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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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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.
That critique business gets difficult when it's your own beliefs and prejudices. The reviewer J.W. brings in "evidence" based on the dubious claims of one archeologist (yes, I've read him.) But I've also read hundreds of books, both academic and popular, on the Gnostics, the history of western esotericism, the occult, kabbalah, Hermeticism, etc. The usual countercultural stuff. Plus I've also read detailed histories of early Christianity, the Ecumenical Councils, the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church and those of the Eastern Orthodox church, the writings of mystical Christians, etc. Not all of that is propaganda. As for the hypothetical connection between initiations of the ancient mystery religions and psychedelics, maybe. I say that as someone who is not merely some academic brain. I have had intense mystical and gnostic experiences for more than 50 years and therefore speak directly from them. I have also done several psychedelics and I do think these operate to shut down that Huxleyan reducing valve so as to allow glimpses of alternate realities. I agree with DeConick that the Gnostic viewpoint is we have potentials within. But whatever the source or trigger, it takes effort to live out the experiences and to develop the vocabulary make them comprehensible to others. Academic writing is the disciplined approach for making sense of the raw data of spiritual experience. They can stand back and observe what we caught up in what DeConick calls "rapture" cannot see objectively. Sure, I certainly agree with J.W. that there is a real need for how-to's, for writing about how to access alternative spaces. However, that's up to us who have been there. Whatever we can use to understand and to interpret the territory is valuable. Which is why I totally recommend reading DeConick.
A final point. One that demonstrates how reading can reshape one's own ideas. In this book, DeConick is implicitly debating with other academics who write about Gnosticism. I have in mind Karen King's book, What Is Gnosticism? King argues, persuasively I'd say, that the term "Gnostic" should be dropped because it was not used by those so described and because it refers to such widely diverse groups that it becomes meaningless. The main source for it in academia was its traditional use as a blanket pejorative. But DeConick wants us to rethink this issue. It's rather like how we use the term "fundamentalism." Which describes a certain frame of mind found across religions, but not limited to any one of them. Nor, for that matter, all there is to any of them. Similarly, she insists, "Gnostic" is an outlook that cannot be restricted to ancient Alexandrian Jews, or Hermeticists, or Christians, or Mesopotamian origins. In fact, it is a mind set that is on the increase currently and the term "Gnostic" is an appropriate way to describe this. I'm convinced. Guess this makes me a postmodern Gnostic Christian. One quite sympathetic to the increasing numbers of millennial SNRs, "spiritual but not religious."