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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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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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