The Gnostic New Age

How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
April D. DeConick
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , September
     2016.
     392 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780231170765.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This title is also being reviewed in JAAR by Philip Tite.

April D. DeConick’s The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today sets out on an ambitious project to characterize Gnosticism as “an emergent religious orientation, and innovative form of spirituality, a new way of being religious that persisted outside conventional religious structures while engaging them in disruptive ways. Gnosticism arose in the first century CE as an innovative spirituality of human empowerment and individualism, at a time when nothing like it existed” (346). DeConick argues that Gnostics are poorly described, both by the traditional characterization that sees them as un-Christian heretics, and by the revised understanding that they were simply innocuous alternative Christians.

Over eleven chapters, DeConick outlines the path from the “servant spiritualties” that dominated the ancient Mediterranean—focusing on the discrete and hierarchical relationship between an immortal deity and his mortal creation—to the emergence and persistence of a countercultural position that turned this model on its head and claimed innate human divinity. DeConick identifies the pagan (Hermetic) and biblical (Sethian) streams of Gnosticism and traces the movement through the emergence of Christianity, Paul, and the Gospel of John. DeConick then goes on to examine the structural similarities that unite Gnostic forms of theology and ritual practice as well as detail the nevertheless-diverse manifestations of these structures found in several different sects. Finally, she positions Gnosticism as a transgressive stream of religious practice characterized by complex theological and ritual relationships with both Judaism and Christianity. She identifies and historically tracks several Gnostic movements that emerge amidst the mounting dominance of the Apostolic Church during the third century, such as the Manichaeans, the Jeuians, and the Mandaeans. A concluding chapter briefly discusses how Gnostic tendencies survive into the modern day.

DeConick continually weaves her treatment of ancient Gnosticism together with parallels in modern pop culture, starting and ending each chapter with a discussion of a contemporary film. Those familiar with Jeffrey Kripal’s use of the concept of “superpowers” and parallels with modern superhero lore in discussing premodern religious movements will find much of that influence here. There is also a useful discussion of the documented psychosomatic effects of ecstatic states and certain ritual practices such as chanting, which grounds her claims regarding the outcomes of Gnostic practice.

This is a book about Gnosticism in the ancient Mediterranean basin and, as such, it accomplishes its goal marvelously. However, DeConick overreaches in her desire to establish Gnosticism as a typological category akin to something like “fundamentalism.” This is where the book’s chief strength becomes its primary weakness. DeConick is at her best when she is grounded in the ancient Mediterranean world that first spawned Christian traditions. However, this grounding in Christianity, and its native categories, causes her to generalize their particularities into universal typological tools. Given that DeConick occasionally points to Buddhism in her theoretical discussion of the above categories, I take her thesis as indeed putting forth a universal typology. I am compelled by the proposition that Gnosticism may constitute “a new way of being religious,” but question whether DeConick’s rubric—and the data set used to support it—is general enough to describe exactly how this might be the case anywhere outside of the specific context in question. Such a thesis would require a much broader comparative project.

Likewise, I find DeConick’s move to link ancient Gnostic schools with the contemporary New Age movement, which is a promise that seems to be inherent in the title, to be underdeveloped. Any attempts to trace Gnosticism beyond the scope of the first-to-third centuries of the Common Era happen almost entirely in the final chapter. Yet, this connection comprises much more than simply “uncanny parallels” (17), and DeConick’s own brief recapitulation of what she calls the four “Gnostic Awakenings” gestures at the history responsible for this continuity. Here, DeConick’s work would have benefitted from a deeper engagement with the literature on the history of Western esotericism and—with regards to her stated goal to “try to understand its [Gnostic spirituality’s] survival in modern American religion” (344)—the work of Catherine Albanese, especially her A Republic of Mind and Spirit (Yale University Press, 2007). As a scholar of American metaphysical religions, I take issue with DeConick’s assertion of a standard historical narrative—even one she sees herself as opposing—stating that “because no ancient Gnostic church survives in modern America, the linear track of historical development between the old Gnostics and the modern New Agers is reduced to nonsense” (344). Here, DeConick’s thesis positioning Gnosticism as an analytic category that describes a particular metaphysical orientation would have been immensely useful. While it is true that even the most resilient Gnostic churches she discusses do not survive into the modern day, the metaphysical orientation DeConick isolates demonstrates a great degree of continuity. One wishes that it had not been relegated to a dozen concluding pages.

Overall, DeConick’s work is carefully researched, convincingly argued, and refreshingly accessible. Any criticisms articulated above serve only to point to the pressing need for deeper cooperation and engagement between scholars of Early Christianity and Ancient Mediterranean Religions and those of other fields such as Western Esotericism as well as non-Western religions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anya P. Foxen is lecturer in religious studies at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.

Date of Review: 
July 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

April D. DeConick is Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the Department of Religion at Rice University. She is the author of Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (2013) and The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (2009). She starred in the CNN special series Finding Jesus (2015).

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments