Carnal Gnowledge: Gnostics, agnostics, Christians and one of the book's editors take on Donna Minkowitz's review of "The Gnostic Bible."

By Salon Staff
January 27, 2004 2:00AM (UTC)
main article image

[Read Donna Minkowitz's review of "The Gnostic Bible."]

The Gnostic creation myth, where "Sakla essentially fucks himself to create the material world," makes a lot of sense; he was probably fucking up.

-- Christopher D. Coccio

The problem with making a "Gnostic Bible" is that there was no one religion called "Gnosticism." There were various Christian/Zoroastrian/Jewish faiths that explored a multiplicity of religious ideas over the course of at least two centuries. There is little evidence that these groups of people even communicated with each other.


The blanket category of "Gnosticism" owes its existence to the writings of the Catholic anti-heretical Bishop Irenaeus, whose polemic against these various groups imposed a common taxonomy upon them, based on what he considered their common flaw: the concept of salvation by knowledge (gnosis), as opposed to faith.

If you really are curious about these extraordinary, and yes, often quite weird, alternative writings, read the Nag Hammadi Library. It is like stepping into a parallel universe in which a single autocratic body did *not* dominate religious and moral thought for a thousand years.

-- Micah T. Drayton


I thought that the entire point of Gnosticism was that wisdom/knowledge is revealed to everybody via the "gnosis" and therefore a large church hierarchy was neither needed nor desirable.

In fact, the existence of such a hierarchy tended to indicate that the participants had not received any "gnosis" and were relying on earthly wisdom.

The early Orthodox Church was obviously somewhat threatened by this, as are the various hierarchies in today's religions.


I was surprised that this point didn't make it into the article. I suppose that this is pretty basic to someone who knows about Gnosticism, but how many of those are there?

-- Peter Doege

I hardly know what to say about this article. It feels like Donna Minkowitz has projected a lot of herself on the Gnostics, a huge range of groups she sees as maltheist, pleasingly prurient and antagonistic toward the type of religion she must have had an unhappy experience of. She's irritated and bored when Gnostic writings show signs of a positive God-concept. She spirals downward in a cry of distress against prescriptive religion.


It's painful to read as a personal statement, but just as much so as a statement of liberals' religious estrangement. Are secular liberals today's heroically heretical minority? I think we're wounded and impoverished by our failure to question the definition of Western religion as supernaturalism, patriarchy, legalism. There is such a thing as progressive Christianity and it is a more graceful and authentic heir to the tradition than paranoid, dualistic conservatism. But many of us are still convinced that religion is necessarily about duty to the now-dead Sky-Father, rather than having our participation in reality informed by the profound significance of love.

Donna Minkowitz seems to have gone to the Gnostics for titillation and mostly gotten what she brought with her -- a sense of alienation. I believe that liberals don't have to be anguished outsiders to our own religious traditions. And I see the Gnostics as part of the Christian family rather than set against it.

-- Elizabeth Durack


Donna Minkowitz's review of "The Gnostic Bible" is both demeaning and misleading. She treats Gnosticism as though it's a passing fad, completely neglecting to mention that there are thousands of actual practitioners of "Gnosticism" worldwide. Imagine how a Muslim would react seeing Islam described as "The Allah Craze," or a Jew reading Judaism described as a "boutique religion." As a ten-year Gnostic, I am embarrassed to see my faith portrayed in this fashion by someone who doesn't seem to have studied it very much.

There is no such thing as "Gnosticism." The term has been applied to a plethora of religious and philosophical groups who never referred to themselves as such. Trying to apply universals to the Gnostics like "God is Evil" or "the Gnostics were feminists," or trying to look all cool by pointing out the "contradictions" in Gnostic thought is just plain silly.

Minkowitz's article reads like the work of a future alien anthropologist complaining about all of the "contradictions" in Christianity while referring only to the King James Bible, the Book of Mormon and the Quran.


God isn't evil in most Gnostic texts; it's insane. And focusing on postmodern definitions of "feminism" when discussing Gnosticism seems ridiculously deconstructionist when referring to texts that are more than 1,500 years old.

I could write pages and pages on how wrong this article is, but don't have the time or space. The information is all there-- try starting at enemies.com or gnosis.org. Gnosticism isn't some trendy fad for some of us -- it's our chosen spiritual path and way of life. Donna Minkowitz treats the subject as though it's the latest tattoo logo on skatergrrls ankles. I suggest she read some of the primary texts and talk to some people involved in the tradition rather than wasting space with misleading generalizations and inaccurate information. If Salon's editors want an article on Gnosticism, perhaps they should consider getting a Gnostic to write one.

-- Jeremy Puma

Donna Minkowitz has written an energetic review of our book "The Gnostic Bible," or has she? Perhaps she has in mind another volume? She slams our book for two great thematic defects or omissions: Our lack of understanding of feminism in Gnosticism and our acceptance of a Gnostic authority as bad as any deity in other religions. (She makes no judgment on quality or poverty of the translation, say, of the long blank-verse mystical Iraqi epic, "Mother of Books," or of any of the song sequence, which comprise half the volume.)


Corrections: Throughout I emphasize that in Gnosticism Eve is the hero rather than the villain as she is in the Abrahamic religions. With Promethean courage she takes the fruit of knowledge, suffers, but does so because salvation must come though knowledge. In the meditative speculation of Gnosticism, profoundly influenced by Socratic thought and speech, salvation or the good life comes through self-knowledge. This is an essential point. Rather than accept the word of authority (as she claims we and the Gnostics do), for the Gnostics knowledge is foremost. By contrast, faith is either bad or of dubious value, since faith reflects not knowledge (gnosis) but the authority of the clergy. Most Gnostic sects reject clergy.

I make frequent comparison of this gender-friendly speculation, with its mother-father principle of all (the pleroma) to the Quakers, who similarly have no clergy, look for inner light and believe in earthly deeds. By earthly deeds, I mean that the gnostics are not under the threat of a day of judgment in a later life, but a good life or spiritual salvation now. None of these essential ideas of Gnosticism, central to our presentation, of the importance of women, equal even in the last major manifestation of Gnosticism, which is the Cathars in France, have entered Minkowitz's review.

I believe that Minkowitz wants to attack, which may be a worthy habit, but "The Gnostic Bible" is the wrong target. Nothing that she shouts about relates deeply or superficially to this book. I read the review without anger -- which her review breathes -- but disbelief and sadness. Why this ill-conceived and ill-directed diatribe?

-- Willis Barnstone
[Co-editor, with Marvin Meyer, of "The Gnostic Bible."]

Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------