Monday, February 16, 2009

Book Review: The Gnostics

Gnosticism has become increasingly popular over recent years, with the publication of the Nag Hammadi library, the even more recent Gospel of Judas, the blockbuster Matrix films, and, of course, the infamous Da Vinci Code book and film, not to mention countless others that slip under the radar of all but those who have “eyes to see”. However, all this popularity has led to a very skewed understanding of what Gnosticism is all about – some people think it was invented by Aleister Crowley, that it was all about Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene, or that it was a single obscure heretical group that didn't last very long. The Gnostics, by Andrew Phillip Smith, is an accessible book that dispels these erroneous views with a thorough introduction to the history, tradition, scriptures, and influence of Gnosticism in all its facets.

The book, numbering just under 250 pages, is broad in scope, dealing with nearly all of the Gnostic groups of note from its inception two millenia ago to its revival in modern days in both an occult and ecclesiastical form. Entire chapters are devoted to the Sethians and Valentinians, the Manichaens, the Cathars, and the Mandaens, with brief mention of other smaller groups (which we sadly lack information on) in between. Other chapters deal with Gnostic mythology, psychology, praxis, and, of course, that illusive concept of
Gnosis itself. Smith includes a rather sizeable chapter on the modern Gnostic revival which “brings it home”, as it were, in a way that people can relate to; works from Blake, Philip Pullman, Philip K. Dick, and other modern works are mentioned, allowing the reader to see how the transmission of Gnosis never truly died out. References, a good bibliography, and an index are also supplied, which will please anyone looking at this from an academic perspective.

It is evident that Smith is not merely a scholar in this field, but immensely interested in the traditions and texts which he studies. His enthusiasm is apparent in nearly every page of the book, and his sympathy for Gnosticism is a welcome change for Gnostics like myself, who all too often have to contend with the cruel eye of heresiological bias. However, in stating this, Smith never abandons historical accuracy or conventional scholarly practice in presenting his views. His arguments are generally solid and widely accepted throughout the academic world. One such argument is “Gnosticism is dualist”, which frequently raises the ire of modern Gnostics who vehemently disagree with the notion. Initially a Gnostic reader might bite their lip when reading this same argument coming from Smith, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has found a balance between the conventional view and the modern Gnostic one: “...classical Gnostic dualism was a dualism within unity.” Smith also takes care not to lump every Gnostic group into the same “dualistic” heading: “There is a clear distinction between absolute or radical dualism [...] and mitigated or moderate dualism, which posits a good God or good force at the beginning and culmination, at the highest point of the universe, but which acknowledges that an independent evil force or lower God has as much, or more, influence on our present world. The Sethians and Valentinians were mitigated dualists, the Manichaens absolute dualists.” While many modern (Valentinian) Gnostics might still grind their teeth at the word “dualist” being used here at all, this explict distinction between absolute and mitigated forms, so well described by Smith, goes a long way to ammending the somewhat negative usage of the word.

The Gnostics
is one of the few introductory texts that covers almost the entire scope of Gnosticism, providing a true and accurate portrayal of the variety and uniqueness that comes with Gnosis through the ages. In these days when people are questioning the orthodox Christian viewpoint, hungry now for a tradition that utilises the mythology they are used to in a radically different and positive way, it is important that they educate themselves on these alternate traditions that have remained a secret for too long in this world. In light of this, this book is one of the few I would recommend to those who know little or nothing about Gnosticism, and yet even for those who actively engage in the Gnostic path, for, as Smith puts it, “the opportunities for Gnosis are greater now than they may have been for several centuries.”

The Gnostics
, by Andrew Phillip Smith; Watkins Publishing (2008)

2 comments:

Aristilus said...

I have just finished reading it and found it very informative. A good introduction to Gnosticism.

AGC Media Watch said...

It is a basic primer in contemporary English. It is not possible for anyone to see anything of the things that actually exist unless he becomes like them.

Dean, congrats on a thoughtful blog, much needed during these times.

Thank you!

Brad Hoffstetter
Communications Division
Assembly of good Christians
http://www.cathar.net

P.S.
May I also suggest the following scholarly sources:
1. http://www.hereticswithoutborders.org/
2. http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/congress/
3. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html
4. http://www.languedoc-france.info/1212b_moreinfo.htm