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.