There are several special events, all open to the public, as part of the Gnostic America Conference. Here is the poster for the Keynote Address by Catherine Albanese. Hope you can join us. Please share this event around.
Forbidden Gospels Blog
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I am pleased to announce the Gnostic America Conference. We will convene at Rice University on March 28-31. The conference is free and open to the public. We are exploring the afterlives of Gnosticism in America.
In addition to cutting-edge paper presentations by 20 international scholars and graduate students, we have some spectacular special events in the evenings. Check the poster for times and locations.
On Wednesday evening, Catherine Albanese will deliver the Keynote Address on the Gospel of Thomas and the Macrobiotics of Michio Kushi.
On Thursday evening, the soprano soloist Sonja Bruzauskas and percussionist Craig Hauschildt will be performing GNOSIS IN SONG AND RHYTHM, based on Gnostic liturgies that I translated from the Nag Hammadi literature.
On Friday evening, we will be screening the Director's cut of Dark City, followed by a panel discussion of the film.
I forgot to post the information about our Mellon Seminar Conference. It happened yesterday, but was a great event featuring Susan Palmer as our keynote.
We are pleased to announce that we are accepting applications for our new MA program in Religion. Please share this announcement. Priority deadline for Fall 2018 admission: January 15, 2018. Final deadline for Fall 2018 admission: April 20, 2018.
I received a beautiful book in the mail this week by Andrei Orlov, The Greatest Mirror: Heavenly Counterparts in the Jewish Pseudepigrapha (SUNY). While the idea of a heavenly double—an angelic twin of an earthbound human—is found in Christian, Manichaean, Islamic, and Kabbalistic traditions, scholars have been less familiar with this imagery in early Jewish writings. In fact, most scholars have traced the lineage of these ideas to Greco-Roman and Iranian sources. But in his new book, Andrei A. Orlov shows that heavenly twin imagery drew in large part from early Jewish writings. The Jewish pseudepigrapha—books from the Second Temple period that were attributed to biblical figures but excluded from the Hebrew Bible—contain accounts of heavenly twins in the form of spirits, images, faces, children, mirrors, and angels of the Presence. Orlov provides a comprehensive analysis of these traditions in their full historical and interpretive complexity. He focuses on heavenly alter egos of Enoch, Moses, Jacob, Joseph, and Aseneth in often neglected books, including Animal Apocalypse, Book of the Watchers, 2 Enoch, Ladder of Jacob, and Joseph and Aseneth, some of which are preserved solely in the Slavonic language.
Looking for a summer conference to attend? This one should be terrific. It is hosted by St. Andrews, June 4-6 2018, and features fabulous speakers for the plenary addresses.
I am happy to announce a new book series from Baylor University Press called The Library of Early Christology series. This series is a collaborative effort to bring together "essential readings" that represent the new history of religions school, with a focus on the study of early Christology and its historic Judaic antecedents.
Most of these books were published by other publishers (Mohr Siebeck, Brill, and Fortress) as part of a limited-run series. Now they are being republished and distributed via Baylor in order to bring these important works to a new and wider audience.
With that said, I am so pleased to announce that my first monograph, Seek To See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas, is now published as part of this series, along with my mentor's book, Jarl Fossum, The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord: Samaritan and Jewish Concepts of Intermediation and the Origin of Gnosticism. Both of these books (and many more!) are available at very reasonable prices now.
Finally we have a introductory "textbook" that covers the main tenets of the cognitive science of religion as they are applied to the field of New Testament and early Christianity. Czachesz argues that the human component with its mental and cultural constraints is essential to augment traditional biblical exegesis or even to change the conventional focus of biblical exegesis.
Whenever I have spoken about this, I have talked about the missing link in biblical studies: the human factor. That is, biblical exegesis has traditionally forfeited understanding the ways in which humans process information and make sense of the world through their bodies, their brains, their memories, and their emotions. All of these impact the shape and character of the texts people write, and thus our understanding of these texts as historians.
Czachesz further suggests that we are dinosaurs if we think that we can continue to operate as scholars by ignoring science and the scientific method. He thinks that cognitive approaches help us to integrate scientific thinking (experimental research; computer modeling; naturalistic explanations) with our study of early Christianity. He applauds the payoff, suggesting that the naturalistic explanations and materialistic mechanisms, some experimentally based, provide a securer foundation for our historical analyses than traditional methods have allowed.
István’s approach is to divide his subject (religion in the New Testament) into cognitive areas, after first giving a three chapter overview of the standard theories in the cognitive study of religion and the anatomy of the brain.
He begins by asking what studies on memory and transmission of ideas and practices can do for us as biblical scholars. After covering the standard analyses of memory and emotion, and how minds process and structure information, he argues that early Christian literature reflects these processes, here referring to studies of the passion narratives and martyrdom stories in the canonical and apocryphal gospels and acts, the sermon on the mount, and the synoptic problem.
Second he covers ritual, with a nod toward some psychological models on compulsive behavior. He discusses in this chapter baptism, communal meals, and prayer, in terms of cost benefits, modes of religiosity, efficacy and magical agency.
Third, he takes on the intersection of magic and miracle in the Jesus stories, arguing that cognitive approaches can help us see these as two subjects that are interrelated phenomena. He does so by applying studies on superstitious conditioning, mental intuitions about the mechanisms and effects of magic in terms of agency and contagion, and the attractiveness of miracle stories as counterintuitive. He applies these cognitive insights to Paul’s magical practices in Ephesus according to the Book of Acts.
Fourth, he covers what cognitive neuroscience and philosophy of mind have been saying about religious experience and altered states of consciousness, everything from subjectivity to cultural contexts, from the lobes of the brain theory, to extreme religious experience. He applies these studies to the phenomena of speaking in tongues at Corinth, and the tour of heaven in the Ascension of Isaiah.
Fifth, he looks at studies of morality and its origins in the domains of neurobiology, social cognition, group behavior, and moral emotions. He argues that biblical morality is not an artifact created by theologians and philosophers, but rather it is an aspect of human cognition and behavior. The application in this chapter is more broadly conceived in terms of religion, and less in terms of specific test cases within the New Testament.
Sixth, he turns to social networks and computer models to explain the spread of early Christianity.
István’s book is the one that I wish I had a few years ago when I taught a course I designed on Cognitive Science of Religion and biblical studies called The Bible and the Brain. I set up the course with similar thematic sections and then biblical applications. So I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to familiarize themselves with Cognitive Science and Religion and biblical studies, or who wants to create a course on it. It is a perfect learning and teaching tool.
Professor Burke's newest edited volume came my way today: Fakes, Forgeries, and Fictions: Writing Ancient and Modern Christian Apocrypha. It represents the proceedings from the 2015 York University Christian Apocrypha Symposium.
The book collects excellent papers from Bart Erhman, Periluigi Piovanelli, Stanley Porter, Brent Landau, Scott Brown, Pamela Mullins Reaves, Gregory Peter Fewster, Anne Moore, Timothy Pettipiece, Brandon Hawk, Tony Burke, Bradley Rice, Eric M. Vanden Eykel, Caroline Schroeder, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre, and Janet Spittler.
The articles address questions that have long dogged scholars. Are apocryphal Christian texts fakes or forgeries? Were they intentionally written to deceive Christians? Do they contain facts or fictions? Why were they composed?
The answers in this volume are as varied as the stories themselves, from intentional fakes meant to deceive like the fragment known as the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, to honest attempts to capture ongoing religious revelation like the Revelation of the Magi.
Texts covered include Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Paul, Revelation of the Magi, Secret Gospel of Mark, Letter of Peter to Philip, apocryphal Corinthians, Secret Book of John, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Life of Saint Issa, Gospel of Jesus' Wife, and miscellaneous early Christian papyri.
I think that this volume is a valuable contribution to how we understand authorship of ancient Christian texts, whether we define them as fakes or the real deal.
I just returned from Erfurt, Germany, where I attended a conference on Esotericism and Deviance put on by the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). I want to record some of my impressions of the conference and take-aways.
The word esotericism comes from the adjective esoteric, which has been used since ancient times to refer to religious movements and philosophical schools that keep at least some of their knowledge secret, so that it is reserved only for the members who join the group. So in the case of the ancient texts I study, esotericism is equivalent to religious secrecy, and it is very easy to explore how groups tried to capitalize on the secrets for group bonding, and guard any deviant behavior or ideas within this secrecy so that the deviance is shielded from external gaze and retribution from society.
My paper ("Deviant Christians") was on how this worked out for early Christian groups and affected their ability to recruit and survive intergenerationally.
The problem with esotericism comes when academics who study esoteric religious movements since the Renaissance have decided to call their field Esotericism. You might not think this problematic until you realize that the term runs into trouble when esoteric religions meet popular culture in modernity and we end up with the wide distribution of occult secrets, a process that is now being called Occulture (occult+culture). So Esotericism is no longer defined by religious secrecy. It has become openly distributed knowledge.
What about deviance? Is Esotericism then defined by deviancy? It was clear from the papers at the conference that there was trouble in trying to deal with religious deviance and its relationship to Esotericism. Scholars at the conference expressed great discomfort with the idea that Esotericism has to be deviant. And I saw no real model emerge to handle this problem meaningfully.
I think the main trouble comes from the fact that to really work with the concept of deviance, you really have to do so from a sociological perspective. You have to understand local culture and its dominant norms and what the esoteric movement is doing with them. This means that what is deviant is going to change from locale to locale with many shifts over time and geography. What is culturally deviant at one time, may become mainstream down the road. So an esoteric movement might be deviant one day, and maybe move into the mainstream later on. Does the religious movement remain esoteric in this case?
I would argue that this question is not the question that needs to be answered. What makes more sense to me is to problematize the issues that esoteric movements face and outline the patterns of response that result from the movements trying to handle these issues. We can do this with ancient groups and modern groups the same.
- How is the movement using religious secrecy as social capital and as a shield for its deviance?
- What social strategies does the group turn to in order to construct a movement that restricts its internal social network? Why do this?
- How does the esoterized group deal with issues like isolation and recruitment?
- Does the group lessen its deviance and begin to open its social network to outsiders?
- How does the group accommodate to societal expectations and traditional religious perspectives?
- How far does the group go public and reveal its secrets to increasing larger social networks?
- Or does the group stay isolated and secret, or become more isolated and secret over time?
- Why does the group choose these options?
- How do these options affect the long term survival of the group?
If we move to this kind of sociological problematizing, then deviance is most likely in the picture somewhere. It is just a matter of trying to understand the dynamics of deviance within esoteric group formation and development. No esoteric group is stable on any of these issues. Esoteric movements are special because they choose to reserve their internal network to members only, and to bond around religious secrets which are very often deviant or countercultural. This can only be mapped and understood on a case-by-case basis, which will reveal to us both variety and patterns of similarity. It will tell us everything about the social process of esoterization and nothing about Esotericism.
All of this is to say that Esotericism as a field cannot be defined by deviancy, but it is essential for scholars who are involved in the field of Esotericism to unpack sociologically the relationship between deviancy and any given esoteric group. While Esotericism cannot be defined by deviancy, it is a sociological dynamic experienced by esoteric groups that needs much more careful theoretical and historical attention.
I am so pleased to extend to you the link to an interview that I did for Rorotoko (Cutting-Edge Intellectual Interviews) about my book The Gnostic New Age. I was honored to be contacted by Judi Pajo, the acting editor for the website. The site runs weekly distinguished interviews with scholars on their books published in all fields.
Their motto is, "Start the day smart."
In the interview they asked me four questions. Describe your book "in a nutshell." What is "the wide angle" of your work? Give us "a close up" of your favorite passage. And "lastly" what insight do you want to leave your reader with?
Their website also captures authors' biographies. Mine can be found HERE.
Easter in Memory of Her
I am writing this morning to invite you to one of the most special events of the year. This is the fifth performance of a creative work I co-authored with Rev. Betty Adam - Easter in Memory of Her. Additional information can be found on Brigid's Place website which sponsors and organizes the event for the church.
Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017 4:00 pm, Christ Church Cathedral, Houston
What follows is the blurb about the Holy Saturday event posted on the Christ Church Cathedral website.
Once again on Holy Saturday, Brigid’s Place invites you to Easter in Memory of Her, an innovative service of music and mediation that celebrates the voices of the women who loved Jesus — Mary the Mother, the woman at the well, the woman who anointed Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene.
The service imagines the thoughts and prayers of the women surrounding Jesus and blends them with the music performed by singers from the Houston Chamber Choir and words written by Rice University professor April DeConick and Cathedral Canon Betty Adam.
Following last year’s service, DeConick commented, “The performance of Easter in Memory of Her at Christ Church Cathedral was stunningly beautiful. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the congregation including my own. The women soloists were outstanding yet again. Every time I see this performance I am taken to the cross. It has become my Easter.”
Adam shared, “Easter in Memory of Her continues to be a powerful experience for me — to confront the cross together with these beloved women, whose grief pours forth as well as their unwavering devotion. It helps me gain a deeper understanding of my own spiritual journey. I am so glad we can bring a presentation of such depth and beauty to the Houston area.”
Easter in Memory of Her will be held on Holy Saturday, April 15, at 4 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
I am so pleased to share with you the news that the spring issue (2.1) of GNOSIS: Journal of Gnostic Studies has been published. I provide here the cover and the table of contents.
This journal can be ordered by individuals and libraries on an annual subscription. Click on the title of the journal above to be taken to Brill's website if you are interested in obtaining a personal subscription or one for your library.
I am very excited to invite you to our graduate student symposium called "In Search of the Gnostic." This symposium is being hosted by the graduate students in my Gnosticism Seminar this semester. They will be delivering the papers they have been preparing all semester.
I am very proud of them and their push into new areas of study. As you can see from the poster, they are working in all areas, from new feminist readings of classic gnostic myths to the fictionalization of gnosticism in the writings of the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges to the gnostic turn in the writings and practices of the Tibetan teacher Longchen Rabjam. We will be visiting gnosticism across the globe from the Jordan River, to China, to South America, to Colonial Pennsylvania.
The symposium will take place on Wednesday, April 19, 8am-12pm, in the Kyle Morrow Room, Fondren Library, Rice University. It is free and open to the public. Coffee and donuts will be provided.
An announcement. My graduate student, Matthew Dillon will be defending his dissertation on April 18, 12-2:30 pm, 215 Humanities Building, Rice University. This event is open to the public. He has written a book called "The Heretical Revival: The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture." Since I am one of the judges, I cannot present my opinion at this time - but only announce that it is happening.
Last evening, I spoke to the Friends of Fondren and the Rice community about my book, The Gnostic New Age. I spoke about why I wrote the book and why gnosticism is so vital in American culture today, even though ancient gnostic communities did not survive historically.
As I was composing my remarks, I realized that a common thread links the reason why I wrote the book and the reason why gnosticism persists in our culture. It is the transpower of the book, the power of the book to transform who we are, to change our lives in a moment.
I am reminded, for instance of St. Anthony whose life utterly changed when he heard Matthew 19:21 read aloud, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven." He was a wealthy 18-year old who went out and sold all his properties, donated his money to the poor, and left for the desert to become a hermit devoted to Jesus. I am also reminded of St. Augustine whose life transformation came at age 31 when he read the words of Paul, "Not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires" (Romans 13:13-14). He gave his money to the poor and entered the monastic life.
What is it about the direct engagement with a text that has such power to change our lives in ways that we never suspected or anticipated?
Here are my remarks from last evening.
Why did I write this book?
The Gnostic New Age is a book that really has its origins at the beginning of my own intellectual journey, which was in 1982 when I was just at the beginning of my college career. The incident was so important that I recorded it in the opening pages of my book. It represents what I like to call the transpower of the book, that is the power that books can have to transform our very identities and redirect our futures in unexpected ways.
Excerpt read from pp. 1-3.
In 1982, I was finishing my first year of college. I was enrolled in a two-year program to become a registered nurse and had been doing rounds on the oncology floor of the local hospital and in geriatrics. I was eighteen years old and any romantic notions I may have had about health care when I started school vanished with the first catheter I had to insert.
One day, to distract myself from my existential crisis, I visited the local bookstore hoping to find a good novel. But I didn’t have any luck. Back at home, my mother pulled out a book that she had been reading and handed it to me. “I bet you will like this,” she said. I glanced at the cover. The Other Gospels by Ron Cameron. Gospels that never made it into the New Testament. Unknown sayings of Jesus. Could be interesting, I thought.
That is how I read the Gospel of Thomas for the first time, in the opening pages of The Other Gospels. As I read this gospel, I encountered a Jesus who impressed me, a Jesus who was unknown in conventional Christian circles…Here, in the Gospel of Thomas was a Jesus I wanted to know more about…
What was up with this? …Why wasn’t this gospel in the New Testament? I wondered…
That is how my journey started, with the transpower of the book. I was profoundly awakened in my experience of reading an ancient text, which led me to read more books and pose more questions. Which all led eventually to my reflections in The Gnostic New Age.
What do I try to do in this book?
In scholarship, the gnostic has been deconstructed for various reasons that I will not get into here, so much so that there are scholars who argue that gnostics did not exist in antiquity as real groups of people, but were instead alternative Christians who were demonized by other Christians and turned into gnostic heretics through a mean rhetorical battle. My book pushes back on this academic narrative, since the historical evidence supports the existence of gnostics and gnostic groups in antiquity as transgressive and countercultural communities whose identities stretched over and even beyond Jewish, Christian, Grec0-Roman, Egyptian, Zoroastrian and even Buddhist boundaries. So bottomline, what I try to do in The Gnostic New Age is explain (1) who the ancient gnostics were, (2) how they thought about traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, (3) what type of new religious movements they created, and (4) how this revolutionized religion during their time and continues to do so today in America.
The book has special merit because it targets a public audience. It is very readable for the non-specialist audience, and is innovative in its form. In order to help modern readers grasp ancient outdated concepts about gnosticism, each chapter in the book is framed by a discussion of a contemporary film that itself addresses gnostic concepts in modern terms and images.
What makes a gnostic?
I construct a model of gnosticism from the ancient sources that highlights 5 characteristics ofthe ancient gnostics. (1) the gnostic worships a transcendent God who exists beyond the gods of all the world’s religions, including the creator God of the bible. You can imagine how transgressive this message was, that Zeus, Baal, Rê, and the biblical God are not real Gods, but lesser trickster deities who should not be worshiped. (2) This real God can only be known through direct religious experience which, gnostics claim, is generated by a variety of initiatory rituals. (3) The gnostic believes that the human being is innately connected to the transcendent God, having an uncreated divine nature, which they call the spirit. (4) Gnostics find themselves in a transgressive relationship to traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, especially in their reuse of traditional religious ideas and their interpretation of scriptures, which are flipped up side down. For instance, the snake in the story of Adam and Eve is not evil, but an enlightener. (5) Gnostics were inclusive free thinkers, drawing on knowledge and practices from a variety of religions, philosophies, and scientific theories of their era, as well as direct revelatory experiences.
This means that gnosticism is not a religion, but a religious worldview or spirituality that engages multiple religions and affiliations, and remodels them in countercultural ways, producing both religious reform movements and new religious movements. Using this model, the book explores comprehensively the variety of gnostic religious movements that arise in antiquity in way that no other book has done up to now.
Why is the gnostic still with us in American religion and culture?
The final chapter returns to the idea of the transpower of the book. If Catholicism defeated gnostic religions in antiquity, how is it that gnostic currents have become so prevalent today? Gnostics were prolific writers and their lost texts reemerged within modern culture starting in the 1800s. This rediscovery of ancient gnostic literature has resulted in the redistribution of gnostic ideas into American culture and has fed the growth of new religious movements like Theosophy, the psychological program of Carl Jung, and even the New Age movement. There was a very a productive period in scholarship following the publication of the Nag Hammadi gnostic scriptures into English in 1978, making the gnostic gospels a household phrase. The gnostic gospels were heavily marketed in the 1980s and 90s as an alternative form of Christianity for Americans disillusioned with traditional denominations, and as a critique to traditional Christianity with its judgmental Father God and concept of original sin.
Think about the hype around films like Stigmata that featured the Gospel of Thomas and the Di Vinci Code that told stories from the Gospel of Philip. This message about the recovery of a lost form of Christianity from antiquity hit home for a large number of Americans who were disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Christianity of their parents and churches that they felt had nothing spiritual to offer. There is a synergy here, a real audience for gnosticism among Americans who view themselves as free-thinkers and people who question authorities, from the church to the government. It was practically love at first sight, so that gnosticism impacted everything from traditional churches to novels to films like The Matrix and Avatar, which help us to think along transgressively gnostic lines about who we really are, where we are from, why we are here, and what our destiny might be. As long as gnostic writings are available for people to read and reflect upon, gnostic spirituality will never go away, but will continue to revolutionize religions of today and tomorrow. It is the transpower of the book.
I would like to close with a reading of one of my favorite pages in the book.
Excerpt read from pp. 282-284.
The Romans suspected that the early Christians in general were deviants, and they criticized the Christians’ religion as “new” and “superstitious”…By the early second century, the Apostolic Catholic leaders intentionally began to create a better interface between their religion and the traditional values of Rome…For the most part, this domestication did not happen among the Gnostic Christian groups, who prized the new, the revelatory, the unmediated experiences of the God beyond the gods of civic duty and the patron-client relationship. The Gnostic Christians made little claim to an ancestral past, preferring to sever the tie with Judaism and marketing their Gnostic communities by promoting a new previously Unknown God who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with traditional sacrifices and other public ceremonies. For Gnostics, the practice of religion was not about civic duty and moral obligation, but personal therapy and triumph. The human being and its needs surpassed the old gods, and indeed, overturned them and their earthly representatives. This transtheistic perspective cut across not only Judaism, but also laid to waste the Roman cult.
Gnostic groups emerge on the margins of religion within social and political landscapes that have been unkind to the people who join their communities. In the case of the ancient world, Roman colonization laid waste to native populations and native religions, creating social, political, and religious landscapes of severe marginalization.
The American historian Theodore Roszak, who coined the term counter culture, thought that it emerged when people could no longer align their moral compass and ideal visions with the direction of the society, or more simply put, when people become alienated within society’s institutional structures. Roszak defines the essence of the counterculture in psychological terms as an assault on the reality of the ego as our true identity…
Sociological studies of countercultural movements show that transgression can become for some people a flagship, a way to mobilize and revolutionize an environment that has left them powerless. These type of movements can lead to political coups and violence. But this did not happen with the Gnostics who must have known that taking up arms against Rome was futile. Instead the Gnostics turned their transgression into a celestial coup to overthrow the demonic hoard that controls our world and sets into power our kings and princes. They felt that if they could gain control of the terror at its roots by disarming the Rulers of the heavens, then their human representatives, the kings, would be sure to fall.
Even more countercultural was the Gnostic belief that the human displaced the gods. The human had crossed over the boundary that had so long separated the gods from the human. Now the human was out of place, a divine being no longer afraid of the gods, the ancestors, or the obligations of traditional rank. Gnostics were free of social and political restraints that their gods and ancestors had imposed upon them for centuries. The Romans were right. This was revolutionary and dangerous.
The Friends of the Fondren Library at Rice University have selected my book, The Gnostic New Age, to be featured at their annual Author Reception on Wednesday, 5:30 pm, in the Farnsworth Pavilion. I will be speaking briefly about my book and reading a passage that is one of my favorites. Hope you can make it.
For those of you who cannot be with us for the Gnostic Film Festival at Rice University, March 24-26, I am sharing my opening remarks and slides here on my blog. You may wish to rent the films at home and view them remotely with us. I have deeper analyses of each film in various chapters of The Gnostic New Age, if you are interested in engaging those ideas while you screen the films.
Welcome to the first every Gnostic Film Festival.
Many of you may be already asking yourselves “A Gnostic film festival?” what is that? Aren’t these science fiction and fantasy films? The short answer is, Yes they are…but, the goal of this festival isn’t about viewing these films as science fiction and fantasy adventures, but seeing them as public conduits of gnosticism, religious currents that were persecuted, and, consequently, went gone underground for two thousand years. So two big questions for us. We have to wonder why we are seeing a resurgence of gnostic ideas within modern American culture, where gnostics are celebrated as heroic rather than feared as monsters. Second, we have to wonder why it is that the science fiction and fantasy genre, and not some other genre, is so conductive to this celebration.
I began really noticing this resurgence of gnostic currents as a casual filmgoer and reader of science fiction and fantasy novels. It started to become something of a game between my husband and I, who could spot the gnostic undercurrent first. It is not that the gnostic undercurrent was in every science fiction and fantasy film we saw. It wasn’t. But when it was, it made the movie. It turned upside down our expectations. It made us sit back and think about our preconceptions about reality and what it means to be human. It made us want to question authority. It had flipped our world in some way. It had made us uncomfortable.
What is real?
Why uncomfortable? The gnostic, more than any other religious current, is transgressive. It is countercultural when it comes to interacting with conventional religions and traditional worldviews. It is this deviant religious edge that made gnostic groups in antiquity so suspicious. They generated so much suspicion among the early Christians that ancient gnostic groups were persecuted to extinction.
What made these gnostic groups so threatening to the early Christians? This is a good question and one that I wrestle with in my book, The Gnostic New Age. First of all, gnostic thinkers generated a type of spirituality that was very innovative in antiquity. Gnostics built new religious movements out of this spirituality. What made them different? Gnostics of all stripes developed religions that were oriented toward the worship of a transcendent God, a God beyond all the Gods of the traditional religions, a God beyond Zeus, beyond Baal, beyond Rê, even a God beyond YHWH the Jewish and Christian Father God of the bible who creates and rules the world. Gnostics believed that humans have been tricked into worshiping all these false Gods at the expense of knowing and worshiping the supreme God of Goodness, Love and Light, the God who transcends all, even gender. Humans, they thought, have been tricked into believing that their true selves are creatures made to serve the whims and wills of these false Gods. Even worse, these false Gods keep humans enslaved in the world the Gods created for their own benefit.
So one of the big concerns of gnostics is to try to figure out what is real? Where are we in the realms of existence? Now you might imagine that scriptures written by ancient Gnostics have some highly imaginative and speculative stories to tell. And you would be right. Gnostic mythology and stories are wildly imaginative, speculating about realities that are controlled by alien beings living in multiverses. These ancient stories are only matched by science fiction and fantasy today, which also tries to showcase possible alternative worlds, dimensions and futures of humanity. I have come to wonder whether science fiction and fantasy stories are comparable to ancient gnostic stories, in that they help us see the problems with our present world and dominant culture, and give us ways to critique and transform how we live in the world.
What is human?
There is another deep concern in gnostic writings as in science fiction films: to help us to see what it means to be human, where our boundaries are as human beings, where we might cross those boundaries or extend them and experience transformation into something bigger than we thought we were. This is something that the ancient Gnostics obsessed about. They were convinced that human beings are more than our physical bodies and our souls. They thought that human beings were born with a piece of the transcendent God buried within them. They usually call this the human spirit. But this spirit is what empowers them and makes them bigger, stronger, and better than even the false Gods who rule the world. It is what makes humans freed from the laws and rules established by these Gods.
What is the goal?
In gnostic stories, the human spirit is always portrayed as entrapped, enslaved, and subject to the authority of false Gods and rulers. The human spirit starts out in a sleep state, even unconsciousness. It came to exist within the human being through a fantastically imagined fall into the human world, where it has become trapped in a state of suffering. The goal of gnostic religions was to liberate the human spirit by awakening it ritually, and helping it return to the true world of its origin, a transcendent other world, where it would be able to reunite with the real God, the source of the human spirit, or some type of spiritual avatar or angel.
You can imagine how subversive these ideas were in the first and second centuries when gnosticism was born. The divine human. YHWH and Zeus and kings and priests to be overthrown. Real worlds beyond our own fraudulent one. These are the seeds of free-thinking and revolution. And in antiquity, they were suppressed and demonized.
So the question that begs to be answered: If Catholicism defeated gnostic religions in antiquity, how is it that gnostic currents have become so prevalent today? Here we have to thank the power of the written word. Gnostics were prolific writers and their lost texts have reemerged within modern culture starting in the 1800s. This rediscovery of ancient gnostic literature has resulted in the redistribution of gnostic ideas into American culture and has fed the growth of new religious movements like Theosophy, the psychological program of Carl Jung, and even the New Age movement. Most importantly, the huge collection of gnostic writings known as the Nag Hammadi library was found in 1945 and fully translated into English in 1978. So it is no surprise to me that the films with cutting edge gnostic themes are those produced in the 1990s, following a productive period in scholarship that made the gnostic gospels a household phrase. The gnostic gospels were heavily marketed as an alternative form of Christianity for Americans disillusioned with traditional denominations, and as a critique to traditional Christianity with its judgmental Father God and concept of original sin.
Think about the hype around films like Stigmata that featured the Gospel of Thomas and the Di Vinci Code that told stories from the Gospel of Philip. This message about the recovery of a lost form of Christianity from antiquity hit home for a large number of Americans who were disillusioned and dissatisfied with the Christianity of their parents and churches that they felt had nothing spiritual to offer. There is a synergy here, a real audience for gnosticism among Americans who view themselves as free-thinkers and people who question authorities, from the church to the government. It was practically love at first sight, and film producers used the opportunity to create some pretty awesome films that make us think about who we really are, where we are from, why we are here, and what our destiny might be.
This weekend we will be viewing six of these gnostic films: The Matrix, The Truman Show, Pleasantville, Avatar, Dark City, and Altered States. The films will be introduced by graduate students who are enrolled in my Gnosticism seminar. Following each film will be a 10-minute Q&A period also facilitated by the graduate students. To bring a close to each discussion, I will present a short reading from my book The Gnostic New Age which discusses these films in relationship to ancient gnostic ideas and practices.
I hope you are ready to meet the gnostics in these films, and to be unsettled.
You are invited to the Gnostic Film Festival at Rice Cinema, March 24-26. Admission is free! I will be doing short reading from my book, The Gnostic New Age, and the graduate students enrolled in my Gnosticism Seminar will be fielding questions from the audience following each film. We will even provide snacks! Hope to see you there.