Gnosticism is a countercultural spirituality that forever changed the practice of Christianity. This is the premise of a new book by April DeConick, the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice and chair of the Department of Religion.
“The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion From Antiquity to Today,” published by Columbia University Press, will hit bookstores in September. The 392-page book has already been selected to receive a subvention award from the Figure Foundation, which very selectively supports publications, mainly in philosophy and religion.
Before gnosticism emerged in the second century, the belief was that passage to the afterlife required obedience to God and king, DeConick said. Gnosticism proposed that human beings were manifestations of the divine, unsettling the hierarchical foundations of the ancient world, she said.
“This book is a culmination of my studies of early gnostic texts, something that I have been undertaking for the last 25 years,” said DeConick, who traveled to the various libraries and collections that house the manuscripts and studied them in their original languages, mainly Coptic, an old Egyptian language.
“While my previous studies have taken on individual gnostic texts and aspects of gnosticism, this book brings it all together, explaining gnosticism as a countercultural spirituality that revolutionized religion in antiquity and continues to do so today,” she said. “This is a big-picture book, a grand vision of gnosticism as a spirituality focused on experiencing a transcendent God beyond the gods of all the religions and the personal divinity of human beings who are innately connected to this God. This spirituality fused with various religious traditions, and many different social groups and even new religious movements emerged from this fusion.
“The spirituality is highly critical of conventional religions and their gods, including the biblical creator God. This critical stance and the gnostics’ reliance on revelatory and mystical experiences put gnostics of all kinds at odds with conventional Christian leaders, causing their views to be characterized by traditional religions as deviant and dangerous,” she said.
DeConick begins her exploration in ancient Egypt and follows with the rise of gnosticism from early Christianity to contemporary New Age spiritual philosophies. As these theories find expression in science fiction and fantasy films, she sees evidence of gnosticism’s next incarnation.
“I have been interested also in the survival and glorification of gnostic spirituality in contemporary American culture, so I have included in each chapter of my book a modern film that highlights various aspects of gnosticism that have come to dominate our religious (and fantasy) views and have fueled the growth of the spiritual but not religious movement and the rise of the ‘nones,’” said DeConick, who included analyses of “The Matrix,” “The Truman Show,” “Pleasantville,” “Dark City” and “Dogma,” among others.
“I think that the gnostic has been so glorified in our contemporary culture because of the recycling of ancient gnostic texts which were rediscovered in the 1940s and were highly publicized in the 1970s,” DeConick said. “So my book is interested in the survival of gnosticism outside of traditional religious structures, within gnostic texts that are directly engaged by new generations of readers. Every time this happens (when gnostic texts are read by new people), there is an explosion of new religious ideas and critique of traditional religious structures. The New Age movement in America grew from this kind of engagement of modern people with ancient religious ‘lost’ texts.”
DeConick is also 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).