Oh, My Pop Culture Gnosticism: What if God Isn’t God?

Nothing says pop culture like 2000-year-old theological debates, right? You’d be surprisedand we’ve discussed it before.

Gnosticism—a heretical branch of early Christianity—faded almost entirely from view after its founders were edged out of the Church by what would become orthodoxy. With most of their works lost or destroyed, their ideas survived only in the denunciations from the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus. The Gnostic focus on secrecy didn’t ensure a broad legacy, either—early leaders such as Valentinius and Marcion privileged access to the deeper nature of the universe for initiates and other worthies. Modern Gnostics avoid the secrecy, and as with many aspects of Gnosticism which may seem troubling, the marginalization of Gnosticism limited our understanding to unfriendly characterizations by their orthodox contemporaries.

But in the 20th century, a treasure trove of Gnostic texts was discovered by a couple of Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi in a sealed jar. Ever since, their ideas—which seem stunningly modern in some ways—have started to permeate back into the world, gaining influence well beyond what would be expected from their obscurity, particularly since the texts themselves are rarely read by anyone besides scholars.

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Still, the ideas in these texts are starting to make their way into pop culture, directly or indirectly, and Gnostic ideas are fascinating enough to be talked about far away from their original sources. They feature prominently in the His Dark Materials series, and some concepts pop up in such unexpected places as Young Avengers, Final Fantasy, and even Futurama.

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Superman: Gnostic Christ Figure or Jewish Prophet?

supermanI have talked before about how Superman is actually a Christ figure, but I have always described and explained it in a mainstream Christian sense. However, there was a form of Christianity that existed on the fringes during the end of the second century called Gnostic Christianity: an interesting form of Christianity that combines Christianity, various Pagan beliefs, and esoteric philosophy. Largely regarded by other Christians as heretical, this form of Christianity eventually died out, though it did have some modern resurgence after some Gnostic texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1947.

When I was studying theology in school, I was talking to my professor about Superman as a Christ figure and he argued that Superman was more of a Gnostic Christ figure than a modern Christian one. And it is true that Superman does share some similarities with the Gnostic depiction of Christ. But after doing more research into Superman’s character, I realized that the creators of Superman were Jewish and that Superman actually has a lot more connections with Judaism than with Christianity. Despite this, in recent years writers have taken a more Christian approach to Superman. It’s interesting that Superman, despite being created by Jewish writers, later became more Christian, particularly in regards to the more Gnostic version of Christianity. Gnostic Christianity was more a rejection of Judaism, because it views the God of the Old Testament as an evil god. So is Superman more of a Gnostic Christ figure, or more like one of the Jewish prophets?

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Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Bad News—The Anti-Gospel of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist

Happy Women’s History Month! I figured what better time to bring up an old, dark current in human history—a question as absurd to our modern sensibilities as it was ubiquitous to earlier generations: Are women evil? Now, I’m not going to attempt to go through an exhaustive historical catalog of theological and philosophical sources that have answered this question (unfortunately, often in the affirmative). But let’s turn to one particular stream of thought: Gnosticism. The religions under the umbrella of Gnosticism are characterized by a dualistic cosmology that pits the physical, material world against the heavenly, spiritual world, the former being seen as profane and corrupt, the latter being seen as good and holy. Unfortunately for women, they were seen as by nature being more closely tied to the passionate, material world, whereas men were seen as being more closely tied to the rational, spiritual world. Can’t sum it up better than this line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Let Mary [Magdalene] leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

Though Gnosticism never won out as a normative expression of Christianity, some of its dualistic thinking about gender and sexuality continued to inspire later thinkers in church history. For this post, I want to focus on just one iteration of the idea: the haunting, psychosexual nightmare of a film by Danish screenwriter and director Lars von Trier, entitled Antichrist. I remember first reading about the film on some internet click-bait page of “the most shocking horror movies” or something like that; and it is indeed shocking. A quick list of adjectives I’d use to describe the film include: brutal, savage, delirious, perverse. Yet the cinematography has a sinister, aching beauty that makes it a morbid pleasure to watch for fans of artsy horror films. With a cast of just two main actors (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, of all people) in incredibly intense performances, and backed by a research team that includes consultants on subjects from theology, anxiety, and misogyny to “mythology and evil”, horror films, and psychotherapy, it is an unexpected, unforgettable look at the age-old question: Are women evil? Spoilers below.

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