The Da Vinci Code and the culture war
May 3, 2006
The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, and the second century Gospel of Judas are two books in the news that promote the heresy of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is the topic of a nineteen-hundred-year-old theological controversy, but it is also relevant to contemporary politics and the culture war. The upcoming Hollywood movie The Da Vinci Code, based upon the book, will hit the theaters during election season. Can Gnostic attitudes influence elections? Yes.
The Democratic Party is simultaneously more secular and more messianic than the Republican Party. Interestingly, since Gnosticism is dualistic, it lends support to both secular and messianic politics. As we shall see, a person with Gnostic tendencies will tend to follow left-wing ideology on political culture war issues.
The main body of this essay will be devoted to the political and cultural implications of Gnosticism. Subsequently, a few historical facts will be offered to show that some of the claims of The Da Vinci Code are historically impossible. The final section of this essay will be titled "For Christians Only" and will explain what Gnosticism was in history, why the early church declared it to be a heresy, and why it is dangerous for Christians today.
Gnosticism is a dualistic view of the world that leads one to think in diametrical opposites. Two opposing thoughts are segregated in hermetically sealed compartments of thought. Gnostic dualism drives out common sense and the wisdom of the golden mean.
One can recognize the dualistic fluctuations in a quasi-Gnostic political liberal's thought as he jumps from one hermitically sealed compartment of thought to the opposite sealed chamber. If you say no to the thought in one chamber, he will be convinced that you believe in the opposite thought in the other. If you reject his left-wing utopia, he will assume that you are part of a conspiracy against the ideals of the utopia. If you reject his secularism, he will assume you want a theocracy. If you reject his identity politics, he will assume you are racist, sexist, and homophobic.
The beliefs that one has about the human body influence one's political orientation. The ancient Gnostics believed that matter is evil and the physical body is the enemy of the spirit. Some Gnostics were ascetics who despised the body and treated it roughly. Other Gnostics thought that what you do with the body is meaningless.
Politics is an embodied human activity. If one thinks that what he does with the body is meaningless from a spiritual point of view, then he might suppose that religion and morality are indifferent to politics. He will probably assume that religious and moral convictions should be removed from political debate and public policy deliberations.
Certain people of a dualistic semi-Gnostic type live in air-tight compartments with religion in one compartment, the body in another compartment, and politics in a third. They might be privately religious, but want their politics to be cleansed of all traces of religion. Such folks might find a natural home in the secularist faction of the Democratic party.
However, some religious people who are politically conservative also live in air-tight compartments and separate their politics from their religion. This kind of dualistic conservatism used to be very common, but is less common today. In contrast, the liberals are getting more dualistic over time.
Culture war Gnosticism
If the physical body is evil, as Gnostics claim, then good riddance to the tiny evil material creature "contaminating" a woman's womb. If the physical body is meaningless, then abortion is morally neutral. If the body is a hindrance to the spirit, then if a woman aborts her baby, she is doing the baby a favor by releasing the incorporeal spirit of the babe from the "prison" of its body. Likewise, if the body is a hindrance to the soul, and the hindrance gets worse during illness, then doctors are doing sick people a favor to euthanize them.
These startling ideas about abortion and euthanasia are the logical conclusions of Gnostic assumptions. False world views breed moral monstrosities.
Of course, the moral monstrosity of Gnostic logic is not directly responsible for the pro-abortion or pro-euthanasia movements. But as one argues for abortion and euthanasia, he moves in the direction of Gnostic thought. The pro-choice and pro-euthanasia movements have thus made millions of Americans receptive to the Gnostic message of The Da Vinci Code and the Book of Judas. If these books are successful in promoting Gnostic views, the popularity of abortion and euthanasia will increase.
Gnosticism will invariably come down on the wrong side of culture war questions having to do with sexuality. If it does not matter what one does with his body, then adultery, bigamy, concubinage, promiscuity, homosexuality, incest, and pedophilia become things of moral indifference. In contrast, if the body is inherently evil, then sex is inherently evil and the Gnostic disciple should not marry and have children. Either way, Gnosticism is contrary to family values.
Oddly, Gnosticism can have Messianic connotations. Gnosticism is the belief in salvation through the esoteric knowledge of an initiated elite. Any cultural elite that has special knowledge of the "forces of history" and is leading the people towards a utopia resembles Gnostic leaders in certain ways. Utopia is a dream of a collective salvation of man in this world, without a savior and without God. This version of "salvation" involves the perfection of human nature and society through social manipulation by government and mystical "forces of history." Thus, the historic liberal-progressive movement is messianic, and the elite leaders of the movement have Gnostic tendencies of thought and attitude.
This is not to imply that the leaders of the progressive movement of the past have been initiates of Gnostic cults. The human pathology of splitting in two can occur without the help of Gnostic ideas. Fallen man loses his wholeness and splits into pieces. Gnosticism simply capitalizes upon man's lamentably fragmented condition and makes him even more fragmented. In contrast, faith in Christ and following the path of Christian spirituality and doctrinal orthodoxy make broken people whole.
The doctrinally orthodox Christians who were instinctively opposed initially to the liberal-progressive movement perhaps might have been repelled by the Gnostic aroma. Some of the Evangelicals and Catholics who have left the Democratic Party in recent decades might have been driven out of the party by the Gnostic scent of otherworldly worldliness of liberal ideals and ideology.
The presidential primary campaign of Howard Dean had some of the qualities of a religious cult. The fanaticism, surreal illusions, grandeur, and cult paranoia were recognizable among some of the Dean groupies. At times, Dean seemed to be intoxicated by his own juices. Was this a Gnostic cult? Not exactly. It was a hyper-political cult with Gnostic tendencies and messianic illusions.
President Kennedy assembled an intellectual and cultural elite around himself. The romantic aura of that circle inspired liberal writers to call it "Camelot." Was Kennedy's inner circle like a Gnostic cult? No. The Kennedy family was too hard-headed and pragmatic for that. John F. Kennedy himself was not even a true liberal, except for his image. However, he was glad to have liberal groupies and a fawning press behave as though he was a rock star, a messiah, or a god. Many a conservative was drawn to Jack Kennedy as a level-headed person who had charm and grace, but was nauseated by the messianic and quasi-Gnostic attitudes emanating from the Camelot groupies.
It is no accident that Hollywood leans hard to the left because many Hollywood people are painfully secular, while paradoxically filled with romantic fantasies and inflated ego-illusions. They can be burned out and depressed, yet have the ego inflation of a messianic personality disorder. Like Humphrey Bogart's character Rick in Casablanca, Hollywood folks tend to be hard-boiled, disillusioned, and world weary
Is Gnosticism germane to the arts, literature, and philosophy as it is to the movies? Yes. Some individuals of the Gnostic type have made a religion out of culture, while other quasi-Gnostics are cultural relativists and insist that the cultural expressions one chooses make no difference. Hollywood plays both angles. Making films can be virtually a religion in Hollywood. At the same time, the film makers deny that depravity on the screen has any deleterious effect on the actors or the audience.
Gnosticism can make one either hyper-sensitive to aesthetic beauty and ugliness, or blind to aesthetic qualities. The extreme Gnostic idea of art as a religion, as well as the extreme opposite idea of art as a meaningless diversion, must both be rejected before we can have a wholesome cultural renewal.
The pursuit of a weird Gnostic kind of "salvation" through aesthetic high culture was evident among the cultural elite of the Victorian Era. The tendency of the twentieth century, by contrast, was a Gnostic cultural relativism.
The Victorian idolatry of culture
English poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) deeply regretted his loss of faith and sought something to replace it. His search for a substitute for faith extended in two directions: (1) to change Christianity, and (2) to find a replacement for religion. He was convinced that man cannot do without religion, but that modern man cannot live with religion as it is. In order to change religion to suit modern man, Arnold became an early pioneer of Anglican liberalism.
The old Christian orthodoxy required faith and truth. The invention of liberal Protestantism was driven by the desire to find a substitute for faith and truth, yet find a way to meet man's religious needs. To this day, many liberal Protestants are essentially religious unbelievers. This idea is perfectly expressed in a line spoken by a defrocked priest to Larry Darrow, the protagonist in The Razor's Edge, a book by Somerset Maugham. "You are a very religious man who does not believe in God," said the former priest. This phrase perfectly describes Matthew Arnold.
However, Arnold was not entirely convinced that a retooled liberal Protestantism would be sufficient to meet man's spiritual needs. He borrowed a concept from German idealist philosophy and said that poetry itself is geistlich, or "spiritual." Arnold predicted that poetry would gradually replace the spirituality of religion. He said that more and more, we will have to "turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us." It is quite true that poetry can be a secondary supplement to the insights of Christian spirituality and an aid to understanding life. However, it is a Gnostic species of madness to propose mere poetry as a substitute for traditional Christianity, the glorious and triumphant religion of the ages. However, poetry can indeed substitute for the empty shell of Arnold's liberal Protestantism.
It is the very essence of Gnosticism to search high and low for a substitute for Christianity by those who cannot live with the Christian faith and cannot live without it. Gnosticism could never have existed if Christianity had not first existed.
Did Arnold seek salvation through poetry? Yes and no. No, in the sense of gaining deliverance from sin and entry into eternal life. Yes, in that Arnold sought "moral and intellectual deliverance" through poetry.
Arnold was not a formal adherent of Gnosticism, but he resembled an elite Gnostic leader in certain respects. Ancient Gnosticism involved salvation through esoteric knowledge for an initiated elite. Poetry can sometimes be a means of intuitive and esoteric knowledge. The cultural elite of Victorian England put great stock in the power of poetry. The prophetic voice of poetry seemed to be more accessible to the cultural elite than to ordinary unlettered people. One might say that Arnold was "initiated" into the mysteries of poetry at Oxford University, a place he revered and loved all his days. Thus, poetry might be considered the source of esoteric knowledge for a favored few. This pattern is very close to the Gnostic approach to salvation.
Arnold would feel right at home at a church in my home town, which is rich, culturally elite, and theologically liberal. The leaders encourage New Age spirituality posing as Medieval contemplative spirituality. They give magnificent concerts of baroque and classical music on religious holidays. The place is a triumph of cultured Gnosticism. No one with faith in God or belief in truth need apply, but all who want to enjoy the feeling of religious and cultural superiority are welcome.
The wedding of theological liberalism with high-brow culture in the Victorian Era made many American Evangelicals suspicious of a sophisticated culture of beauty and harmony. The low-brow anti-intellectual culture of some Evangelicals was partly a reaction to the high-brow cultural Gnosticism of liberalism and unbelief. The grandparents of contemporary Evangelicals threw the beautiful cultural baby out with the dirty Gnostic bath water. This foolish overreaction made some Evangelicals intellectually unfit for fighting the culture war. The American cultural collapse followed in the train of the Evangelical cultural retreat (circa 1920–1970).
German philosophical Gnosticism
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) was a German philosophical idealist, but his concept of salvation had Gnostic and Buddhist strains. He was pessimistic about reason and the possibility of human happiness. His concept of salvation as a release from pain, passion, and desire was approximately the same as the "salvation" sought by Gautama Siddhatha Buddha (circa 500 B.C.). Schopenhauer proposed three paths of "salvation"
According to Schopenhauer, the creative arts convey pure knowledge to the soul. This pure knowledge raises one to the meditation of the platonic archetypes. As we are thereby lifted to a higher plane of being, we are released from pain, passion, and desire. Schopenhauer was not entirely wrong. It is true that the inspiration of high culture can momentarily lift one out of the self. Unfortunately, one soon sinks back down into the darkness of the self and into pain, passion, and desire.
Schopenhauer was an early advocate of art as therapy. A decadent version of art as therapy was surrealism (1920s & 30s) and abstract impressionism (1940s & 50s). However, these debased twentieth century arts led to immersion in the inner primitive nature that offers no cure for human pathology. This contrasts with the classical arts, which were more what Schopenhauer had in mind. Great art tends to pull one out of the self to greet the objective world, or to raise one up to a glorious transcendent world. Such a release is joyous and salutary, albeit momentary. In contrast, the decadent art of wallowing in inner darkness makes one sicker and more despairing.
Italian Neo-Idealist Bernardetto Croce (1896) might be called a twentieth century Italian Neo-Schopenhauerist. He said that logic and aesthetics are manifestatons of geistlich, or "the spirit." He claimed that nothing exists but self-creating mind. The "universal creative mind" manifests itself in art. Art appreciation is an intuitive means of attaining reality.
Dr. I.A. Richards, an atheistic poetry critic, followed the ideas of Croce and claimed that good poetic taste is a means of psychological adjustment and effective living. Here again is poetry as therapy. Poetry has "the keys to the only heaven which Richards believed in," according to C. S. Lewis.
As already noted, Schopenhauer's concept was a blend of Gnosticism and Buddhism. "Centering prayer" has remarkable similarities to Schopenhauer's approach to "salvation." Centering prayer was invented by American Trappist monks and involved a blend of techniques from the Christian contemplative prayer tradition and Buddhist meditation. The centering prayer movement was initially conceived of as a method for seeking God, an idea with great merit. Tragically, centering prayer was gradually corrupted with New Age spirituality and self-improvement inner-programming techniques. This once magnificent but now corrupted prayer movement involves ersatz self-spirituality as self-therapy. In its present tainted condition, centering prayer deserves no more respect than abstract impressionism as therapy. Interestingly, centering prayer devotees are mostly liberal and feminist in theology and politics.
As we can see, quasi-Gnostic ideas have blighted the arts, ruined some forms of Christian spirituality, and multiplied theological and political liberals.
The great pendulum of culture
In contrast to the cultural idolatry of the Victorian Era, cultural relativism dominated the late twentieth century. If there is a giant pendulum moving in cultural history, the century that separated the Victorian world and the multicultural world saw the great pendulum travel from one pole of thought to the diametrically opposite pole. This great reversal involved a switch between the two kinds of cultural Gnosticism
Poet and novelist Virginia Woolf lived when the great pendulum was half-way through its arc. She was born at the very epicenter of the elite English circles of aesthetic literature, and was either related by blood or connected by family, social, and personal relationship to most of the reigning English literati.
Like Matthew Arnold, Virginia's religion was the aesthetics of poetry and literature. She was increasingly disillusioned and depressed during the course of her life as her religion of aesthetics failed her. She committed suicide in 1945. The religion of literature failed her just as the religion of poetry failed Byron and the religion of nature failed Wordsworth. Gnostic substitutes for Christianity do not work.
If the pendulum has swung from cultural idolatry to cultural relativism, has the danger of Gnosticism waned? No. Cultural relativism itself is a form of Gnosticism.
If one thinks that what he does with the body is meaningless
Today, the prevailing notion about the arts is that they have value only in terms of cultural fashion, personal taste, and subjective experience. One can privately value the personal experience, but the experience offers no grounds for intrinsic meaning in the art object of itself. This soulless view of extreme subjective nominalism is historically rare. Yet it is ubiquitous at this historical moment of psychological and aesthetic claustrophobia.
Many doctrinally orthodox Christians who are strong opponents of moral relativism unthinkingly accept this Gnostic bit of cultural relativism without question. These Christians parrot the threadbare line that the arts are purely a matter of personal taste, but have no objective meaning. Thus, they live in Gnostic-style sealed compartments with moral absolutism in one compartment and cultural-aesthetic relativism in another.
The elites of relativism
It was to be expected that the cultural elitism of the Victorian Era would be ruled by a cultural elite. It comes as a surprise that the cultural relativism of the present time is also ruled by a cultural elite
As already made clear, Gnosticism always involves an initiated elite, a means of "salvation" through esoteric knowledge, and a dualistic world view. The elites of academia today rule over the domain of Multiculturalism
The elite art community has persuaded the gullible philistines of our culture that Jackson Pollock's paint drippings on canvas (abstract expressionism) are great art. Pollock used his paint messes as self-therapy to cure his mental illness, and thus as a means of "salvation" through deep inner knowledge. Pollack committed suicide. His false god of art failed him
How is cultural relativism a form of dualism? Culture inhabits one hermetically sealed compartment of life, and the real world is contained in another. When Pollock tried to get in touch with his deepest impulses as he splashed paint on the canvas, he occupied an esoteric world completely cut off from objective reality. Gnostic esoterica is always alien to objective reality. This alienation from reality can lead to madness and suicide. The gulf between the esoteric knowledge of Gnosticism and reality is precisely why the elites have to go through a mind-bending initiation to enter into this faux "knowledge." In seeking an idolatrous kind of knowledge, they have become fools.
The Da Vinci Code's historical impossibilities
With that backdrop, let's examine the Da Vinci Code.
Lest the Gnostic message of the Da Vinci Code be taken seriously, we will first debunk the historical fables contained within it
Impossibility #1: According to the Da Vinci Code (DVC) Gnosticism was a very ancient and worldwide form of spirituality, and the early church was Gnostic prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Impossible! Gnosticism came late in the game. Gnosticism appeared as Christian heresy or an alternative to Christianity. There was no reason for Gnosticism to exist before Christianity existed. An early form of proto-Gnosticism appeared in the late first century and was condemned as a heresy by the elderly Apostle John. In the first Epistle of John, he warns of a "spirit of antichrist" that denies that Jesus came to this world in a physical body. The first chapter of Hebrews (possibly written by a disciple of the Apostle Paul) emphases that Christ in His deity was above the angels and in his humanity was "a little lower than the angels." This directly contradicted the Gnostic claim that Christ was an angel or phantom. The Gnostics thought the body is evil and assumed that the sinless Christ must be a spirit being who lacks a material body.
The first published books of fully developed Gnostic doctrine appeared in the second century A.D. Modern scholars have some of the manuscripts such as the Gospel of Judas. They also have the manuscripts of the second century fathers of the church who condemned the Gnosticism contained in these documents.
Impossibility #2: According to the DVC, the New Testament was invented at the Council of Nicea as a conspiracy of Emperor Constantine to supplant Gnostic Christianity with a new religion.
Impossible! All the books of the New Testament were in general circulation among the churches prior to the publication of the first Gnostic books. The New Testament books were widely accepted by the churches as having Apostolic authority. The books were not yet assembled into a complete New Testament, but several lists of proposed canonical books were drafted by church leaders in the second century. No Gnostic books were included in the various lists.
The Council of Nicea embraced the canonical books and condemned Gnosticism, at the insistence of the Bishops, not by the decree of Constantine. The Council of Nicea ratified and codified into a creed a statement of doctrinal orthodoxy. The Nicene Creed agreed with the earliest version of the Apostles creed that was written about fifty years after the last New Testament book was written. The Apostles Creed was originally conceived as a question and answer catechism. One of the purposes of the catechism was to refute Gnosticism. The Council of Nicea carried forward the aims of the Apostles Creed that were constituted approximately 175 years before. So much for the fable that Nicea was a conspiracy of Constantine.
Impossibility #3: According to the DVC, Gnosticism was the spirituality of the "sacred feminine."
Impossible! The Gnostic leaders of that era were misogynists! They hated women! Women reminded them of the corrupted physical body and of sex, which they thought was vile. Many Gnostics thought they must separate themselves from women and detach themselves from the body in order to attain spirituality. The idea of a "sacred feminine" would have been abomination to the historic Gnostics.
The Roman Catholic church had no concept of the sacred feminine until the twelfth century, when the veneration of the Virgin became a major cult of the church. However, twentieth century Gnosticism and theological liberalism are deeply influenced by feminism
Impossibility #4: According to the DVC, the Gnostics thought that men are spiritually inferior and require sex with a woman, preferably sex with a lot of women, to partake of the "divine spark" of the sacred feminine.
Impossible! The Gnostics thought that men are spiritually superior. Some Gnostic cults thought that sex is evil. They saw it is a cursed activity with contemptible women that leads one away from spirituality. While it is true that some ancient pagans employed sex in temple worship, this was never the case for the misogynist Gnostics.
In contrast to the celibate Gnostics, some Gnostic cults thought that sex is meaningless and others considered it a necessary evil for the propagation of the species. At best, the Gnostics saw women as mere sex objects and wretched child bearers and at worst
Dan Brown's book (DVC) is historical nonsense, but it sells briskly because women want to feel spiritually superior and men want to have a lot of sex. Mr. Brown is the master of pandering.
Impossibility #5: According to the DVC, women in the pagan and Gnostic world had high social status. The scriptures ratified at the Council of Nicea brought them under gender oppression.
Impossible! Women had low status under the spiritual oppression of paganism. They had lower status from the misogyny of Gnosticism. The New Testament church substantially raised the status of women and recognized them as equals to men as spiritual beings
Impossibility #6: According to the DVC, Jesus married Mary Magdalen. This is impossible from the standpoint of Gnosticism. The Gnostics claimed that Jesus was an angel or phantom because they denied that Christ, the holy one of God, could be incarnated in an evil body. A spirit being that lacks a body cannot marry a woman.
If Jesus had been a leading Gnostic, as the DVC claims, he would have been a celibate ascetic, scrupulously averse to sex, and would reject marriage in order to set an example to his followers. If, on the other hand, he was the type of Gnostic who thought the uses of the body are meaningless, he would not waste his precious time in a meaningless embrace with a distracting fleshly wife.
For Christians Only
Why Gnosticism is a heresy
Classical Gnosticism entails the belief that salvation can come through esoteric knowledge of an initiated elite. One must be mystically detached from the evil body through ascetic practices in order to enter into celestial light and knowledge.
These ideas directly contradict Christian orthodoxy on at least seven points:
1) The Christian is saved by grace through faith, and not through knowledge. Knowledge of the truth can lead towards faith, but faith appears in the human heart as a gift from God.
2) God does not give special spiritual knowledge to an elite, but sometimes shares his mysteries with the humble. The elite are more likely to be proud and resist grace, whereas the humble are more likely to receive saving grace through simple faith.
3) Formal initiation is not a necessary prelude to faith and grace.
4) The body is not inherently evil, but can be put to evil uses.
5) Repentance of sin is necessary before receiving saving grace. Ascetic practices do not necessarily signify true repentance.
6) A mystical experience of detachment from the body is not necessary for repentance, faith, or grace.
7) Salvation does not consist of illuminated knowledge, although spiritual illumination can accompany salvation or follow from it. Salvation involves deliverance from the guilt and power of sin, the gift of eternal life, and an eternity of bliss spent in the presence of God.
Gnosticism denies Christ as Savior
The Book of Thomas is a Gnostic book written in the second century. According to this book, Christ asked Thomas to betray Him to the authorities. Allegedly, Christ wanted to die on the cross, not to be our savior, but to be freed from his evil body for the release and purification of his soul.
The deceived Gnostics who wrote The Book of Thomas thought that Christ went to the cross primarily concerned with his own purification, instead of the salvation of those who would trust in him. Gnostics deny that Christ's death atones for human sins. Those who perish in the deception of Gnosticism descend into a lost eternity.
Christ's death on the cross and His bodily resurrection from the dead are both necessary for eternal salvation. He vicariously bore our sins in his body on the cross and suffered terrible punishment for those sins. Through his work on the cross Christ saved us from condemnation and judgment for those sins. He bodily rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, with the power of eternal life. This supernatural power of Christ's resurrection places heavenly life and victory in the heart of the believer, raises him from the dead at the end of time, brings him to heaven, and sustains him for all eternity.
The Gnostic formulation of Christ as an angel or phantom makes it logically impossible for Christ to save us. As a spirit being, an angel cannot be nailed to a physical cross and cannot die. Even if God somehow found a way for an angel to die, it would be irrelevant to human salvation, because angels and men are categorically different kinds of beings. An angel is not a man and therefore cannot take man's place as the vicarious sacrifice for sin. Man cannot come personally to an angel as savior. Man must be able to come to a man he can know and have a relationship with, and a man who can suffer for him.
An angel is a limited being, and the sacrifice of an angel is not adequate in value to pay for all the sins of the world. An angel does not have the infinite capacity to suffer for all the sins of the world. However, if Christ is fully God as well as fully man, the value of his death is more than adequate to atone for all the sins of the world. If He is both God and man, he can indeed bear all guilt and all sin and suffer all punishment.
The Da Vinci Code is not only false, it is historically impossible. The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas promote Gnostic heresy. This is vitally significant, since the deception of Gnosticism can lead to eternal damnation.
Gnosticism involves a peculiar form of dualism, an ersatz spirituality, and a bogus elitism. Gnostic ideas have a mischievous effect on political ideology and a ruinous effect on culture. Most Quasi-Gnostics are religious and political liberals. They invariably side with the anti-life and anti-family camp in the culture war.
The upcoming movie The Da Vinci Code could well be a public triumph for Gnosticism, feminism, and libertinism
RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.
© 2006 Fred Hutchison