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Part 2 of "The Code and Gnosticism" | Part One

Is the Jesus of the Code Really Gnostic?

So, does Brown skew the truth about early gnosticism to fit his needs? Absolutely. Is Brown's depiction of ancient gnosticism often inaccurate? Undoubtedly. Has Brown's novel brought an incredible amount of attention to gnoticism and gnostic texts? Most certainly. It has also fed off a curiosity about gnosticism and "lost gospels" and "hidden Scriptures" that already existed. The fact is, both ancient and modern forms of gnosticism don't worry too much about logic and coherence, but are interested in knowing secrets, subverting power, mocking orthodoxy, and freeing themselves from the mundane world of daily living. Which is why Teabing mockingly describes Christianity as "the greatest story ever sold" (p 267) and why Langdon, who epitomizes the modern gnostic ideal, assures Sophie that "those who truly understand their faith understand the stories are metaphorical" (p 342).

In defending the Ignatius book against this charge, Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius, has this to say, "DVH makes a sophisticated argument re: Gnosticism and the DVC. Brown draws on some elements of Gnosticism, frames some of his arguments based on how Gnosticism is used by others today, and ignores other aspects of Gnosticism that contradict his overall thesis." Quite right, just as I have summarized.
Now, as I have pointed out elsewhere, The Da Vinci Code's contact with Gnosticism is essentially non-existent. It quotes from two documents that contain Gnostic elements: the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. In neither case does Brown use the Gnostic elements in those documents, nor does he use the quotes that he does draw from the documents to support any Gnostic idea whatsoever. This is not accurate, as my comments above show.
In fact, every idea that he brings forward concerning Jesus is antithetical to Gnosticism. This, I think, gets at the heart of where Kellmeyer disagrees with Sandra and me. We do agree that the Jesus described by Brown in his novel really isn't the Jesus found in many of the ancient gnostic writings. But Kellmeyer seems to think that gnosticism is defined solely on its depiction of Jesus and that gnosticism is an all-or-nothing belief system. Both assumptions are incorrect. One of the remarkable things about TDVC, I think, is that it purports to be about Jesus -- but really says almost nothing about him (essentially what I've described above). This latter point, however, should not be overlooked too quickly, Part of the "code" that readers are given access to in the novel is the assertion that Jesus is of little consequence today, but was in his day simply a nice guy who "inspired millions to better lives" (p 234) and who was later used by Constantine to establish Catholicism and solidify the "Vatican power base." Or, in the words of Teabing, the "most profound moment in Christian history" was when Constantine created "a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike" (p 234). The statement is incredibly ridiculous, but that shouldn't overshadow the fact that this is how many people understand the gnostic "gospels" (nice, human, real Jesus) versus the canonical Gospels (fake, unreal, god-only Jesus).

Noted Scripture scholar N.T. Wright, in a 2005 talk, "Decoding The Da Vinci Code: The Challenge of Historic Christianity to Post-Modern Fantasy," discussed the popularity and appeal of neo-gnosticism:
One of the basic fault lines in the contemporary Western world is the line between neo-Gnosticism on the one hand and the challenge of Jesus on the other. Please note that, despite strenuous attempts to make this line coincide with the current sharp left-right polarization of American culture and politics, it simply doesn't. Nor, for that matter, does it coincide with the polarizations of British or European culture either. So what is this real, deep polarization which runs through our world?

Neo-Gnosticism is the philosophy that invites you to search deep inside yourself and discover some exciting things by which you must then live. It is the philosophy which declares that the only real moral imperative is that you should then be true to what you find when you engage in that deep inward search. But this is not a religion of redemption. It is not at all a Jewish vision of the covenant God who sets free the helpless slaves. It appeals, on the contrary, to the pride that says "I'm really quite an exciting person, deep down, whatever I may look like outwardly" -- the theme of half the cheap movies and novels in today's world. It appeals to the stimulus of that ever-deeper navel-gazing ("finding out who I really am") which is the subject of a million self-help books, and the home-made validation of a thousand ethical confusions. It corresponds, in other words, to what a great many people in our world want to believe and want to do, rather than to the hard and bracing challenge of the very Jewish gospel of Jesus. It appears to legitimate precisely that sort of religion which a large swathe of America and a fair chunk of Europe yearns for: a free-for-all, do-it-yourself spirituality, with a strong though ineffective agenda of social protest against the powers that be, and an I'm-OK-you're-OK attitude on all matters religious and ethical. At least, with one exception: You can have any sort of spirituality you like (Zen, labyrinths, Tai Chi) as long as it isn't orthodox Christianity.
That, I think, perfectly describes the neo-gnostic "spirituality"advocated by TDVC.

The "Gospel" of "Judas"

Kellmeyer wrote:
Recently, Carl Olson wrote a column for Ignatius Insight complaining about the uproar over the Gnostic Gospel of Judas. Since his column accepts comments from readers, I pointed out that the uproar was in part fueled by his erroneous book and DVD -- he and Ignatius have been promulgating information on a heresy that the Da Vinci Code never even refers to. Two years of Ignatius' hype concerning this straw-man argument undoubtedly played no small role in the rising interest in Gnosticism. Then, in another article, "The Gospel of Judas" (April 14, 2006), he wrote:
Now, why is such a silly document getting so much press coverage? Because a bunch of Christians - especially a bunch of orthodox Catholics - made sure it would. For the last two years, the people who took on the role of official debunkers to Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, have been insisting that Brown's work is a Gnostic heresy. It is nothing of the sort. First, I'm not sure how Kellmeyer can pass judgment on the content of our DVD (hosted by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.) since it just came out. In fact, I haven't even seen the final product as of this writing.

Secondly, the statement about our book fueling the controversy around "The Gospel of Judas" is silly and misinformed. For example, a search of Google News produces some 754 news articles about "The Gospel of Judas." A search for "The Gospel of Judas" and "Da Vinci Hoax" produces one article: Kellmeyer's. Meanwhile, a search for "The Gospel of Judas" and "Da Vinci Code" produces 163 articles, including this April 11 piece, which contains this quote: "'I think the massive media interest in the 'Gospel of Judas' is related to the whole 'Dan Brown phenomenon'," said Graham Stanton, Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, referring to the US author of the international bestseller, 'The Da Vinci Code'." That same connection has been made by many observers, most of whom are likely oblivious to our book.

The interest in "The Gospel of Judas" is due to a number of factors: 1) a very deliberate and successful marketing campaign by National Geographic, 2) the media's general enthusiasm for "secret gospels" and anything that undermines traditional, orthodox Christianity, and 3) a substantial interest in alternative, customized, flexible, amoral, and self-serving spiritualities.

The Popularity of Gnosticism

The point I want to focus on here is that gnosticism/neo-gnosticism has been of great interest to many academics/scholars, the media, and the general populace for quite some time -- long before Dan Brown and I began writing books. This fact is addressed in a recent document, which states:
At the same time there is increasing nostalgia and curiosity for the wisdom and ritual of long ago, which is one of the reasons for the remarkable growth in the popularity of esotericism and gnosticism. Many people are particularly attracted to what is known – correctly or otherwise – as "Celtic" spirituality, or to the religions of ancient peoples. Books and courses on spirituality and ancient or Eastern religions are a booming business, and they are frequently labelled "New Age" for commercial purposes. But the links with those religions are not always clear. In fact, they are often denied.

An adequate Christian discernment of New Age thought and practice cannot fail to recognize that, like second and third century gnosticism, it represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox. John Paul II warns with regard to the "return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age: We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practising gnosticism – that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting His Word and replacing it with purely human words. Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or a para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian". An example of this can be seen in the enneagram, the nine-type tool for character analysis, which when used as a means of spiritual growth introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith.
That quote comes from "Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life -- A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age'," produced by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on February 3, 2003 --  a month before TDVC was published. That document mentions gnosticism and neo-gnosticism numerous times. Therefore, should we assert that it undoubtedly played no small role in the rising interest in gnosticism?
After all, even the word "Gnostic" never appears in the Da Vinci Code. Certainly none of its ideas are present in the Code. As we've seen, the word "Gnostic" does appears in TDVC (p 245), as does "gnosis" (p 308). (Besides, if it doesn't appear in the novel, how can Kellmeyer state, in a comment on our blog: "But Catholic apologists were so bent on finding a heresy in DVC that they immediately fixated on the word "Gnostic" in the book"?) As I've shown, many gnostic and neo-gnostic ideas are found in the novel. Yes, gnosticism is remarkably complex, which may account for some of the confusion about how it is used and misused by Brown.
Gnosticism is a remarkably complex and relatively obscure heresy that almost no one knew existed prior to the erection of the strawman argument. This remark is simply off the mark. So "obscure" is gnosticism that the Catechism of the Catholic Church references it as the first heresy confronting the early Church (par 465) and the New American Bible describes it, in a footnote to 1 Timothy 6:20-21 as "the great rival and enemy of the church for two centuries and more." One of the first great works of Christian apologetics, Adversus Haereses (or "Against Heresies"), written by St. Irenaeus in the late second century, was a refutation of gnosticism. Manichaenism, a very popular form of gnosticism founded in the Middle East in the third century, had an adherent named Augustine for many years. And now, due to the popularity of TDVC, a number of novels and books are being produced that feature the Cathars, a gnostic movement that thrived in western Europe during the tenth century.

Since the publication of TDVC, sales for books such as The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief (about the gnostic "Gospel of Thomas"), both by Elaine Pagels, have increased. The latter book, published in May 2003, was a New York Times best-seller and was given all sorts of media attention (none of which, I should point out, mention me or The Da Vinci Hoax, possibly because our book wasn't published until June 2004). The jacket for Beyond Belief states that "the impulse to seek God overflows the narrow banks of a single tradition." Pagels, of course, is hardly on the fringe, but has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is a professor at Princeton, and has won numerous awards for her books espousing a feminist, neo-gnostic spirituality.

And what about Dan Burstein's Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind The DaVinci [sic] Code, published in April 2004, and featuring essays by various authors, including some whose work was relied upon by Dan Brown? It has sold three million copiessince it was published! Included are numerous essays about gnosticism and the "Gnostic gospels" (one section is titled "The Lost Gospels"). Many other examples could be given, including the November 2003 ABC primetime special, "Jesus, Mary, and Da Vinci," which prominently featured Pagels, Karen King (The Gospel of Mary of Magdala), and Margaret Starbird. In a revealing interview with Beliefnet.com, the host, Elizabeth Vargas (a Catholic), stated: "After I got the assignment, I began reading [many books]. There have been books around for decades talking about Mary Magdalene and theorizing about her importance--scholarly looks at aspects of Bible history, like Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels. I didn't know that there were Gnostic gospels." Again, I must point out how little involvement I had with the special, with the exception of a review of it that I wrote for National Catholic Register.

A search for "gnostic" on amazon.com turns up over 250 titles. Numerous books have been written in the past forty years about gnosticism and the gnostic texts; some of them have sold very well. Evangelical author James A. Herrick, in his book The Making of the New Spirituality (IVP, 2003), provides a detailed history of modern gnosticism ("The Rebirth of Gnosticism," pp 177-203) from the Enlightenment era to 19th-century America to Carl Jung, Jean Houston, and various works of popular science fiction. And there have been several books in recent years detailing the decades-long relationship between radical feminism and neo-gnosticism, including God or Goddess?(Ignatius, 1995) by Manfred Hauke, The Feminist Question (Eerdmans, 1994) by Francis Martin, Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism (Ignatius, 1991) by Donna Steichen, and The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God (Ignatius, 1992), edited by Helen Hull Hitchcock. You can also read pages 89-98 of our book for an examination of how the gnostic Mary Magdalene, as appropriated (or created) by Brown and various radical feminists, is mixed with neo-gnosticism and neo-paganism.
Given how bad Dan Brown is at research, it isn't clear he even realized he was quoting from Gnostic documents. There's certainly no evidence he taught anything approaching Gnostic philosophy. Although I understand the temptation to make light of Brown's research, the novelist knew he was using gnostic texts, even if he didn't fully know what they meant. He refers to the "Gnostic Gospels" on his website and in his witness statement, given in London during the recent trial involving his publisher, he mentions the "Gnostic Gospels" several times, including this reference: "In chapter 58 of The Da Vinci Code I cite a passage from the Gospel of Philip and another from the Gospel of Mary, which both allude to Mary Magdalene's relationship with Jesus and her important role in his Church. The Gospels of Philip and Mary both come from the Gnostic Gospels and I recall seeing them in many sources" (par 192).
So, when I heard about Carl's column, in which he laments the existence of an uproar he and Ignatius helped to create, I asked Carl and Mark to give me one example of Gnostic philosophy, theology or even general thought in the Da Vinci Code. They couldn't.

This essay is my first response to Kellmeyer's assorted comments, so I'm not sure why he says I couldn't give him a response -- especially since he allowed all of 24 hours to do so (that is, before he claimed I wasn't able to provide an answer).

I pointed out that Brown quoted from ancient documents that contained Gnostic elements, but Brown never, in fact, used any of the Gnostic elements. Indeed, as I realized later, if we were to use this new Ignatius Press standard for what constitutes adherence to a particular philosophy, we would be forced to insist that Ignatius Press supports Dan Brown's philosophy and theology, since their book quotes from The Da Vinci Code. If Brown quoting from Gnostic documents makes him Gnostic, then Ignatius Press quoting from the Da Vinci Code makes them adherents to Dan Brown's philosophy. QED.

Again, silly.

The Ignatius Press' position is quite clear: "DVH makes a sophisticated argument re: Gnosticism and the DVC. Brown draws on some elements of Gnosticism, frames some of his arguments based on how Gnosticism is used by others today, and ignores other aspects of Gnosticism that contradict his overall thesis."

The argument is apparently quite sophisticated -- so sophisticated, that it is not something Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, or Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel, the authors of The Da Vinci Hoax, are willing to actually enunciate to the rest of us
Perhaps I should apologize that my life doesn't revolve around answering mocking questions at the drop of the hat?
Carl and Sandra give a basically accurate description of what Gnosticism teaches and then say, "Gnosticism was exclusive, elitist, and esoteric, open only to a few." But Brown's argument is precisely that pagan goddess worship -- which is NOT Gnosticism -- was NOT elitist, esoteric or open only to a few. That's only part of the story. Yes, Brown's narrative states that pagan goddess worship was once the norm (and all was perfect because of it). But he also says:

• Judeo-Christianity destroyed goddess worship: "Genesis was the beginning of the end for the goddess" (p 238). The goddess was "banished" (p 239) and the old pagan religions were destroyed by Christianity. Or, as Brown wrote in his witness statement: "My reading convinced me that there was a great case to be put forward that woman had been unfairly treated in the eyes of society for hundreds of years if not longer, and that religion had played a big part in this" (par 112).

• Women have "been banished from the temples of the world" and have been demonized by conservative religious groups (p 125). The goddess has been "obliterated" from "modern religion forever" (p 124).

• Enlightenment comes from a perfect balance of male and female elements --  an androgynous ideal captured by Leonardo da Vinci in "Mona Lisa" (p 120). Balance, harmony, peace and respect for "Mother Earth" will be restored only when women are restored to their proper place (p 126)

• Jesus was 'the original feminist" (p 248) who "intended for the future of His Church to be in the hands of Mary Magdalene."

• Peter and the other apostles ruined that plan (p 248). Mary Magdalene's reputation was attacked (pp 249, 254, 261) and her "name was forbidden by the Church" (p 254).

• "History is always written by the winners" (p 256), so the "truth" about Jesus and Mary Magdalene has been largely hidden for centuries. The Church has used violent and dark means to keep people in the dark (cf., p 407). But some, such as Teabing and Langdon, know the truth.

• The Holy Grail involves discovering/recovering the "sacred feminine", as well as knowing "secret history" and "lost documents" and finding a "glorious, unattainable treasure" in a "world of chaos" (p 444).

So, in the end, the hero (Langdon), who helps Sophie (Sophia!) find her family and her true heritage (descendent of Jesus) is finally initiated in full into the mystery of the "sacred feminine," marking some sort of ascension into a state of higher spiritual awareness/knowledge -- a thoroughly neo-gnostic idea.
In fact, the whole DVC plot-line is built around a paganized version of the Theology of the Body. Dare I point out that TDVC never uses the phrase "theology of the body"? Or that ritualized and "sacred" sex hardly adds up to a form of the theology of the body? Regardless, I address this particular argument at length in the May 2006 issue of Saint Austin Review, which includes an article by Kellmeyer that fleshes out (no pun intended) this argument, and my response to it. As I wrote in my response:
It's very revealing that when fans talk about the Code, they don't usually discuss the characters, the plot, or even the sex. No, they focus on the claim that Jesus is not who the Church tells us he is, that this is further proof of how horrible the Church is, and this in turn validates how smart and open minded they are for embracing these "facts." They talk about how they are "spiritual," not religious and congratulate themselves on finding a "truth" that works for them. In a recent issue [October 2004] of the Village Voice, a leading voice among alternative, radical perspective, Curtis White summarized it this way:

"The Da Vinci Code is important as an expression of a desire for a spirituality that cannot be had within the confines of the institutionalized church. More simply yet, it is the popular expression of a desire for a kind of meaningfulness to life that is missing for most of us. And certainly, it is the scandalous expression of a willingness to be disobedient to achieve the heretical end of a salvation outside the confines of the church."
It would be difficult to find a better description of neo-gnosticism. And this comes from a fan of the novel who is analyzing the success of TDVC.
I guess they are fighting fire with fire. Too bad the rest of us are too stupid to understand. Just remember: the Ignatius Press use of Gnostic strawmen and/or Gnostic arguments had nothing to do with the uproar over the Gospel of Judas. Not a thing. Just ask them. Just because you say it is so, doesn't make it so. Provide some proof that our book and our comments about gnosticism have had a direct affect on the media furor surrounding "The Gospel of Judas." Frankly, I'd be flattered (and stunned) if you found any.

Finally, from Kellmeyer's April 14th column about the "Gospel of Judas":
But the constant drumbeat from Christian apologists who don't know history or Gnostic theology has incorrectly painted the Da Vinci Code as a Gnostic heresy, thereby raising interest in a train of thought that had been shown up for a farce over 1800 years ago. Because the Christians kept incoherently insisting Brown's book was Gnostic when it was nothing of the sort, the Gnostic Gospel of Judas is now news.

And now Christian apologists are complaining about the MSM's attention to the newest unveiling of a Gnostic Gospel. No wonder the world laughs at Christians. If these people had only bothered to learn a bit about Gnosticism first, or - better yet - had bought copies of Fact and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code...
In light of those strong assertions, I should point out what some readers already know: that nearly all of the other "debunking" books written by Evangelical Protestants and Catholics include substantial sections about ancient gnosticism and modern gnosticism. These works include:

Breaking the Da Vinci Code by Darrell L. Bock, Ph.D (Thomas Nelson, 2004). Bock is a research professor of NT studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is a well-regarded and well-published scholar specializing in NT studies, the historical Jesus and Gospels studies.
The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Da Vinci by Ben Witherington III (IVP, 2004). Witherington is professor of NT at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of numerous books on the NT and the historical Jesus.
The Truth Behind The Da Vinci Code by Richard Abanes (Harvest House, 2004). Abanes is a noted Evangelical authority on cults and religions and the author of a dozen books on related topics.
Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code by Bart D. Ehrman (Oxford, 2004). Ehrman is chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.
De-Coding Da Vinci by Amy Welborn (OSV, 2004).
The Da Vinci Deception by Mark Shea and Edward Sri (Ascension Press, 2006).

Readers may also be interested in these online articles about TDVC and/or neo-gnosticism:

"How Gnostic Jesus Became the Christ of Scholars" by Philip Jenkins.
"Decoding The Da Vinci Code: The Challenge of Historic Christianity to Post-Modern Fantasy" by N.T. Wright
"The New Gnosticism and the 'Scandal of Particularity'" by Christopher Brown
"As One Who Serves" by N.T. Wright, in which he discusses the "Gospel of Judas"
"Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life -- A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age'" by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue

It's possible, of course, that the authors of these books and articles addressing TDVC "don't know history or Gnostic theology." Or it could be that Kellmeyer is mistaken in his criticisms and that it is he who has failed to read and think about what Dan Brown, fans of TDVC, and many in the mainstream media have written and said about gnosticism, the gnostic "gospels," and related topics. Although I have no problem arguing over those issues, I do hope our discussion can avoid the sort of polemics and rudeness that not only distract from the topics addressed, but may also cause scandal among readers. All of us who have criticized TDVC agree that it is an assault on orthodox Christianity, especially Catholicism, and I hope and pray we can continue to fight together to defend Truth and to make a defense to those asking us to give an account for the hope within us (1 Pet 3:15).

Carl E. Olson
is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.

He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.

He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, and two children. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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