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The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today Hardcover – September 27, 2016
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A paradigm shift in our understanding of religion, breaking new ground in scholarship on Gnosticism. (Birger A. Pearson, author of Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature)
Anyone interested in New Age spirituality in all its diversity and fullness will savor the pages of DeConick's latest masterpiece. Her portraits of ancient 'Gnostic' movements are provocative and compelling; finding connections between these ancient worldviews and our own through popular culture and movies is a stroke of absolute genius. (Nicola Denzey Lewis, author of Introduction to Gnosticism: Hidden Voices, Ancient Worlds)
DeConick has produced a fascinating, provocative, and readable interpretation of the Gnostic and Gnosticism. She emphasizes the transgressive nature of Gnostic spirituality, which confronted typical ancient spiritualities that made human beings subservient to the gods. Her book is a brave new salvo in the ongoing Gnostic Wars. (Brent Landau, author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men's Journey to Bethlehem)
Scholarship on the histories of Gnosticism, esotericism, and mysticism has long glowed at the radioactive core of the comparative study of religion. April D. DeConick's work shines in this lineage. She demonstrates in rich detail how a new spiritual orientation that looks to a transcendent hidden God and engages in a radical criticism of ecclesial religion was first articulated in the ancient period and then resonated through the centuries to the present day, where it can best be seen in contemporary popular culture, film, and New Age thought, revelation, and experience. Enter the Gnostic New Age. (Jeffrey J. Kripal, author of The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion)
DeConick offers a valuable corrective to the recent reluctance of many scholars to use the term Gnosticism. For her, Gnosticism is not so much an identifiable religion as it is a form of late-antique spirituality, an attempt to consciously realize that the essential human self is nothing less than the supreme divinity's very own life essence lying dormant and unrecognized within the core human self, waiting to be awakened and reunite with its divine source. DeConick illustrates this spirituality as analogous to various modern New Age movements reflected in contemporary literature and cinema. (John D. Turner, coauthor of Plato's Parmenides and Its Heritage, vol. 1: History and Interpretation from the Old Academy to Later Platonism and Gnosticism)
DeConick has forcefully and elegantly thrown herself into the current scholarly debate on the Gnostics. In a book that is both rich in historical detail and passionate for deeper understanding, she argues that Gnostic spirituality not only provided a transformative and liberating experience for ancient devotees but it can also, even more, challenge and subvert the views of religious questers of the present, illuminating the modern search for spiritual truth. (Bart Ehrman, author of Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior)
A readable and engaging overview of ancient Gnostic beliefs and practices (in all their wild diversity) and a clear, meaningful guide for making sense of the often-chaotic source materials. . . . [The Gnostic New Age] is sure to become a reference point for scholarly debate. (Choice)
DeConick’s work is carefully researched, convincingly argued, and refreshingly accessible. (Reading Religion)
About the Author
April D. DeConick is Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University. She is the author of Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (2013) and The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (2009). She starred in the CNN special series Finding Jesus (2015).
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Alas, this is yet another book within the academic stable, but it does stake out the ground that we have been mistaken to define Gnosticism by what its enemies (Catholicism as the new emerging retooled Roman religion) had to say, or to even assume it was a form of “Christianity.”
Academics box themselves in by agreeing to only use what is discoverable as texts. Thus they can read again and again the Gnostics had some methodology of entering visionary states of worlds other than, or “above” this one (the ‘prisons’ of human cultural constructs for the most part), but because the methods were concealed from the non-initiate, all we get out of academia is more words which cannot decode the terminology of the initiate, nor lead us into understanding by experience of it.
This may please academics who play their little Scrabble game of laying down one more square, one more letter, but that letter is a lifeless symbol that cannot ever convey what the Sacred Meal tasted like. Academics are like people looking through the plate glass windows at diners within a restaurant, discussing what the the diners within must be tasting, even though such is NON-VERBAL, and all the books and tomes in all the libraries of men in their abstractions and mentalizations can never decode!! Can you tell someone who has never had sugar what “sweet” means.
So if you want to know by experience what the F** these gnostics were after, what they wanted to know in themselves, you will have to make a leap of faith by inference.
I find it ironic that Deconick sees the connection between Gnostics who stepped outside of tradition, and the New Age spiritual movement, saying on p. 17 "Religious seekers in both time periods use whatever resources are at hand to construct their ideas and practices, including scriptures, philosophy, magic, astrology, science, and references to alien or multiworlds." But she entirely leaves out the KEY importance of the use of psychedelic drugs which are what engendered the insights and experiences that drove those new "epoptae" to try and find explanations or analogies in Deconick's edited list. Could she really be that blind? On p. 312 she compares Mani to Joseph Smith. Does she understand that Smith like his father was an herbalist taught by native Indians, and that his church got off the ground because it attracted people eager to have direct experience of God just like the prophets did (and no one today does); and Smith provided psychoactive drink? (this led to some messy scenes which upset the "straight" public, who encouraged Smith and his group to move on!).
The ancient world was awash in the use of psychedelics and “drugs” such a opium, and Mystery Schools employed them. But more than that, Athenian culture was developed in the drinking parties called Symposiums, where men laying about on couches were served what they called “mixed wine,” watered down 10 to 1 or more (see works of Carl Ruck classics scholar). They even said drinking the wine neat could kill you. Now who today thinks reasonably that wine diluted with this much water can get a buzz on? Ridiculous. The Greeks added herbs, psychoactive plants known well of from the Dionysian old countryside wisdom, mixes that could drive the Maenad followers of Dionysus into ecstasy, or if too much, oops!, frenzies.
In the Symposium the game was to get your high on to the point of sparkling wit, the unbinding of categorical thinking, what M. Hoffman at egodeath.com calls “loose cog,” a state of poetic reverie where new insights and connections are intuited, and then put into rational language. Grecian culture was constructed on both entheogenic initiation at Eleusis, and in the loose-cog Symposium, where the wisdom of the “gods” was channeled, to use a term academics find anathema to their dependence on texts that can only reify the non-verbal gnosis.
After Alexander united the ancient world in a earlier incarnation of the Internet (network allowing all cultures to interchange data), there was an exploration and blending of cultural memes in think tanks such as Alexandria. And from such confluences sprung Mystery Schools 2.0, Hermeticism, a restatement of the common threads, but with the intention make it fresh, and real to experience.
Speaking of relying on texts, the reader is encouraged to visit John Bartram’s Origins of Christianity site. For here we find that the actual amount of texts are few, many are later forgeries by Christian Roman monks inventing their own backstory.
There is no evidence of Jesus, Christ, Christianity or Christians until after the end of the Western Roman Empire. The whole, claimed history for Christianity is late, first appearing - according to the accepted dates - in the 6th century, though the actual date may be as late as the 8th century (in response to the Arab Conquests).
The original New Testament (codices Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) is not Christian - it makes no mention of Jesus or Christ, and one of its books - The Shepherd of Hermas - was later removed.
"But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Chrest." (Mark 8:29, Codex Sinaticus)
But what we do find is reference to “the good man” or “chrest” a term going back centuries before.
In the syncretism that Alexander brought on, Hellenistic streams from Greek Mystery Schools (Eleusinian rebirth rites of Demeter) mixed with Egyptian rebirth rites of Osiris, in the time of Cleopatra, she of Grecian Ptolemaic lineage who embraced also the Egyptian Mysteries. Plus other cultural versions of the rebirthing god.
This was presented as an updated Hero’s Journey, the story of the Good Shepherd who is a chrestos. Upper crust Romans no longer bought into the old stories of their gods, and when Cleopatra joined forces with Julius Caesar, they spread this new synthesis among the Roman elite to tie them together as a cult and secret society; but also as their own internal urge to find something real; and, a naturally for the elite, for their own person apotheosis rising above the masses to become gods. Hence thereafter, you find Rome leaving the Republic, Caesar being deified, and his adopted son Augustus moving the Republic into the new era of Empire. Their title of Pontifex Maximus being later adopted by the Pope. The deification of Julius Caesar and its rites became the Catholic Stations of the Cross (which do not appear in the Bible!)
According to Bartram, there is NO textual evidence of a “Jesus” for centuries, but rather references to one Chrestos, or his symbol IS. Roman Christian “scholars” chose to (preferentially to their cause) interpret this as “Christ,” as a version of the Chi Rho, but Chi Rho was used much earlier also, and is part of this earlier hermetic stream. Just in the same way they pretend Gnostics are deviant Christians.
We all know that Chrest is often meant as 'Good', or something useful; but it became associated in sacred texts with the Chi-Rho, itself derivative of the Ankh and thus Ancient Egyptian, magical resurrection; Chrest appears in the New Testament as a title for IS, known later as Jesus, and then is altered to read Christ, understood as messiah
This is one more nail in the coffin of the idea that Gnostics are a form of Christianity, because said Christianity cannot be shown to have even existed, if you confine yourself to the scraps of text that survive.
Another recent book from Academia is Brown & Brown’s The Psychedelic GospelsThe Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity which at least makes a substantive case for the use of the psychedelic Communion Cup showing many of the illustrations of mushrooms in early “Christianity.”
If the reader want to go beyond a “leap of faith” as I and many other “magic Christians” have, then go beyond listening to the dead-letter interpretations of priests who insert themselves a gatekeepers between you and direct experience. Seek out the mixed wine that reveals that “heaven” is not some realm beyond this life, but is a greater reality we are embedded in, even now.
Not only are we enveloped in the Plenum Field of the All [ G*D the Good ] but we are fruits on that Tree, a product of the confluence of the Union of the Upper and Lower worlds, and thus as fruits we contain the Seeds of the UR-light. We are a fractally produced microcosm of the Process, and said Seed of Light within can be watered with devotion, feed with Sacred Meals (you fill in the blanks), and this “still small Voice” will be amplified until we hear the Self within, which is in resonance with the Great Self “without” speaking to us. We surrender to the Flow because we are an eddy within the Flow, and why be alienated from the Source of our life? The feeling of Flow is pleasure, and the feeling of high Flow is bliss.
Gnosticism is a complex subject, and the understanding of Gnostic tradition has undergone radical shifts over the last century – changes powerfully impelled by the discovery in 1945 of an ancient library of Gnostic scriptures near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. After two decades of work on the translations, these manuscripts were published in 1977 as the “The Nag Hammadi Library.” The next year, in 1978, a young scholar named Elaine Pagels published a best-selling commentary on the texts, dubbing them “The Gnostic Gospels.” So began a new age in Gnostic studies.
Today, about forty years after those initial landmark publications, comprehension of the Gnostic gospels, and Gnostic tradition more generally, remains a work in progress. The first generations of scholars largely accomplished the primary task of translating the manuscripts from ancient Coptic and Greek. The principal challenge now facing the current generation of students is unraveling the meaning, context, and modern relevance of Gnosticism. New generations of readers are bringing new visions to Gnostic studies; each is awakening perspectives uniquely significant to the present moment. The outmoded perception of Gnosis as a pernicious ancient heresy has been, thankfully, laid to final rest.
Agreement is emerging that Gnosticism should no longer be studied exclusively in the context of ancient Christian history or theology. Gnosis is a perennial tradition, and its rediscovery in this age presents a vibrant hermeneutic challenge to antique theologies. The Gnostic worldview resonates with modern consciousness and psychology; it unveils vital perspectives on human nature. Dr. April DeConick – Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University – has been at the forefront of this resurgent appreciation and interpretation of Gnosticism.
Dr. DeConick has christened her new book with a challenging title: “The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today.” The clichéd phrase “New Age” is a "turn-off" for some people (including me), and its use in the title may turn away occasional book browsers. But don’t let it dissuade you. Just tune in. April DeConick has delivered a “must read” study for anyone interested in Gnosticism. Of course, the book has a few interpretive flaws; specialists in Gnostic studies will each find different points where they firmly disagree with DeConick, as do I. Ancient Gnosticism is a puzzle with many missing parts. The texts and facts can be – and have been – assembled in radically different ways. Here Dr. DeConick tells the story of Gnosticism her way, in a strong voice backed by years of academic study, and without bothering to repeatedly tip her hat to opposing views. This is not the first or only book to read on Gnosticism. It makes no attempt to summarize and balance divergent perspectives, or dissect ongoing interpretive controversies. Nonetheless, it joins my short list of essential introductory works on Gnostic tradition.
DeConick’s use of the term “new age” is nuanced by juxtaposing ancient and modern moments. Two thousand years ago, Gnosticism signaled a radical “new age” in religious thought and human self-understanding. However, in the last two decades some scholars argued that Gnosticism was really not an independent religion, but simply a type of early Christianity, one of many variants. DeConick forcefully rejects that assertion. Gnosticism was, in her interpretation, a tradition in its own right, based in a fundamental and transformative paradigm shift from preexisting Greek and Jewish religions. Gnosticism was a new religion at the dawn of a “new age.” To understand Gnosticism, DeConick explains that we must recognize it for what it really was:
“…An emergent religious orientation, and innovative form of spirituality, a new way of being religious that persisted outside conventional religious structures while engaging them in disruptive ways. Gnosticism arose in the first century CE as an innovative spirituality of human empowerment and individualism, at a time when nothing like it existed.” (p. 346)
"The Gnostic New Age" takes a deep dive into its subject, but does it with an entertaining and creative flare. (And here the “old” new age, and the “new” new age do converge.) April DeConick begins each of her ten thematic chapters by revisiting the story line of a popular movie from the last twenty years. She kicks off the show with a dive into the "The Matrix", inviting readers to take the Gnostic red pill. Thereafter, chapter-by-chapter, she pulls us into private screenings of "The Truman Show", "Avatar", "Superman", "Star Trek V", "Dark City", and other less-known films. Having set the stage in each chapter with storylines emerging from modern cinematic imagination, she then recounts in full scholarly detail the corresponding ancient Gnostic texts and tales, illustrating the parallel thematic intentions.
It is a fun approach, and it mostly works. Suddenly strange old Gnostic myths transform into images that are inventive, edgy, and very thought provoking – they are myths with potent meaning. DeConick makes no effort to “explain” the striking convergence of ancient Gnostic imagination and the cinematic visions of our newer age. That she leaves to your imagination. After reading the book, you may be tempted (as I now am) to spend several nights on Netflix, screening all of these films again. Could a few nights at the movies awaken insights into the revolutionary vision of Gnosticism? Drop down the rabbit hole, and find out.
April DeConick is pushing at the edges with this book; she is transposing Gnosticism from ancient to modern contexts – and on the journey, breaching some normative academic boundaries. The scholarship is sound, but the way in which she interprets the ancient textual evidence is sometimes idiosyncratic. If you do read the book (and not just this review), try first reading the initial chapter and then the brief concluding chapter, “Gnosticism Out on a Limb.” Together, these give a quick orientation to the path ahead. And if you are entirely new to Gnostic studies, it might be useful to read a few other things before diving in with DeConick. For a quick start, read Dr. Marvin Meyer’s wonderful (and short) introduction to "The Gnostic Bible” (reproduced online, by permission, in the Nag Hammadi Library section of The Gnosis Archive). You might also take another look at Elaine Pagels’ classic work, “The Gnostic Gospels” – this will give a sense of where the “new” new age in Gnostic studies began forty years ago. Then take a trip with Dr. April DeConick.