Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of DeConick, The Gnostic New Age, MEGA, SBL 2016

I AM PRESENTING THE FOLLOWING REVIEW in the Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity Group at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio, Texas, on 19 November 2016 (S19-334). The session is beginning as this post goes up.
April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University, has published a stimulating and multifaceted book in The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today. It is as ambitious as the title sounds and it takes us on an intriguing journey from the temples of ancient Egypt to the modern New Age bookstore. You may be entertained to hear that the week before last, when I saved a draft of this review and e-mailed it to myself, Outlook’s autocorrect changed “DeConick review draft” in the e-mail header to “Demonic review draft” without my noticing. So it seems that the establishment still has it in for the Gnostics.

April opens with a definition of Gnosticism that offers a constructive advance to the discussion and which to my mind moves beyond the critiques of the use of the term by Michael Williams and Karen King and gives us something positive to work with. Gnosticism involves direct experiential knowledge of a transcendent God achieved through ecstatic experience generated by ritual. It believes that human beings have an innate spiritual nature. It is transgressive and countercultural and it draws freely on varying medleys of earlier religious traditions.

April then proceeds with an ambitious survey of a vast range of ancient traditions that either she argues contributed to the development of Gnosticism or which are instances of individual Gnostic movements. Most interesting among the former is the proposal that the basic innovative template of Gnostic spirituality originated in Hellenistic-era Egypt when Greek, Roman, and perhaps Jewish pilgrims visited Egyptian temples and encountered the creation myth of Atum. Some of these pilgrims identified the Egyptian god with Plato’s Good and reversed the value of other traditional gods and religious practices as demonic inversions of the truth. I have not seen this suggestion before and, not being an Egyptologist, I am not sure that I am very entitled to an opinion on it. But it is a very stimulating reconstruction that seems to have some real explanatory value. April proceeds to survey the pagan Gnostic traditions in Hermeticism, and to discuss Sethian Gnostic traditions (to which she returns later) and the Samaritan movement associated with Simon Magus.

April finds both the writings of the Apostle Paul and the Gospel of John to be capable of being read as either (to adopt her not entirely satisfactory term) “Apostolic Catholic” traditions, as the Church consistently has since late antiquity, or as Gnostic works, as they were interpreted by Gnostics, especially in the Christian Gnostic heyday of the second century C.E. We have generally been taught to consider apparent use of Gnostic terminology in Paul to be an illusion arising from the appropriation of his language by later Gnostics, but April guides us in how to read it as Gnostic from the hand of Paul. She sees Paul as moving forward from his extraordinary Gnostic vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road to downgrading Jewish moral and ritual law to make his mystical religious perspective accessible to gentiles, but then finding a certain degree of backtracking necessary in order to prevent his movement from descending into amoral libertinism.

Likewise, April sees an early conflict between an Apostolic Catholic understanding of the Gospel of John, exemplified by the first epistle of John, and a Gnostic understanding of the Gospel as found in second-century commentaries on John. She then defends the Gnostic reading of John 8:44 as referring to “the father of the devil” rather than “(your) father the devil)” and argues that the Gnostic reading of the Gospel is as well based or better than the Apostolic Catholic reading. She even suggests that we take seriously the second- and third-century traditions that associate the late first-century Gnostic teacher Cerinthus in some way with the composition of the Gospel. She also proposes that Johannine Christianity arose when Simonian mythology was appropriated by members of the early Jesus movement, who applied the mythology to Jesus.

April pays close attention to the use of ritual in Gnosticism and draws connections between it and shamanic ritual, which is associated cross-culturally with ecstatic experience and revelation. She also engages with modern scientific studies of the neurology of ascetic ritual practices associated with ecstatic experience. She then gives us a detailed survey of five classical Gnostic movements. There are the Peratics, the Gnosticism of Justin’s Book of Baruch, the Naassene “serpent” Gnostics, and the Ophians. We know of the first three from the patristic writer Hippolytus and the fourth from accounts by Origen and by the pagan writer Celsus. The fifth is the Sethian Gnostics, the only group that has left us complete texts, thanks to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library. All of these movements involved progressive stages of spiritual and ritual advancement, mostly through astrological stages involving various “star gates.” She also gives us a detailed discussion of the Valentinian movement, to which she devotes a whole chapter of the book. Throughout she presents a persuasive synthesis of Gnostic traditions, giving a sensitive and penetrating description of the details of each system, while at the same time uncovering the overarching structure that made all of them Gnostic.

The penultimate chapter first takes on the question of how the burgeoning Christian Gnostic movements of the second century were defeated by what would in the course of time become Apostolic Catholicism. Gnosticism is transgressive by its very nature, teaching that direct experience of God is available by means of ecstatic rituals, offering exegesis of scriptures that inverted the literal reading of them and, in the demiurgic myth, inverting the view of the God of Israel by teaching that there is a higher True God above him and that human beings are by nature greater than he. To add insult to injury, Christian Gnostics often made use of the same rituals as those used by the Apostolic Catholics, while again inverting or at least reinterpreting their meanings. But much of the power of their message came from their secretiveness and emphasis on individual experience, and these aspects proved to be weak points that would be exploited by their opponents. The Apostolic Catholics were well organized and had embedded within their movement the Roman values of civic duty and morality. This gave them the greater social power, and norms are determined by those with the power to set them. The Apostolic Catholics succeeded in marginalizing the Gnostics and purging them from Christianity by the end of late antiquity.

But this was not the end of Gnosticism. In the rest of this chapter April traces some key Gnostic texts and movements in late antiquity and beyond. The Gospel of Judas is a Christian Gnostic text, but the movement represented by the Coptic Pistis Sophia and Books of Jeu is a Gnostic adaptation of worship of the sun god Re in which Jesus merely plays a supporting role. Mani created an eclectic Gnosticism that blended traditions from Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, and thus introduced the first world religion. And the Mandaeans, whose origin April dates quite early, originated as a group of Nazoraean Gnostic Christians who later rejected both Christianity and Judaism. Their Gnostic religion alone survives precariously to the present.

Finally, in the last chapter, April brings us to today and describes what I like to think of, in keeping with her cinematic theme, as The Revenge of Gnosticism. She describes a series of Gnostic re-awakenings between late antiquity and the present, culminating in the rise of the New Age Movement in the twentieth century and its continued thriving even now in the twenty-first. Each revival was triggered by the recovery of lost texts along with re-appropriations of Gnostic readings of traditional texts.

I consider April’s book an important contribution to both the study of ancient Gnosticism and to our understanding of contemporary religious thought. But before I discuss its importance, I should note a few criticisms and register at least one disagreement.

The semi-popular nature of the book sometimes lends itself to generalizations that could benefit from nuancing. I have some concern about the way certain ancient texts are read which implies that they are literal historical accounts rather than foundation legends or some irrecoverable mixture of real events and legends. I tend to read our sources on Simon Magus with a good deal of skepticism and a sense that the story has overtaken whatever historical events gave rise to it. Likewise, most of our sources for Pythagoras are very late and probably tell us more about Pythagoreanism in the Greco-Roman world and late antiquity than about the founder or his original movement.

Similarly, I have some concern that ritual elements have been read too readily into some narrative texts, such as the Apocryphon of John. That said, I fully accept that rituals inform some of the narrative texts, Zostrianos being a very convincing example. The ritual background of the vowel chants in some of the texts is also fully convincing. More generally, an etic reframing of local mystical and ecstatic movements as exemplifications of the same experience is defensible and may be necessary to give us a full understanding of those movements. At the same time we need to keep in mind that this perspective is a scholarly construct, and one that many of those very movements would have disputed.

Third, it is taken for granted in the book that Sethian Gnosticism originated in a Jewish environment. This seems to be widely accepted, although not without dissent, but I find it very difficult to believe. The Sethian brand of Gnosticism is particularly invested in the demiurgic myth, which teaches that the god of the Hebrew scriptures is a failed, aborted, spiritual being who created a damaged and failed material world, the one we live in. This myth has profound implications for Jewish purity regulations, ritual law, kosher laws, calendar, and the Temple cult. I cannot think of any form of ancient Judaism that would not have had to grapple with these issues extensively in conceiving of anything like Sethian Gnosticism, yet the Sethian Gnostic texts are, as far as I can see, entirely uninterested in such issues and oblivious to them. Granted, this is an argument from silence, but it is a rather powerful one. I find it by far simplest to conclude that Sethian Gnosticism originated among Christians for whom halakhic questions had already been neutralized by the detailed engagement with and dismissal of the issue by Paul and to a lesser degree John. This is a much bigger question than we can address adequately here, but it does need to be confronted at some point.

But none of these criticisms or disagreements affect the larger picture that April has painted for us or any of her central conclusions. This book is a magnum opus that both summarizes and synthesizes the work that April has done over the last twenty years. To appreciate it fully and correctly it is important to understand its aims and approach when evaluating it. It is a semi-popular book that is addressed both to scholars and to an intelligent and engaged nonspecialist audience. There are no footnotes, and arguments are often presented with only a general account of the supporting evidence and with no real indication of debate in the scholarly literature. For these technical matters the reader is directed early on to the many technical and peer-review publications that April has produced over the last two decades.

The effort to engage with a popular audience is well conceived and is likely to be quite successful. I was impressed, for example, by April’s use of ancient Gnostic artifacts to help the reader connect with the texts, personae, and arguments presented in the book. Notable examples are the use of an Ophian amulet seal, the Valentinian tombstone of Flavia Sophe, and the Judas amulet. These are illustrated with good black and white photographs, and many other photographs in the book help bring the reader visually into the world of the Gnostics.

But far more important are her illustrations of the themes and eras covered in the book through interaction with modern cinematography. Each chapter opens and closes with an account of a modern film that embodies a theme or conclusion central to that chapter. Many of my favorite movies are covered, and there are now a few more on my list of films that I missed but must see. A couple of examples will suffice.

Chapter two, “The Matrix of Ancient Spirituality,” opens with a description of the movie The Matrix, which is used to illustrate how the early Gnostics considered themselves to have woken up from the matrix of — for them dead-end — religious orientations of the ancient world: especially servant spirituality, which made humanity the debased servants of the gods; covenant spirituality, the Israelite adaptation of servant spirituality; and ecstatic spirituality, which deployed ritual power to gain access to the wholly Other gods. Like Neo, the Gnostics took the Red Pill of liberated Gnostic spirituality and they began to unplug themselves from the bondage of the Matrix of traditional ancient spirituality.

Similarly, chapter nine, “The Pi of Politics,” opens with a recap of the plot of Darren Aranofsky’s cult classic film Pi, in which another computer programmer, one Max Cohen, discovers the 216-digit number that explains the whole of reality. But this ultimate Gnostic disclosure proves too much for Max’s mortal nature to bear and he is forced to extreme measures to eliminate the knowledge of the revelation from his brain and thus precariously to preserve his own sanity. Max exemplifies the stereotype of the dangerous, deranged Gnostic as seen by ancient Apostolic Catholicism. And the Apostolic Catholics, like Max, believed it necessary to undertake extreme measures to extirpate Gnostic spirituality from Christianity in order to save the Church.

I see the contribution of The Gnostic New Age as twofold and aimed at two quite different audiences. For scholars, it is a synthesis of April’s work in the context of the scholarly discussion of Gnosticism over the last generation. It traces Gnostic origins from an arguable inception in the intersection between ancient Egyptian and Greco-Roman spiritualities; it surveys the classical Gnostic movements and places the thought of Paul and John in context in relation to them; it highlights the importance of ecstatic ritual for understanding Gnostic spirituality; it traces later Gnostic movements into late antiquity and beyond; and it offers an explanation of why Gnosticism was defeated in antiquity by the Apostolic Catholics. Specialists wishing to drill down to the detailed philological and historical details of the arguments will need to consult April’s specialist work, but this need is highlighted in the preface and the references are easy to find. In my view the chief original contribution of the book beyond this synthesis is April’s argument for a deep connection between the thought worlds of ancient Gnostic spirituality and modern popular spirituality especially as exemplified in the New Age movement. This connection is illustrated throughout the book in the filmography and explored in more detail in the final chapter.

But the book is also aimed at a popular audience, one that has an interest in the ancient primary texts and which in many ways is well informed about them, but this audience also aims to incorporate the teachings of the texts into their own personal spiritualities. We as scholars may or may not find this to be a prudent course, but no one is asking our opinion, and April very sensibly meets this audience on their own terms and leaves them better informed about the ancient traditions and better equipped to put them to whatever use they decide to put them to. For this audience, The Gnostic New Age can serve as a guidebook that provides a historical context and some general guidance on how to employ Gnostic spirituality in a responsible and constructive way.

To conclude, I want to congratulate April on the publication of a fascinating book that has much to offer to specialists in Gnosticism, specialists in cognate fields, and an increasingly engaged and sophisticated nonspecialist audience.