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.