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Know nothings

Books | Popular fiction, feminist scholarship, and even Christians' false piety have helped revive the ancient Gnostic heresy -- perfect timing for a new manual for worldview thinking

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

THE DA VINCI CODE BY DAN BROWN has sold more than 7 million copies in a little over a year. That sets a record for sales within a one-year period, so that its publisher can claim that the book is the biggest-selling adult novel of all time.

The book is indeed a thriller, hard to put down, with its exciting action, twists and turns, and unfolding puzzles. But this work of fiction puts forward certain ideas as true, and a good number of readers are accepting them as true: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and their bloodline continues to this day. His true teachings had to do with the worship of "the sacred feminine." The church suppressed His message with its patriarchal institutions and dogmatic theology, twisting the teachings of Jesus into an oppressive, life-denying system of harsh moral rules, the subjugation of women, the repression of sexual freedom, and sinister conspiracies to control society. Traces of the true Christian goddess worship can be found throughout the history of Western art, literature, and architecture, because the true faith has been preserved by an elite secret society.

All of these assertions are just false. They are ably refuted in works like Cracking the Da Vinci Code by James L. Garlon and Peter Jones and Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock. Even secular historians know these claims are nonsense. (No, Jesus did not get married; His bride is the Church. No, there were not 80 other gospels written earlier than those that made it into the New Testament. No, the Emperor Constantine did not compile the Bible. No, the Priory of Zion is not an ancient society; it was started in the 1800s. You can say a confident "No" to just about every claim made by Mr. Brown.)

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But this novel, with its enormous popularity, is just one attempt, in the words of postmodernist jargon, to deconstruct Christianity and to reconstruct it into a completely different religion.

The Da Vinci Code draws on mythology that has been current in occult and New Age circles for years, but they all draw on the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. As Mr. Garlon and Mr. Jones show in their exposé of the novel, The Da Vinci Code draws very specifically on Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt.

Gnostic myths reject the objective, created order in favor of an inner-directed secret knowledge. Since the creation is evil, so is the Creator, so the Gnostics turn the Old Testament upside down: God is attacked as a cruel, oppressive deity, while the serpent in the garden and Satan himself are seen as the good guys. Christ is not God in the flesh who died on the Cross but a mystical avatar who gives knowledge to the spiritual elite. Since the physical body doesn't matter, sexual immorality is not problematic, and gender distinctions are illusions.

Today, feminist theologians are trying to bring back Gnosticism, thinking that it makes possible a higher view of women. In doing so, they are putting out seemingly scholarly works that repeat the howlers of Dan Brown's fiction. According to Elaine Pagels, a theologian at Princeton University, the Gnostics were an authentic expression of early Christianity. They were suppressed by the early church because of their enlightened treatment of women, and the church fathers constructed the creeds of orthodoxy in order to silence the Gnostics and keep women in line. Like Mr. Brown, Ms. Pagels believes Christianity is simply a construction to keep a patriarchal, oppressive system in power, and they both advocate a revival of Gnosticism to take Christianity's place.

Another contemporary apologist for Gnosticism, the literary critic Harold Bloom, says that Gnosticism has already taken Christianity's place. Mr. Bloom wrote a book titled The American Religion. That religion, according to him, is not Christianity but Gnosticism. He makes the point that the religions and denominations that grew up on American soil tend to be experiential, nondoctrinal, and highly individualistic -- marks, he says, of Gnosticism. In his historical survey of American religious figures, he finds other specific marks of Gnostic mythology. The heroes of his book, those who are most Gnostic according to his analysis, are Mormons and liberal Southern Baptists.

Whether or not Mr. Bloom is right, it is certainly true that we are experiencing a Gnostic revival today. The current postmodernist worldview, which rejects objective truth in favor of the notion that truth is nothing more than a construction of the mind, is itself intrinsically Gnostic. This ideology lies behind Ms. Pagels's scholarship: Historic Christianity, she assumes, is a construction. Following the tenets of feminist post-Marxism, she further believes that such constructions and their imposition on others are what they are simply to give power to one group (such as white, heterosexual males) and to keep other groups (such as minorities, women, and homosexuals) under their control.

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