Rorotoko Interview

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.

Gnosticism and the transpower of the book

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.

Feature on my book in Rice News

There is a feature on my book (coming out in September) in the Rice News this morning.

New book by Rice’s DeConick explores the emergence and revolutionizing role of gnosticism

Gnosticism is a countercultural spirituality that forever changed the practice of Christianity. This is the premise of a new book by April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice and chair of the Department of Religion.

Photo by Jeff Fitlow; article by Jeff Falk

Photo by Jeff Fitlow; article by Jeff Falk

“The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion From Antiquity to Today,” published by Columbia University Press, will hit bookstores in September. The 392-page book has already been selected to receive a subvention award from the Figure Foundation, which very selectively supports publications, mainly in philosophy and religion.

Before gnosticism emerged in the second century, the belief was that passage to the afterlife required obedience to God and king, DeConick said. Gnosticism proposed that human beings were manifestations of the divine, unsettling the hierarchical foundations of the ancient world, she said. - See more at:

Gnostic New Age Receives Award

I was just notified that my new book, The Gnostic New Age, has been selected to receive a subvention award from the Figure Foundation.  This foundation very selectively supports publications, mainly in philosophy and religion.  I am delighted.  My book will be published in September. 

If you are interested in reading some of the pre-publication reviews, they are available HERE.

Got a cover for The Gnostic New Age

My book is becoming more and more real. I have a cover! Waiting still for the typeset proofs. It is slated to be published in September 2016. 

In the meantime, I have to share the cover because I think it is so beautiful.  I found an artist, Elena Ray, whose work humbles me.  She devotes her art to trying to understand revelation and the transcendent.  The cover of my book uses one of her pieces called "Green Circle."

Gnostic thoughts

I am excited - really excited - to be working on my book, The Gnostic New Age.  Now that my summer break is almost here, I am revving up to write full time.  I have made good progress so far this semester, having drafted a chapter on initiatory practices among Gnostic groups, and half a chapter on the Valentinians trying to finally make sense of their dual mission to the soulish or psychic Christians and the spiritual or pneumatic Christians.  I should be able to wrap up that chapter in a couple of weeks.

This book has been truly a phenomenal experience as an author.  It has given me the time to think through the complex problems we face as historians of gnosticism.  I started my thought process with my goal - to make sense of the multiple contexts and contents we find in Gnostic writings.  The result is that I have come to understand Gnosticism and the Gnostic not as references to a religion like Judaism or Christianity.  While there are Gnostic movements and even Gnostic religions, there is not a Gnostic religion. 

What these words refer to is a new way of being religious, a new spirituality that arose around the time Jesus was born.  When I track back through all the materials, the convergence of its first emergence appears to be in Egypt among wealthy Greeks who were visiting Egyptian temples seeking initiation into the mysteries that the priests offered them for a fee.  Whatever they experienced, it completely reoriented them spiritually so that religion became about seeking a transcendent god-beyond-and-before-all-gods, a god whose unfolding resulted in a humanity infused with divinity.  This new insight meant that the religions they were already practicing or familiar with had to be revised or reformed.

Just a little preview of what is to come in my book...

The Gnostics Were Intellectuals

Larry Hurtado has posted his opinion of the Gnostics, that they were not intellectuals, but esoterics who taught a bunch of "mumble-gumble", such as a read of the Nag Hammadi texts reveal; that they were not engaged with reasonable arguments such as we find in the writings of the church fathers; and that pagans never engaged them, proving that they were not an important part of the intellectual scene. The only real intellectuals were the catholic Christians.

Now Larry is a good friend of mine - we have been members of the early high christology club since its inception, which is a good number of years.  But that does not mean that we do not disagree, and on this topic we disagree.  Larry is taking a standard position espoused by many biblical scholars (he is in very good company), that the Gnostics are non-consequential to Christianity and that their ideas and practices were irrational and secretive.  Some biblical scholars would add to this description, perverse and exploitative.

I remember about ten years ago when I visited Oxford to work in the library, I was invited to dine at the table in one of the colleges.  One of the biblical studies professors sat next to me and asked me what I was working on.  When I told him the Gnostics and the Nag Hammadi texts, his immediate reaction was, "Why are you wasting your time on them?  When I read the Nag Hammadi texts it was clear to me that it is all craziness.  Nonsense.  Go back to the New Testament where it matters."

So I have been working upstream most of my career, swimming against a current that is much stronger than I am.  I guess I like the challenge, or I wouldn't keep doing it.  I have spent a lot of time within the Nag Hammadi texts, reconstructing the worlds of the authors, which are not crazy once you learn their references and points of view.  The Gnostics from antiquity were anything but crazy, inconsequential or irrational.  But they were different.  And difference often leads to misunderstanding.

So let's clear up some of the misunderstanding:

1. Basilides was a philosopher who converted to Christianity as a Gnostic.  This was sometime between 110 and 120 CE.  He wrote some of the first commentaries on New Testament texts, that is before they were part of any New Testament.  He appears to have been our earliest biblical theologian.  He was also a mathematician and astronomer.

2. Valentinus was a contemporary to Basilides.  Tertullian, who dislikes him with a passion, admits that people at the time thought he was a "genuis" because of his command of the biblical materials and his exegetical abilities.  He was also a poet.  There was even a moment when some thought he would be the next bishop of Rome.  When he was not elected, he felt a big mistake had been made so  started his own church school to train Christians correctly.

3. We have a letter that Ptolemy writes to Flora (yes a woman convert) which is every bit a rational and reasonable interpretation of biblical texts that supports his view of the world as anything we have from the catholic Christians.

4. The Sethians participated in Plotinus' classes, much to his dismay.  While he disagreed with them on several points, we are coming to find out that Plotinus and the Gnostics were in dialogue with each other and the influence of each other's philosophical doctrines went both ways.

5. Heracleon wrote one of the first, if not the first, commentary on the Gospel of John.  Origen engages it thoroughly and from this engagement we can see that Heracleon was an astute philosopher and biblical theologian with very reasonable arguments for his positions.

6. Celsus engaged the Gnostics, although he called them Christians and knew of them only as Christians.   It is because of his extensive engagement with these Christians that we know so much about a group that Origen calls the Ophians.  Origen in fact is furious with Celsus, that Celsus thought the Ophians were Christians.  Origen tries desperately to distance catholic Christianity from Celsus' description of (Ophian) Christianity.  By the way, one of Celsus' arguments against them is that they were simply Platonists who had nothing new to say because Plato had said it already.

7. The Gnostics were engaged in actual debates with catholic Christians.  For instance, Origen debated the Gnostic Christian Candidus in Athens.  Archelaus debated Mani.  This debate is recorded by Epiphanius and it is extremely learned and rational.  We should also add here that there is a solid tradition that Simon and Peter debated, some of which is recorded in the Ps-Clem literature.  Even if the records of these debates are not actual transcripts (they probably aren't), they do not portray the Gnostic opponents as irrational dunces.  In fact, the Gnostics come across as very learned and articulate opponents.

What does this all mean?  

1. The Gnostics were extremely rational and educated people.  They were intellectuals and their study of biblical texts was as astute as (and sometimes they read the Greek better, as in John 8:44) the catholic Christians. They were engaged in a two-way debate with catholic Christians, a debate that was consequential to the birth of the catholic landscape, as well as the generation of a new form of spirituality: Gnostic spirituality.

2. The Gnostics turned the tables on religion in antiquity.  They really revolutionized conventional religion.  While they based their world views on profound philosophical insights and reasoned biblical exegesis, they felt that reason could not get us all the way to God.  Reason was step one.  But step two was another matter.  God, for the Gnostics, was beyond our comprehension, ineffable, unknowable by conventional means.  The Gnostic felt that God had to be experienced.  Ultimately it was the experience of God (which was had through intense ritual events) that mattered.  This was the pinnacle of knowledge.  This was step two, and it is what they thought other Jews and Christians missed.  The Gnostics felt that other Jews and Christians had mistaken lower gods for the real God who was beyond all the images and forms we can make of him-her.

3. The consequence of their form of religiosity was enormous, as I am writing about now in

The Ancient New Age

, where I argue that Gnostic spirituality which emerged in antiquity has won the day and now forms the basis of modern American religion. The book will be published with Columbia University Press.

I go now to keep writing my chapter on Gnostic ritual: "Helltreks and Skywalks"...

A wild thought about scripture

One of the things that has deeply struck me as I have been rereading the ancient sources like John and Paul as I am writing chapters for my book

The Gnostic New Age

, is that our assumptions make all the difference to our understanding of what a text says. 

Now this is not a new revelation for me.  I have known this since I was an undergraduate.  But knowing it intellectually is very different from really experiencing it.  Scholars know this.  But, by and large, we don't do anything about it.  We continue to read texts as we have been trained to read them (as orthodox Christians have read them for centuries), and there is great turmoil if someone suggests otherwise. 

We assume that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent.  We gloss and harmonize what doesn't fit.  We do it unconsciously so that the text fits our preconceived mental frames.

With the work I have been doing (some of it in cognitive studies), I have come to see that the assumption that the orthodox Christian reading of scriptural texts is the author's intent is simply wrong.  The authors of the New Testament texts were not orthodox.  They were not even proto-orthodox.  They had their own ideas, many of which were innovative, revolutionary, and wild.

What makes the text orthodox is its interpretation, one that is imposed upon it by later readers who had a stake in how the Christian tradition was unfolding.  We simply have inherited this interpretation and consider it authorial.

There was a war over these texts and their meaning, a war that continues today.  It was an early war too.  This is not about Gnosticism at the end of the second century that somehow got the interpretation of the texts all wrong.  This is about the first century.  It is about Palestine and Samaria.  It is at the root of the Christian faith. 

Paul of the letters is far removed from the author of the Pastorals who tries desperately to tame Paul's wildness, or Luther's Paul who is further excised of any charisma.  John of the Gospel is far removed from the domestication that the Elder in the Johannine letters imposed on John and later orthodox church leaders picked up and developed. 

Once I was able to dislocate myself from my orthodox training, I have come to see that both Paul and John were impacted by Gnostic spirituality.  It forms the center of their concept of the Christian faith.  Both were reacting to Judaism, which they saw as a religion that did not really know the true God or what he actually wanted.  Both preached liberation from the old forms of Servant spirituality that was the cradle of all the Near Eastern religions.  Both believed that the experience of God, the revelation of God, was what mattered, and it was to be experienced by everyone through initiation.  Both were transgressors who understood the old Jewish scriptures in ways that subverted its accepted meanings.  And on and on.

I guess what I am saying is that I think there is more work that needs to be done on Christian origins, work that demands we set aside our assumptions about orthodoxy, and come to see the wild innovative nature of the early Christian communities.

Jung Center Lecture on The Ancient New Age

So much is going on this week.  If you are interested, I am going to be presenting some of the work I have been busy with this year as I have been writing my book

The Ancient New Age

.  The venue will be Thursday night (yes, Maudy Thursday) at the Jung Center, Houston, Texas.  Here is a


to more information including time and registration.

Sabbatical Post 5: The Erasure of Gnostic(ism)

As you might imagine, I have been thinking lately about the meaning of Gnostic(ism).  I remain unconvinced by arguments of difference and polemics which are serving scholars in the erasure the Gnostic(ism) from western history, as if Gnostic(ism) has not made an enormous contribution to our culture and society (and I am arguing, still does).  Scholarship today, however unintentional, is accomplishing what the church fathers started.  The complete eradication of Gnostic(ism). 

Gnostics were not just different Christians in a laundry list of assorted Christianities.  And just because Christianity was diverse in the beginning does not mean that there were not normative elements within Christianity from the beginning.  There were boundaries in which the difference operated.  When a group transgressed these boundaries, the limits were exposed and the creeds were formulated.  Then polemics flashed back and forth, igniting a battle and further entrenching the boundaries and reconfigurating categories.  The Gnostics found themselves in hostile territory outside the wall, no longer welcome in the synagogues and churches where they had once worshiped.

It is a total misrepresentation of history to say that Gnosticism or Gnostic Religion did not exist.  It most certainly did, and I might add, it did so early on.  By the early third century, Manichaeism was born and quickly spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, becoming the first world religion.  Who gets taught that in World Religions courses?  The Mandaeans (=The Knowers) also were around in the third century, and have their roots in the first century.   Mandaeism still exists as a Gnostic religion today.  Both of these Gnostic religions, while combining elements from other religions were distinctly their own independent religions.  They were neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Buddhist.  They were Gnostic.

As for the first and second centuries, well this is my goal.  To try to make sense of how Gnostic spirituality emerged as a new religiosity and interacted with religions and philosophies that were contemporaneous to it, and also struggling to emerge themselves.  Somehow there emerged three discrete religions by the third century: Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism.  It is telling this story that will capture my attention in the first half of my book

The Gnostic New Age


Image: Rock crystal seal engraved with three profile busts of Mani and two priests; inscription reads: “Mani, the Apostle of Jesus Christ”. Bibliothèque nationale de France, INT 1384BIS. Via



Encyclopaedia Iranica

Sabbatical Post 4: Starting to think about transgression

I am starting to read more deeply into explanations and descriptions of transgression in various fields.  It is a topic with a good amount of literature.  While waiting for some sociological and anthropological studies to arrive from Amazon, I delved into Foucault's "A Preface to Transgression" written in 1963.

Foucault uses transgression as a new type of sacralness, representing the modern zone of human experience where the sacred has collapsed into the profane.   With the death of God, Foucault sees the goal of human experience to be constant transgression of our limits.  Every time we cross the limits, we see the limits, and we move the limit until we find ourselves face to face with the limit of our own being, in the experience of emptiness.  For Foucault, sexuality represents the totality of human experience and it is in its transgression that God is replaced. 

Is it just me, or is this a redeployment of traditional Christian mystical eroticism in a post-modern philosophical guise?  Maybe I am misunderstanding what Foucault is saying, but I seem to hear the echoes of the Christian mystics for whom the crossing of the ultimate boundary of being was sex with God or his/her representative. 

Some quotes I found intriguing for my work on the Gnostics and their transgressive esotericism.

"The limit and transgression depend on each other for whatever density of being they possess: a limit could not exist if it were absolutely uncrossable and, reciprocally, transgression would be pointless if it merely crossed a limit composed of illusions and shadows.  But can the limit have a life of its own outside the act that gloriously passes through it and negates it?  What becomes of it after this act and what might it have been before?" (Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice; edited by Donald F. Bouchard, 1977, 34).
"Transgression forces the limit to face the fact of its imminent disappearance, to find itself in what it excludes (perhaps, to be more exact, to recognize itself for the first time), to experience its positive truth in its downward fall?  And yet, toward what is transgression unleashed in its movement of pure violence, if not that which imprisons it, toward the limit and those elements it contains?  What bears the brunt of its aggression and to what void does it owe the unrestrained fullness of its being, if not that which it crosses in its violent act and which, as its destiny, it crosses out in the line it effaces?" (34-35).

Sabbatical Post 3: Why Mushrooms?

So your comments continue to inspire me.  The art of Adam and Eve and the mushrooms is suggestive on so many levels.  As I study these pictures, I am drawn into the moment.  Are we seeing Adam and Eve just before they eat the forbidden fruit, during, or after?  Is the forbidden fruit the mushroom, a hallucinogen that opens their eyes to a new reality?  Or does it represent the decay of the tree after they have eaten?  Or poison that killed them?  Or does the mushroom represent the diversification of knowledge, its continual dispersal through spores nourished by the forbidden tree?  Is the representation suggesting that what Eve started cannot be stopped?  Does the image represent the salve or healing properties of the mushroom, the mercy granted by God who did not actually kill them for their trespass but set in motion the act of redemption instead? 

The mushroom as a metaphor is very apt for me and my understanding of Gnostic spirituality, because of its multivalency.  Irenaeus uses the image in reference to Gnostics as harmful fungi that grow popping up here and there and everywhere with no sustained root.  But what of other valencies?  Not all mushrooms are poisonous.  Some are medicinal.  Some are hallucinogenic.  Some are just good to eat (as long as you aren't allergic to them as I am!).  The image of their growth through spore is wonderful.  The lack of centrality and organization in their growth patterns.  Their growth in rich soil or compost.  Their need for constant damp and low exposure to sun. 

Why is this multivalency important?  My understanding of Gnostic spirituality is characterized by the transgressive.  My definition of the Gnostic sees the Gnostic as transgressive in terms of his or her metaphysics and practices.  Now you may call be to task on this, wondering who do they transgress?  Early Christianity was diverse, as was early Judaism.  So we can not talk about a dominant tradition or interpretative strategy.  Doesn't transgression imply perversion?  Aren't you being polemical like Irenaeus?

First, I would say we need to pay attention to the sociologists and the anthropologists who have studied transgression for decades.  To transgress is not the same as being different or diverse.  There is still the normative even within diversity.  Or better, diversity can represent the norm and the status quo.  It doesn't have to be transgressive.  Every culture has its norms, and religious expressions are no different.  Religions in fact are conservative and tend to renew themselves by maintaining whatever is normative for them at all costs.  According to sociological studies, the transgressor is only known as a transgressor because he or she is labeled such by others in the community.  In other words, we only know what is transgressive through the response of the community to the one who transgresses.  This response helps us to identify the norm and the parameters of the acceptable, as well as the unacceptable.  What can be acceptable in one period, may become unacceptable in another time period, even periods as short as decades.

In modern terms, let me suggest an example.  Next time you are in an elevator turn around and face everyone else and stare at someone.  Watch the reaction of others in the elevator.  You will quickly know that you have transgressed the public norm for properly riding in elevators. 

The same is true of the ancient world.  It did not take long for Christians to begin to get kicked out of synagogues, and if Paul is correct, even captured and dragged before the Jewish religious authorities.  Why?  Because they were Jews who had transgressed what were considered commonly accepted Jewish norms of the time.  We can argue about what those norms were, but they were transgressed and the Jewish community responded by expelling the unacceptable and consolidating what it perceived as normative.  We might even say that the Christian transgression assisted the Jewish community in marking its boundaries even clearer.

How the Gnostics fit into this, well, that is one of the main goals of my book.

Image from

The Canterbury Psalter

Sabbatical Post 2: Creating an Image

This morning I felt creative and so I played around with some images to represent the ideas I have forming in my mind about my new book.  So here is what I came up with.

I love the central image.  What is going on here?  Adam and Eve are parading before the tree of knowledge whose limb appears to be cut off and mushrooms have taken root from the central stem.  Eve is not eating an apple here, but a mushroom?

Mural painting from the apse of Sant Sadurní in Osormort

Second quarter of the 12th century

Museu Episcopal de Vic

Sabbatical Blog 1: Mushrooms

So my sabbatical project is to write as much of my book

The Ancient New Age: The Birth of Christianity and the Triumph of Gnostic Spirituality

as possible.  At the moment, I have been working on honing my abstract and table of contents.  So I want to share the abstract with you in this first post on the sabbatical.

Since I am going to be making my old subject contemporary with the analogy to the New Age, I have been thinking deeply about Gnostic(ism) and about its re-insurgence in the modern period.  I keep going back to Irenaeus' description of the Gnostics as mushrooms popping up from the terrain.  I rather like this metaphor and am thinking about structuring the book around it.  Besides there is great mushroom art from the medieval Christians.  Take a look at this Eden with the mushroom as the tree of knowledge (Plaincourault Fresco).

Abstract: Early Christianity was very radical in its approach to perennial questions about God and humanity because, DeConick explains, the Christian tradition was seeded with a Gnostic spirituality from the start. DeConick argues that Gnostic spirituality itself was a brand new concept in the ancient world, a new way of being religious that emerged in 1st c. Alexandria, and quickly was dispersed across the Mediterranean.  It reflected a subversive metaphysical outlook and included an understanding of humanity as divine.  Unlike early catholic Christianity which developed traditional Jewish teachings about the mortality of the human being created in God's image and subject to sin, the Gnostics framed their teaching along Platonic lines, understanding the essential human being to be an uncreated piece of God living in exile and suffering on account of this separation.  These 2 metaphysical outlooks were diametrically opposed to each other, competing for dominance from the start of Christian history to today.  While the catholic churches were able to sustain mass conversion and the western Gnostic churches ultimately perished, Gnostic spirituality did not die.  It survived as an underground religious current.  It remains today at the root of New Age and Self-help movements, and at odds with traditional forms of Christianity just as it was in the ancient world. The Ancient New Age focuses on the way in which Gnostic spirituality has triumphed.  Not only did it foster countercultural metaphysical or “New Age” movements in past, but it continues to do so in the present, where its message of the divine human thrives.