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The Code and Gnosticism: A Response to Steve Kellmeyer | Carl E. Olson | April 17, 2006

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When Sandra Miesel and I wrote The Da Vinci Hoax, we expected to be criticized by fans of The Da Vinci Code (TDVC). And we expected that some of that criticism would be uncharitable and illogical. We haven't, so to speak, been disappointed. But when a fellow Catholic and critic of TDVC recently wrote a column titled "Does Ignatius Press promote Gnosticism?" and made a number of dubious and incorrect statements about The Da Vinci Hoax, I was both surprised and disappointed.

The article was written by Steve Kellmeyer, a graduate of Franciscan University and author of several books, including Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, a 96-page work published in 2004 by Kellmeyer's Bridesgroom Press. I have never met Kellmeyer or spoken to him (nor have I read Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code), but have read several of his articles in recent years.

"The whole Gnostic line is just a throw-away argument"

Kellmeyer's article seems to have been inspired, in part, by my April 5th post on the Insight Scoop blog, which addressed the media furor over the so-called "Gospel of Judas," a gnostic text written sometime in the late second century A.D. At the end of my post, I provided a quote about gnosticism from The Da Vinci Hoax. Kellmeyer left a comment, stating, in part (all quotes by Kellmeyer are in blue text):
You know, everyone is on about how the Da Vinci Code is Gnostic. The whole argument is crap. ...

Just because you guys keep saying it is Gnostic doesn't make it so. DVC isn't Gnostic. It takes the Gnostic gospels as much out of context as it does the real Gospels. The whole Gnostic line is just a throw-away argument Brown uses to open a discussion on the idea that Jesus was really just a man. He mentions the Gnostic thing for about three pages, then never returns to it.

In fact, the whole DVC plot-line is built around a paganized version of the Theology of the Body. You know - sex is holy, marriage is holy, women should be treated like goddesses (i.e., in the image and likeness of God). That's Catholic doctrine.
That comment then led to an exchange of remarks between Kellmeyer and Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press and associate publisher of IgnatiusInsight.com. In that exchange, Kellmeyer made the following statements:
Not everything Marx said related to economics, nor does everything the Gnostic gospels say relate to Gnosticism. A careful DVC reader who is knowledgeable about Gnosticism will recognize that Brown uses the Gnostic Gospels twice (once from the Gospel of Philip to "prove" that Jesus was married - no Gnostic would do that) and then he never uses them again.

But Catholic apologists were so bent on finding a heresy in DVC that they immediately fixated on the word "Gnostic" in the book, even though that was essentially the only heresy Brown DIDN'T espouse (pardon the pun). The whole thing is laughable. The Gospel of Judas is in the news precisely because Catholic apologists have been advertising a heresy that didn't exist. ...

I don't believe the novel even uses the word "Gnostic." It certainly doesn't use a single Gnostic idea. It quotes from ancient documents that have Gnostic elements, but it doesn't use the Gnostic elements and it doesn't use the quotes to support Gnostic ideas. The only reason it quotes from those documents is that they are ANCIENT and they aren't Christian. That lends a veneer of respectibility to the entirely modern argument that is brought forward - the modern infatuation with goddess worship. ....

And don't hand me that bit about Catholics having no influence on the media. There have been a lot of Catholic apologists on a lot of MSM outlets and all of them having been pushing this Gnostic line. If you all are so inconsequential, then why did you print all those books and DVDs? Who did you sell them to? Give me a break.
Over at The Da Vinci Hoax blog, Kellmeyer's comments -- made in response to this April 11 post -- were even more caustic:
Will Ignatius be producing a DVD that exposes the erros in their own Da Vinci Hoax? Such as the erroneous idea that the DVC is Gnostic, an idea promulgated by Ignatius Press (among others), an idea which made the current uproar over the Gospel of Judas possible? I'm just looking forward to an admission of error here, that's all. And, after Brumley responds -- "If Steve Kellmeyer is looking for an admission of error, he is certainly free to offer one" -- Kellmeyer writes:
Alright. "On behalf of Mark Brumley and Ignatius Press, we apologize for having mislead people into thinking the Da Vinci Code was a Gnostic heresy, when it has nothing to do with Gnosticism at all. Dan Brown's execrable research, which we were attempting to debunk, was in this case matched by our own failure to read and think about what he actually wrote. As a result, we spend a fair amount of time in both our book and our DVD tilting at straw men. Again, Ignatius Press deeply apologizes for the errors in its material." Just send that out in a press release, Mark. Thanks. Gnosticism and the Code

I quote these comments at length because as surprised as I am at Kellmeyer's insistence that Sandra Miesel and I misrepresent what TDVC says about gnosticism and that, in fact, we have created a "straw man," I am even more surprised at the uncharitable and mocking tone of Kellmeyer's comments. Granted, they are made on a blog, and are therefore far more informal than remarks found in articles or essays. Yet, apparently upset that Brumley had finally blocked him from making further comments on the two Ignatius Press-operated blogs (because Kellmeyer failed to change the sarcastic and angry tone of his comments), Kellmeyer decided to take his criticisms to a broader audience, publishing "Does Ignatius Press promote Gnosticism?" on the "Renew America" website on the afternoon of April 12th, less than two days after his first comment on the Insight Scoop blog.

And so, since I know that some readers are puzzled about Kellmeyer's article and since many of Kellmeyer's accusations call for correction and/or response -- especially since a couple of those accusations are quite severe -- I am going to address the comments made in that article and make some related observations related.
"Gnosticism: The Religion of the Code" | That's Chapter 1 of Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel's book, The Da Vinci Hoax. While the book has been a moderately competent debunk of Dan Brown's novel, there has always been one aspect of it that has been in error, and it is admirably laid out in the title to chapter 1. The Da Vinci Hoax has been moderately competent enough to earn strong praise from Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago ("the definitive debunking"), Dr. Philip Jenkins (author of Hidden Gospels), Dr. James Hitchcock, Dr. Darrell Bock (New Testament scholar and author of Breaking the Da Vinci Code), The Washington Times, and many others. And FaithfulReader.com, in a review of several "debunking books" (including Kellmeyer's book) says of our book: "More than the other titles, this book looks at the cultural and religious factors that have combined to contribute to the success of DVC" and "[its authors] provide a wealth of richly detailed historical and theological information in their extensive volume."
Gnosticism has absolutely nothing to do with the Da Vinci Code. And yet Kellmeyer, in one of his comments on the Insight Scoop blog, states: "A careful DVC reader who is knowledgeable about Gnosticism will recognize that Brown uses the Gnostic Gospels twice (once from the Gospel of Philip to "prove" that Jesus was married - no Gnostic would do that) and then he never uses them again." So "absolutely" must not be completely absolute.

More importantly, within the novel itself are the following references to gnosticism and gnostic texts:

• On page 231 of TDVC, the character Leigh Teabing claims that "more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament...," a clear reference to gnostic texts, even though Brown's numbers are well off the mark.

• On page 234, Teabing refers to "the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate," first mentioning the Dead Sea scrolls, then "the Coptic Scrolls [found] in 1945 at Nag Hammadi." The Nag Hammadi documents, which were discovered in Egypt in 1945, include numerous gnostic texts. They also fueled a resurgent interest in gnosticism that has been quite influential over the past several decades (more on that below).

• Later (p 245), Teabing opens "a huge book" identified asThe Gnostic Gospels, referring to either the 1979 book by Elaine Pagels -- a key work in bringing some of the Nag Hammadi texts to a popular readership -- or to The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation (Anchor Bible Reference Bible), in which case Brown has the title wrong.

• Teabing explains to Sophie that the these documents are "the earliest Christian records," but that "they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible." This is a key theme in the novel: the gnostics were the first and real Christians, and the gnostic texts offer the earliest and most accurate account of the life of Jesus. And it is obvious that this claim has resonated strongly among TDVC readers (including many talking heads in the mainstream media), despite the equally obvious fact that Brown knows little about actual ancient gnosticism or gnostic teachings.

• Teabing quotes a passage from the gnostic text, "The Gospel of Philip," seeking to prove to Sophie from the text that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. He also references "several other passages" to the same end. In writing this section of the novel, Brown most likely relied upon the work of radical feminist and former Catholic Margaret Starbird, author of The Goddess in the Gospels andThe Woman With the Alabaster Jar. Both books are prominently mentioned in TDVC (p. 253). Both books, especially The Goddess in the Gospels, draw upon gnostic texts and gnostic/neo-gnostic themes, especially the elevation of androgyny, subversion of orthodox authority, and the pursuit of elite and hidden knowledge. Starbird, in The Goddess in the Gospels, uses the quote from "The Gospel of Philip" to support her beliefs that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were sacred lovers, that the Magdalene was persecuted by the orthodox Church, that God can be known through direct experience without need of a Church or structure, and that the Church hates the sacred feminine (pp 119-122). All of these neo-gnostic/neo-pagan notions are picked up and used by Brown.

• On page 247 of TDVC, Teabing quotes from the gnostic text, "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene." Later, on page 248, he refers to the gnostic "gospels" as "unaltered gospels," again feeding the myth that gnosticism presents a more historically accurate picture of first-century Christianity (a myth also used by those promoting the "Gospel of Judas").

• On page 308, Langdon explains to Sophie that gnosis — "knowledge of the divine" — is achieved through "sacred marriage", or "physical union." This is a neo-gnostic reworking of the ancient gnostic notion of syzygy -- the spiritual wholeness achieved when spiritual beings exist in male and female pairs (more on this below).

There's no doubt that Brown is rather clueless about ancient gnosticism, which most scholars agree appeared in the early to mid-second century A.D. Those who have read our chapter on gnosticism (pp 45-72, The Da Vinci Hoax) know that we take Brown to task for his skewed and selective use of gnosticism. But, we also explain in detail that his sloppy and syncretistic use of gnosticism -- especially as it is blended with radical feminism, goddess worship, and other New Age notions -- is characteristic of what Dr. Carl A. Raschke, author of The Interruption of Eternity: Modern Gnosticism and the Origins of the New Religious Consciousness (Nelson-Hall, 1980) a study of gnosticism in recent centuries, calls "modern gnosticism." As Raschke and many others have shown, this modern form of gnosticism (like ancient gnosticism) thrives on revolting against "organized" or "conventional" religion and often promotes deviant forms of morality, especially sexual mortality. In the first chapter of our book, we write:
"These comments [by Pagels] touch on gnostic themes found within The Da Vinci Code: suspicion of tradition, distrust of authority, dislike for dogma and objective statements of faith, and the pitting of the individual against the institution. There is also the promise of secret knowledge, which is one of the reasons for the novel's success. Readers believe that they are being let in on a secret that has been hidden for centuries -- a bloody and damning cover-up by an ancient and powerful institution. This has always been the promise of gnosticism: freedom from authority, insight into reality, and enlightenment that goes beyond normality." (The Da Vinci Hoax, pp 46-47) TDVC's promise of secret knowledge involves not only the "truth" about oppressive institutions (the Catholic Church), but the means to direct spiritual experience, such as that described on the final page of the novel (p 454), when Robert Langdon falls on his knees "with a sudden upswelling of reverence" as he encounters the goddess Mary Magdalene ("the wisdom of the ages," another neo-gnostic conceit). Or via sexual intercourse, which Langdon says clears the mind and allows man to "see God." The radical dualism between "the spiritual" and institution is a central theme of TDVC, which constantly depicts Langdon -- the sophisticated, intellectual Harvard "symbologist" -- as having intuitive, special knowledge (a form of gnosis), while the Catholic Church (or Opus Dei, or "the Vatican") controls Catholics via fear, superstition, and suppressive doctrines and practices. This is simply a reworking of the ancient gnostic belief that a few, elite individuals will know the truth, while the rest of humanity is doomed to live without it.

Radical Feminism and Neo-Gnosticism

Our chapter on gnosticism has several pages devoted to modern radical feminism and its use (or, misuse) of gnosticism to promote beliefs that undermine orthodox Christianity by selectively appealing to ancient gnosticism. When we describe gnosticism as "the religion of the code", we do not argue that Brown is a true-blue, second-century gnostic, but that he (like many radical feminists and New Age types), uses certain gnostic elements to promote his particular anti-Catholic ideology and pseudo-spirituality.

Nor do we deny that he points readers toward embracing the "sacred feminine" and rediscovering goddess worship. On the contrary, we point out several times how radical feminism has been at the forefront of using (oftentimes selectively) ancient gnostic texts to promote, among other things, goddess worship, pro-androgynous beliefs, and anti-Christian attitudes. Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, writes: "Feminist scholars and theologians have been the most ambitious in using the newly found gospels [referring in particular to the Nag Hammadi documents] to reconstruct the early churches in their own image" (Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way [Oxford University Press, 2001], 124). As Jenkins demonstrates in a chapter titled "Daughters of Sophia", use of gnostic texts by feminist activists began in the nineteenth century and was especially popular in the 1890s and early 1900s. In a lecture, "How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars," given in August, 2000, Jenkins provides a detailed history of the marriage between feminism and gnosticism, and states:
"Particularly between about 1880 and 1920, a cascade of new discoveries transformed attitudes to early Christianity, both the mainstream and the heretical fringes. The most exciting find involved portions of the Gospel of Thomas located in Egypt, and then known simply as the Sayings of Jesus. Though the work did not have quite the revolutionary impact that it has on modern scholars, quotations from Thomas were appearing in works of popular piety long before the Nag Hammadi finds. And just as modern writers claim Thomas as a fifth gospel, so many experts a hundred years ago awarded a similar laurel to the recently found Gospel of Peter. Many of the insights and observations which have been based on the recently found Gnostic texts were also well-known before 1900. Even the special role of women disciples, which has attracted so much comment in recent years, was already being discussed in that epoch. The notion was quoted in feminist and New Age writings of the early twentieth century - and though this tends to be forgotten in modern writings, both feminists and New Age adherents wrote extensively on early Christianity in this period. Radical perspectives on religion were not an innovation of the 1960s. The new speculations reached a mass audience through magazines, newspapers and novels: they were thoroughly familiar to any reasonably well-informed layperson." Jenkins later states: "If we look back a century or so, we find that not only were early heresies still known and studied, but they achieved a popular audience in large measure through their appeal to occult and esoteric movements, who saw the early Gnostics as their spiritual ancestors." He then shows howthe Theosophical movement, various occult movements, and many Westerners attracted to forms of Asian mysticism have drawn heavily from ancient gnosticism in creating syncretistic forms of spiritualities. He notes that
"...it was the early esoteric writers who first comprehended the implications of the new documents for women's role in early Christianity. Indeed, the materials were present for a feminist revision of early Christian history. Just how thoroughgoing such an endeavor could be was indicated by Frances Swiney's important book The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics (1909), which is virtually forgotten today. Though she writes from an occult or theosophical perspective, Swiney has much in common with modern scholars like Elaine Pagels or Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, who attempt to restore the lost voices of the women of early Christianity." Philip G. Davis, professor of religious studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, has also studied this connection extensively, especially in his book Goddess Unmasked: The Rise of Neopagan Feminist Spirituality (Spence, 1998). He writes: "People who were dabbling in esoteric traditions like Gnosticism, or attempting to rediscover the spirituality of the ancient Egyptians, Norse, or Celts, frequently came face to face with female images of the divine. These goddesses or female symbols from the past seemed to offer stimulating insights into modern life. Gnosis, one of the most 'academic' of New Age journals, devoted its entire Fall 1989 issue to the Goddess" (Goddess Unmasked, p 20).

One example (out of many possible examples) of the recent feminist use of ancient gnosticism can be found in Riani Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (Harper & Row, 1988), which, in the words of one reviewer, "has inspired a generation of women and men to envision a truly egalitarian society by exploring the legacy of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping cultures from our prehistoric past." Many of Eisler's claims will be familiar to readers of TDVC, especially when it comes to ancient gnostic texts: "To gain a better understanding of the real nature of early Christianity, we have to go outside the official scriptures contained in the New Testament to other ancient Christian documents, some of which have only recently been found" (pp 124-25). She then discusses the Nag Hammadi documents, the work of Elaine Pagels, and argues that the first gnostics were persecuted by "orthodox" Christians because they believed in "the idea of the divine as female" (p 127). She then argues -- without support or citation -- that ancient gnosticism was derived "from the earlier religious tradition when the Goddess was worshipped and priestesses were her earthly representatives" (p 128).

Another key connection between radical feminism, gnosticism, and goddess worship is, we write in The Da Vinci Hoax, "a deity who is a perfect balance of feminine and masculine." Here is a lengthy quote from our discussion of this topic:
Some gnostic groups believed that the divine should be considered "masculofeminine -- the 'great male-female power.' Others claimed that the terms were meant only as metaphors, since, in reality, the divine is neither male nor female. A third group suggested that one can describe the primal Source in either masculine or feminine terms, depending on which aspect one intends to stress." Pagels adds: "Proponents of these diverse views agreed that the divine is to be understood in terms of a harmonious, dynamic relationship of opposites -- a concept that may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang, but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity" (Gnostic Gospels, 123-24).

The gnostic deity is both god and goddess, and the Gnostics despised the Christians for "suppressing" the feminine nature of the godhead. In The Da Vinci Code, Langdon lectures Sophie about this, telling her that the Priory of Sion believes that the Emperor Constantine and his successors "successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity" by employing "a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine", destroying goddess worship and insuring that modern religion would be male-oriented (TDVC, p 124). This suppression resulted, Brown's novel tells readers, in a warped and unbalanced humanity, overly masculine and lacking in feminine balance: "The days of the goddess were over. The pendulum had swung. Mother Earth had become a man's world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll." Readers are informed that the "male ego" has run amuck, without being balanced or controlled at all by its feminine counterpart. This has led to the "obliteration of the sacred feminine in modern life", resulting in imbalanced lives, "testosterone-fueled wars", woman-hating societies, and "a growing disrespect for Mother Earth" (TDVC, pp 125-6).

Many gnostics not only believed the true God is androgynous, but that humanity was also meant to be androgynous, or "masculo-feminine". Some gnostics interpreted Genesis 1:27 as saying God created "male-female", not "male and female". Certain gnostic texts describe the Divinity as a "bisexual Power" and state that humanity is a "male-female being". There are references to God as Father and Mother -- a "dyad" of both masculine and feminine. This focus on an androgynous ideal is often referred to in contemporary, neo-gnostic works as "wholeness", a favorite term among many feminists as well. Margaret Starbird, whose books The Woman with the Alabaster Jar and The Goddess in the Gospels are referred to in The Da Vinci Code, repeatedly refers to "the partnership paradigm", which she describes as "the imaging of the Divine as both Bride and Bridegroom". This is necessary, she explains, so that the "collective psyche" of humanity will be healed, made whole, and restored. The essential purpose of this? "We must value our own feelings and emotions, our own intuitions, our own experience, our own selves. We must honor our own journeys." Wholeness, it seems, is merely self-absorption and narcissism.

The idea of an androgynous, "whole" humanity makes an appearance in The Da Vinci Code. In talking to Sophie about the Mona Lisa, Langdon claims that the Mona Lisa is "neither male nor female", but an androgynous portrait that is "a fusing of both" (TDVC, p 120). This is wishful thinking on the part of Langdon (and Brown), since reputable art historians agree the portrait has nothing to do with androgyny, but is simply a masterful painting of an Italian lady, (most likely Mona Lisa Gherardini, the wife of merchant Francesco del Giocondo). However, the idea that Mona Lisa depicts an androgynous person does fit with the gnostic beliefs that those who were enlightened by gnosis needed to be in pairs -- male and female -- forming a perfect whole, or "syzygy". Thus, Jesus would require a female counterpart who would make him complete; in gnostic writings that woman, of course, was Jesus' "consort", Mary Magdalene. (The Da Vinci Hoax, pp 50-54, some footnotes removed).

Muddying the waters, of course, is the fact that Brown proposes the androgynous ideal and maintains a traditional romance story involving Langdon and Sophie. Yet, although he fails to spell it out in any detail, Brown's description of Jesus as the sexual partner of Mary Magdalene draws from this gnostic idea (again, relying heavily on the work of Margaret Starbird, whose books obsess over this topic). Since, Jenkins explains, "the Gnostic world-view demanded that spiritual beings exist in male and female pairs, forming a common whole, a syzygy; how could Jesus exist without his counterpart, with whom he merged in spiritual -- and perhaps sexual -- union?" (Hidden Gospels, p 142).

Brown, again, brings together two contrary perspectives: a neo-gnostic, spiritual union between the feminist Jesus and the goddess Mary Magdalene (via Starbird), and the marriage and bloodline of the mere mortal Jesus who inspires followers but does little else (via Holy Blood, Holy Grail). Confused, absurd, and muddled -- yes. But this, again, is par for the course for an author who seems willing to use whatever is at hand (or whatever was handed to him by his wife) to move his story -- and its anti-Catholic agenda -- along.

Read Part 2 of "The Code and Gnosticism"


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