By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
First off, Smoley gnows his stuff. He went to Harvard and Oxford; he was the editor of Gnosis (“the award-winning journal of Western spiritual traditions”); he’s written related books. He’s a damned pointy-headed Massachusetts liberal intellectual. But smart as he is, Smoley is not a smart-ass; he has a lovely touch with this material, which could have been emotional/literary quicksand.
Smoley takes Catholics to task for their intolerance, and born-agains for their smugness, while admiring the former for their idealism and the latter for their commitment — if you manage to get pissed at him anyway, you’ve got to be a dick indeed. And esoteric traditions tend to be very . . . esoteric. Yet the author seizes firmly onto the doctrines of Arians, Docetists, Cathers, Rosicrucians, Kabbalists, Illuminati, Theosophists, et al., laying out their similarities and differences in primary colors and with a lighthearted wit. “Manichaeism must have been a somewhat chilly faith,” he writes. “Its adherents would not give food to beggars because this would perpetuate the imprisonment of the sparks of Light in the bodies of inferior beings.” He’s always clear, never condescending.
If there’s one thing all Gnostics seem to have had in common, it’s a distrust of the world as we see it. With the virtual-everything that we constantly encounter, this distrust turns out to be particularly powerful within the last couple of generations, and Smoley notes its influence in movies — ExistenZ, The Truman Show, The Matrix.
The suspicion that reality is not real, though, has been around for a long, long time, the Hindu idea of maya being only one ancient example. In the West, we tend to think of Plato, with his story of the cave and the shadows and the forms, as being the father of this notion. And many believe that Plato traveled in Egypt. Regardless of whether the philosopher picked up some tips there, the region did become a center for Gnosticism (and the Sacred Feminine); Smoley points out that a whole series of Christian thinkers with Gnostic tendencies — Simon Magus, Basilides, Clement, Origen — studied in Alexandria. Thus a very early and strongly held Christian myth was not so much about a man who died a bloody death to remit sin, but about a spirit who came to connect us with the previously unknowable True God, source of the Platonic forms.
We learn that Judaism acquired the idea of Satan through Zoroastrianism. And that the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick used Gnostic ideas to explain his schizophrenia. And that the Priory of Sion, a prime fantasy vehicle in The Da Vinci Code, had a real-life history; it was absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617 . . . hmm. (Smoley also unveils the novel’s historical boners — attribution of Mary Magdalene’s genealogy to a nonexistent “House of Benjamin”; conflation of a historical Priory of Sion with a modern fake.) Flashes of insight keep exploding in Forbidden Faith; small though it is, it’s the kind of book that could boot a reader off on a longer intellectual journey.
A journey underground, of course.
WHAT A WONDERFUL COINCIDENCE that The Gospel of Judas, a suppressed Gnostic Christian text unread for some 1,700 years, has been published by National Geographic at exactly the moment Da Vinci fever climbs to its perspiring climax. You also have the lucky opportunity to purchase the accompanying volume on the codex’s discovery and restoration, to examine lengthy yet guarded video commentary at www.nationalgeographic.com by Elaine Pagels et al. (what a charming lisp she has!), to watch the National Geographic Channel’s cheesy documentary on the subject, and to purchase the DVD of same. If it’s not too much trouble, we would also like Judas T-shirts and coffee mugs. And McDonald’s Happy Last Suppers?
Judas confirms suspicions about the real reason Gnosticism faded: It wasn’t muscled out, it drowned in its own gobbledygook. Though in its decomposed state the Judas gospel spans only the length of a de Maupassant short story, it nevertheless finds room for several pages of Jesus haranguing Judas (here cast as the enlightened one chosen to liberate Jesus’ spirit from the bondage of earthly flesh) about all the numerologically significant ranks of assorted spirits Iscariot would discover if the despised apostle would only get off his ass and die. “Why are you wondering about this,” inquires Jesus in an especially tortured translation from the Coptic, “that Adam, with his generation, has lived his span of life in the place where he has received his kingdom, with longevity with his ruler?” Yeah, I was wondering the same thing.
Though observers are marveling about the manuscript’s strange rehabilitation of the Judas character, Marvin Meyer, in one of several included essays, observes that this wasn’t a unique reversal: The second-century Christian bishop Irenaeus accused a sect called the Cainites of championing such biblical villains as Cain, Esau and the people of Sodom. Some Gnostics, it seems, annoyed at episcopal claims to doctrinal exclusivity, adopted a contrarian view, identifying themselves with misunderstood bad guys: “You want to play Abraham? Okay, we’ll dig Sodom. You side with Abel? We’ll take Cain. You think you’re Jesus? We’ll be Judas.” So the Cainites were the progenitors of modern heavy-metal musicians, who say, “You hypocrites are godly? Then we must be satanic.” (Check metal lord Glenn Danzig’s “Twist of Cain.”) It’s no wonder that Irenaeus and the other heresy hunters wanted to stamp them out.