recovered the magical skin of the serpent of Eden, and Dr. Mattson is flabbergasted that Christian leaders who praised and castigated the film didn’t catch its overriding symbolism.
Interesting. Some form of Gnosticism (and there are many) seems to be one way the secular world feeds its deep need for sanctity: material = bad, spiritual = good, and never the twain shall meet. It helps explain why (as I’m not the first to remark) we’re in for a bewildering period of “gender fluidity,” where physical characteristics have nothing to do with one’s inner self. “Luminous beings are we,” says Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back): “not this crude matter.”
But authentic holiness makes no such divide. In the beginning God made a new thing, a good earth and a creature formed from dust but animated by divine breath. True man is spiritual and material, commissioned to rule the earth in intimate partnership with his Maker. Going against God’s intention led to the great split between flesh and spirit, as well as fruitless efforts to overcome it. But we can’t. Jesus does, taking on the image of man and completing in His body the rituals and sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. There’s our Holiness, risen beyond the stars but joined to us by His “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45). The split is healed, and the world doesn’t even know it.