There are two huge gaps in Christianity. Both of them cut across denominations and seem to be culturally-based and almost tribal. Both of them deal with attitudes within the Church towards minority members: women and gays.
After Christianity emerged from Judaism in the First Century, it spread westward across the Middle East towards Europe, and down along the northern part of Africa. We know that somehow the westward push didn't stop until it reached Ireland, as evidenced by the fact that Christianity was a presence in the British Isles when the Roman Empire arrived on the southern shore of England.
In fact, the rift between the Church of England and the Church of Rome is rooted in that time period, centuries before any kind of conflict between the English Monarchy and the Pope. But as Christianity moved farther from Jerusalem, it encountered a series of powerful mother figures: Ishtar, Isis, Astarte, Artemis, Venus and Freya.
But the irresistible force of Christianity met its real challenge in the Mut, the equal and opposite mother force of Europe's Celtic faith. The Goddess, as she was called in England, was worshiped on a level that sometimes eclipsed the opposite male force, as in England's two highest religious offices under the Celts: the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin.
But the Christian faith was armed for this conflict. They had their attitudes ready: they had the story of Eve, who "tempted Adam" and caused the very Fall of Man. There was also Bathsheba, who tempted King David and was one of the first blamed victims in Western history.
And of all the Judeo-Christian female figures, Mary reigned supreme. As the Neo-Platonists took over the expanding Christian religion, Mary was stripped of her sexuality and acted as an antidote to the openly-sexual and sensual goddesses from Palestine to Ireland.
It was a titanic clash, and in the end as belief in gods and goddesses receded, the demotion of female power in Christianity won the battles. Women's orders, which originated in the Celtic culture, with its mysterious women's community on Glastonbury Isle, became seamstresses and bakers of Communion wafers while male Christian orders offered education and produced scribes and theologians.
The Platonic idea that male = good and female = bad reigned supreme. It went right along with spirit and heaven being good while flesh and earth were bad. Black-white thinking has been popular in the Church from the Third Century right up to the present time. It makes everything easy to understand.
If you are a woman, you are a "lesser vessel," and your sexuality presents a temptation to men who do not wish to control their urges. In Protestant Christianity we see frequent denigration of women in customs such as forbidding them to cut their hair or wear simple clothing. We see women abused, blamed because they attract men who should have their minds on higher things. We see preachers like Glenn Summerfield of the Snake Handlers, attempting murder because they have taken up with another woman and don't want the stain of divorce on their careers. We see cult leaders collecting women and abusing both them and their daughters. We see enclaves of cult members in which the men "own" the women and their daughters, enjoying multiple wives while they escort their adolescent sons to the compound gate and lock them out.
In Catholicism we see a neurotic insistence that there would be something offensive about the idea that Mary ever had children other than Jesus, even though that is the plain sense of the New Testament. The idea of a sex life "lowers" and insults Mary, and she is presented as the perfect women to Catholics, which leaves normal women consigned to an inferior status because actual virgin conception and birth don't really happen. (Face it.)
But we are expected to believe that they did, once. A man at church last week at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson informed me that there were six examples of virgin birth in the Bible, or something. That was supposed to corroborate the "fact" that Mary had one, I guess.
But there are more and more scholars today who disagree with the premise, and insist that the whole validity of Christianity actually rests on the concept that it was consciousness, not circumstance of birth, that made Jesus the world-changing figure that he was.
A careful reading of Scripture touches on this in the Gospel of Matthew:
"Mary had been betrothed to Joseph; but before they began to live together, it was found that she was with child--through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph was an upright man, but unwilling to expose her to public disgrace; and so he resolved to divorce her quietly.
"Now, as he was considering this, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for the child begotten in her is through the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins...'
"So Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took his wife home, but he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus." [Matthew 1:18-25, Brown Translation]
The operative word in this passage is begotten--as in "the child begotten in her." Raymond Brown translated Scripture directly from the Hebrew rather than working from other English versions. And "begotten" is a masculine word; a man begets a child with a woman. In my opinion this passage does not imply that Mary had conceived in any way but normally.
The plain sense of this passage is that Mary was pregnant through an incident that is not described in the New Testament, but that Joseph went through with his wedding plans because it was permissible in the eyes of God, who had a purpose for the child. And since Mary was not guilty under the Law (as St. Paul stipulated in his Letter to the Romans), Joseph did the unconventional thing.
But we must not forget that Mary, Joseph and all the residents of Nazareth knew perfectly well the circumstances of Jesus' birth. It was one of those things that "everybody knew," and for that reason it seems that the residents of Nazareth didn't observe common courtesies like referring to Jesus as the son of Joseph--since they knew that he was not, in fact, the son of Joseph. And undoubtedly they knew who the real father was, for which reason they spoke insultingly to Jesus, saying, "We are not illegitimate..." (but you are, they imply).
So as Christianity spread, the Christians had their evil female figures in Scripture to inoculate each other against the goddesses that dominated the Middle East and Europe. They also had Queen Esther and Mary, among others, to present their concept of the acceptable role of women as child-bearers who honored their heritage.
And that's so relevant--because there were more and more heritages flooding into Christianity, overwhelming its Hebrew roots, cutting the Western Church off from Jerusalem and incorporating the dominant philosophies of Greece and Rome. Everything from the Arian Heresy to Zoroastrianism was considered; sometimes the ideas were discarded, but unfortunately sometimes they superseded and overruled the Christianity that Paul had preached generations before.
We are now stuck with this smorgasbord of teachings, which we have yet to sort out. Denominations are emerging in Christianity all the time, if you count the many cults that arise when a self-made preacher steps onto a soapbox and rents a hall. But if mainstream scholars want the Faith to see another century, they have to move into the fact- and reality-based world or our beliefs will be shredded by angry atheists and contemptuous scientists--as though we have to be told that virgin births don't happen.
And we have yet to discuss Easter and Resurrection.