21 December 2019


April D. DeConick. The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutioniseed Religion from Antiquity to Today. Columbia University Press, 2016.

For those expecting to read what the author promises in the title, there will be great disappointment, since the theme of the history of countercultural spirituality is barely mentioned until the last chapter when the author states that "this brief chapter is not the place to map the complex movement of Gnostic spirituality from antiquity to the present"!
Similarly those with a smattering of knowledge of the Gnostic gospels might have expected more than just one mention, in the opening chapter, to the gospel of Thomas.

What this book provides however is a compendium, one might almost say, a dictionary, of Gnostic movements. I am not in a position to tell whether the author has provided a complete compendium (I suspect not) but as such it no doubt has its uses. In fact the book recites the bewildering collection of sects, which sprang into being alongside Christianity in the first two centuries AD (or as she prefers to term it CE).

Unfortunately at no point does the author attempt a definition of what the term "Gnostic" encapsulates for the purpose of her book, and although it is probably beyond me to attempt such a definition, I would say that some of the common threads which emerge are belief in the idea that the body is the covering for a divine spark, and in the efficacy of secret rites, words and rituals which had the power to translate the initiated through star-gates to union with God. Often the sect was founded by a self-proclaimed religious visionary, who would take large segments of biblical texts and re-interpret them.

The variety of ritualistic practices was innumerable and no doubt worried that they would be tainted by association, Christian authors took up the quill to flail there enemies and competitors. Once Christianity got the upper hand, it engaged in perhaps the most successful suppression of a belief system in history. It would appear that book burning is highly efficacious, since our knowledge of Gnosticism derived, until the twentieth century, almost entirely from the Christian authors Irenaeus and Tertullian, whose tracts denouncing the movement unwittingly preserved knowledge of their beliefs and practices.

In some places the author's description of such Gnostic rituals and beliefs are both powerful and evocative of those lost religions. It was particularly interesting to note that some Gnostic sects engaged in silent practices, suggesting a kinship with the modern interest in meditation. The book is undoubtedly educative but inevitably a style of writing, which engages at great length in describing their ritualistic practices, at some point runs the risk of becoming tedious for the general reader.

His or her interest would be better kept if the author had given more on the historical context in which these movements emerged. Why for example is there no mention of the Council of Nicaea? Such context as is sometimes given is too sparing on detail, and there is little or no attempt to place the movement within the wider setting of Roman history, nor indeed to do what the title of her book promises. Also each chapter is introduced by the portrayal of a plot from a film, which the author felt demonstrated some aspect of Gnostic spirituality. This I found highly unconvincing, and it sat uneasily alongside the actual often heavyweight academic contents of the chapter.

In her final chapter the author makes wide claims for the influence of Gnosticism: "it is embedded in the literature our ancestors wrote". This sweeping statement is made without any evidence proffered in support, and I would have thought, as a non-expert, that the exact opposite of what she says is the case, since Gnosticism was successfully trampled under foot by the Roman Catholic church after the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and was largely forgotten for about 1500 years. It is only in more recent times, thanks to archaeological discoveries, that the true wonder of Gnosticism has been made more widely available to the modern world.

Inevitably, bearing in mind the breath-taking scope and ambition promised by the title of this book, the author has failed in what she set out to do, but, at a humbler level, for the curious reader there is plenty of interesting material to ponder. -- Robin Carlile.

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