Heresy or holy faith?


Cover-Ups, secret societies, Magdalene as Goddess, a look at the "Da Vinci Code" and its gnostic roots.

By Colleen O'Connor

People love a mystery and, these days, Jesus is the biggest mystery of all.

"The Da Vinci Code" has turned many into spiritual detectives, on the hunt for lost religions and poking around early Christian history, scavenging for obscure clues to rampant questions.

Did the early church fabricate an elaborate cover-up, which would mean that Christianity is essentially a lie?

Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? Did she symbolize his adoration of the sacred feminine?

Is Jesus the only way to eternal salvation? Or is he, secretly, a path to true enlightenment? In other words, is Jesus our Inner Gnostic?

If so, is there more truth in the "lost Christianities" - Christian sects from the first centuries who held different beliefs about the reality of Jesus?

This spiritual sleuthing drives an apparent cultural obsession, not just with the blockbuster book "The Da Vinci Code" but with all things esoteric, Gnostic, mystic and, according to followers of traditional Christianity, heretical.

Although experts agree that "The Da Vinci Code" contains many errors in fact, it nevertheless has fueled our fascination with the ancient Cathars and Templars, secret societies like the Freemasons, and the Western esoteric traditions like Christian Kabbalism and Christian Hermeticism - not to mention alchemy and the Holy Grail.

It's driving our renewed interest in Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity that church fathers banned as heresy in the fourth century but has now burst into pop culture.

With this resurgence of Western esoterism, our 21st-century spiritual landscape now resembles the second and third centuries when two types of Christians - orthodox and Gnostic - debated a wealth of ideas about truth, Jesus and the nature of reality.

"The Golden Age of Christianity when all Christians believed the same thing and were one big happy family is just a myth," says David Weddle, chair of the religion department at Colorado College. "Even at the beginning there were different schools on the significance of Christ."

Classical Gnostic theology is "dangerous" for many reasons, including the fact that it presents a view of Jesus that is not truly human, says Edward Sri, co-author of "The Da Vinci Deception," who recently joined the faculty of Augustine Institute in Denver, a center of Catholic doctrine. "It creates a Jesus that is an esoteric, ghostly figure, not a real human Jesus we can really relate to."

The modern debate about these two forms of Christianity can help us better evaluate current controversies, some believe. Just as tremendous growth in Christianity is now shifting from the global Northern to Southern Hemisphere, writes J. Michael Matkin in "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Gnostic Gospels," so was Gnostic Christianity partly a result of the first shift as it moved from Palestine eastward into Persia and westward into Egypt - which triggered concern over how much of the gospel was diluted by beliefs of these new cultures.

"As a test case in how or how not to craft a local theology," he writes, "the debate between Gnostic and orthodox Christians may provide wisdom for navigating the question of what it means to be Christians as we move into the 21st century."

A growing presence

Pop-culture manifestations of this growing esoteric presence includes: Neo-Gnostic churches sprouting up everywhere from Boulder to Columbus, Ohio.

Tori Amos writes in her memoirs "Tori Amos: Piece by Piece" about the importance of Gnosticism to her personal growth. Radio stations play Gnostic-influenced tunes like Tom Russell's "Four Chambered Heart," during which he launches into a spoken-word rendition of the Gnostic gospels.And Odetta has a line in the middle of her version of a John Henry folk song about how John Henry was married to Mary Magdalene.

"That seems to have a Gnostic dualist message where John Henry, a legendary African- American railroad worker, was really a Jesus figure who is united in divine love with Mary Magdalene," says Dan Burstein, author of the best seller "Secrets of the Code: The Unauthorized Guide to the Mysteries Behind the Da Vinci Code."

Passion for the Jesus mystery also stokes sales of best sellers like "The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History" and "The Gospel of Judas," an ancient Gnostic text that claims Jesus asked Judas to betray him so that he could be released from his body and ascend to a Gnostic version of heaven.

The Gnostic gospels, written around the second century and known as the Nag Hammadi library, were rediscovered in an Egyptian cave in 1945, but not translated until the 1970s. Elaine Pagel's best seller "The Gnostic Gospel" brought these noncanonical gospels into public awareness, but "The Da Vinci Code" sent them crashing into pop culture.

Old battles fought anew

A national coalition of Catholic and evangelical churches will fight what they call blasphemous claims of "The Da Vinci Code." Many are now using "The Da Vinci Code" as a teaching tool, debunking its distortions from the pulpit while instilling faith in the divinity of Jesus.

"I think those who run out and buy the Nag Hammadi library and read it will be sorely disappointed in its content," says Dr. Stan Reeder, a senior pastor at Westminister Church of the Nazarene, who is delivering a month-long series of sermons on the novel.

"They'll also understand why Christians of that day didn't seek to bury it or destroy it, but just rejected it. It's bizarre teaching, and not going to be attractive to Western sensibilities."

In his new book, "Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to the Da Vinci Code," scholar Richard Smoley agrees that classical Gnostic theology is often crabbed and obscure.

But the ancient theology - which often reads like 2nd-century science fiction - is not what's driving Gnosticism's tremendous revival today, he writes.

It's the sense that something is missing in Christianity, a suspicion reflected in cultural trends such as disenchantment with institutional Christianity and exploration of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, which teach the need for religious people to verify the truths they've been told through inner spiritual experience.

"Here is where Gnosticism comes in," he writes. "It is based on gnosis, a Greek word that means 'knowledge' but knowledge of a very special kind - a direct inner experience of the divine ... The fact that Gnosticism has been despised or ignored by the official hierarchy is not a drawback; for many, no doubt it mirrors the dismissal of their own experience by the same hierarchy."

This fits with what Weddle has discovered each time he speaks in Colorado about Gnosticism. "People are saying, 'Well, of course. I always thought there was a strain of Christianity that's more inclusive of gender, more open to the life of the spirit, and less bound by regulations and law,' which are all characteristics of Gnosticism," he says.

Feelings of betrayal

Last semester Siobhan Houston, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, taught a popular class called "Ancient and Modern Gnostic Spirituality" at Naropa University in Boulder. Now people are asking Houston, an ordained Gnostic priestess, to start a local Gnostic church, which she plans to do.

"A number of people are feeling betrayed by their tradition, especially Catholics, and they want to find out what really happened in early Christianity," she says. "The Western esoteric tradition might have some answers for them."

Popular with many seekers today, this Western esoteric tradition is a type of spirituality that dates back to Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism of the first centuries.

During the Crusades, people like the Knights Templar brought back these teachings from Arab and Byzantine cultures, dispersing them throughout medieval Europe.

Throughout history, these secret teachings have been passed down through Renaissance magic, Christian Kabbalah, astrology, alchemy, theosophy, Rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry.

Smoley, who tracks this underground lineage in "Forbidden Faith," believes our pop-culture craze for Western esoterica - everything from Madonna's devotion to the Kabbalah to what he describes as gnostic themes in movies like "The Matrix" - is rooted in the modern occult revival of the late 19th century when Helena Petrovna Blavatsky created Theosophy, a gnostic philosophy that teaches that direct inner experience can lead to knowledge of God.

Its 21st-century popularity, however, is driven by more sinister forces.

"All this stuff," he says, "is part of a widespread perception that the powers-that-be are not telling us the truth, which started on a major scale with the Kennedy assassination. Since then people have become more convinced that the government is lying to them, and that religious leaders are lying to them - that whatever is the truth was often deliberately suppressed.

"The Cathars and Templars were fairly austere sects that few would want to join today, but they were suppressed religions, which fits in very well with