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