Recommended Gnostic Books for the 21st Century Heretic
Beyond a much-needed overhaul, a chief reason I retooled the website was to create a more personal atmosphere with the audience.
The site is up and purring like Bast in heat, with the exception of a few minor Archons waging guerrilla warfare, so it’s time to be more personal.
A common email I receive requests suggestions on what books to read once there is a dawning interest in the Gnostics. That’s a hard question to field, as no list is ever complete (or finite) when it comes to passionate pursuits.
But in cyberspace everyone can hear the list articles scream, so I might as well give it my best Athens college try. The provided list is segmented into categories in a sorta High Fidelity sensibility, hopefully making it easier on everyone.
Introductory Gnostic Works
The Elements of Gnosticism by Stuart Holroyd. The book was suggested to me by a friend many Sophianic moons ago, and what a difference it has made. In a bit more than a 100 pages, Holroyd does a suitable job in taking the reader on an odyssey of the Gnostic annals—from ancient times to Carl Jung. Elements of Gnosticism is by no means comprehensive or academic (and was never meant to be), but it’s nevertheless an excellent distilling of the intoxicating Gnostic spirit.
The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics by Sean Martin. This also work aptly plumbs the chronicles of the Gnostic heresy, yet with more depth than Holroyd (like dealing with the mad Gnosis of Philip K. Dick). In the second edition, Martin delves even deeper with many wonderful insights including the often overlooked legacy of sci-fi writer David Lindsay and his foundational novel, A Voyage to Arcturus.
The Secret History of the Gnostics by Andrew Phillip Smith. This book could be listed in the historical category. It’s certainly longer than the above mentions, yet well-worth the extra sitting in the dark of night while you undergo a dark night of the soul. Beyond an eloquent introduction to the accounts and theology of the Gnostics, Smith has a talent of unearthing unnoticed historical gems such as fascinating Cathar reports, and weaving them into perspective within the tense relationship of Gnosticism and Orthodoxy.
Historical Gnostic Works
The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity by David Brakke. Yet another less-than original title. However, Brakke performs an Aeonic task in presenting the finest and latest on Gnostic scholarship. He draws from the cream of the heretical crop, and then injects his own erudition to grant a truly majestic view of early Gnostic culture. In a nutshell, the only original Gnostics were the Sethians (who weren’t even Sethians to begin with); and Gnosticism (a dubious term) is basically a sort of early Christian Neoplatonism (as most scholars today advocate). Maybe that might not make sense, but Brakke’s book makes crystal sense once read.
Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds by Nicola Denzey Lewis. This is really a textbook, but as with Brakke’s book, it corrals the soundest academic research on the ancient Gnostics. It is pregnant with helpful charts and graphs, making it so much easier to understand historical timelines, as well as the sometimes confusing roles of Sophia, the Demiurge, and Jesus Christ in different texts. Moreover, Lewis provides her own cutting edge insights—like the possibility that the Nag Hammadi library was an Egyptian funerary text instead of a smuggled work under the eyes of Orthodoxy.
Voices of Gnosticism by Miguel Conner. I may be plugging my book, but when 13 of today’s preeminent religious scholars (many the very translators of the original Nag Hammadi library) are personal guides on a safari of the Gnostics, what more could you ask? If it’s an introduction by Andrew Phillip Smith and my own writing, then you do get that too. If not, I feel you’ll still be very pleased.
Philosophical Gnostic Works
The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas. This iconic work by an existentialist philosopher should not be viewed for its history but its sober snapshot of the Gnostics and their surrounding cultures. It’s not so much that the Gnostic worldview was bleak, but that the Greco-Roman times were bleak. In addition, the reader might get a nagging sense that those bleak times parallel modern times; and that the Gnostic voice is still sounding an alarm to a humanity on the brink of despair, destruction, and irreparable boredom.
The Gnostics by Jacques Lecarriere. A much shorter work than The Gnostic Religion, but it’s just as intense. Lecarriere ferries the reader through wild streams of existentialism, nihilism, and transcendence, alongside the stern lighthouse of the Gnostics. In the end, he also does a seemly task at deconstructing mundane reality to the point the reader might accept that the only way to go is to go way out of this universe.
The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead by Stephan Hoeller. Many might assume this list would include Hoeller’s iconic book Gnosticism. I feel this is his best writing, though, not just for placing a finger firmly on the Gnostic philosophical pulse, but also for the mysticism of Carl Jung and the vast terror that is the god above god known as Abraxas. And it has a whole lotta cool occultism.
Inspirational Gnostic Works
The Secret Book of John: The Gnostic Gospel by Stevan Davies. The book can double as a primer on Gnosticism. Yet its spiritual wealth lies in truly capturing the liberating and ethereal essence of the allegedly-surly Sethians (and its unforgettable introduction). The reader will witness the blow-by-blow battle between the Demiurge and his mother Sophia—with humanity hopelessly in between—ultimately understanding that everything is going to be just fine as one awakens to the cosmic soothing of cascading Gnosis.
Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism by David Fideler. This eclectic effort may seem out of place in this section, but it’s truthfully a treatise on the mystic beauty and elegance of the Gnostics (as well as Hellenistic spirituality in early Christian times). Chock full of sacred geometry, esoteric symbolism, proto-Kabbalah, and other heterodox disciplines, Fideler’s book will leave your mind spinning out of control to realms even the imagination cannot capture.
This Way: Gnosis Without “Gnosticism” by Jeremy Puma. As with his other wonderful book How to Think Like a Gnostic, Puma’s work comes close to also being introductory and historical. Like in the case of Hoeller, Puma not only presents a spanning vista of the ancient Gnostics and their dangerous pursuits, but additionally provides sensible reconstructions where these dangerous pursuits can be utilized in a modern setting.
Fictional Gnostic Works
VALIS by Philip K. Dick. Many of Dick’s novels explore Gnosticism, but Valis gives full attention in a magic realism setting. The novel is a delightful read for the mind yet a hard reality for the soul. At its core, the book’s message is that the Gnostic warning of a surveillance state ruled by shadowy, godlike forces has come true (or more like has always been true). In actuality, that’s a common theme in many of Dick’s stories, but in Valis there is that sense of total recall.
The Invisibles by Grant Morrison. This is really a comic book series that can be collected in a volume of books. Regardless, I feel it should be mentioned in this article (or any other on Gnostic fiction listing). Many have wisely contended The Matrix owes its substance and soul to The Invisibles. It’s not hard to see why in this frenetic yet sophisticated epic through various realities that reflect our own crumbling reality. I feel the story’s ultimate value is how it works as a contemporary incarnation of Manichaean thought.
The Secret Passion by Laurence Caruana and The Secret Magdalene by Ki Longfellow. These two remarkable novels deal with one subject: the Gnostic reality behind the great fiction that is conventional Christian history. Caruana and Longfellow not so much rewrite the saga of Jesus Christ, but more like reveal the ceaseless tale of redemption between lost Wisdom and searching Reason that lies woven into the very fabric of the cosmos.
As mentioned, this is just a cursory list. I’d love to hear some of your mentions. I’m sure some may wonder why The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is absent. There are two main reasons:
- The scholarship is dated (for another article).
- The book truly isn’t about the Gnostics, but more about the varying religious views that comprised early Christendom.
Don’t get me wrong. The Gnostic Gospels is a superb read that will expand anyone’s mind (and I would even suggest Beyond Belief is even superior). The book just seems these days miles away from the territories of the Valentinians, Sethians, Naassenes, and other Gnostic schools of thought. Thanks to Pagels, though, it seems society and its view of Christianity has matured.
That’s my list. Sorry, Dan Brown. Okay, I’m not sorry.