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Harry Potter. Popular Features. New Releases. Keepers of an ancient minority religious tradition, these peace-loving people may now be found in small numbers in such unlikely locations as Sydney, New Jersey, or Manchester. They have a claim to being the last Gnostics, The Mandaeans place weekly river baptisms at the centre of their religious life, and the primary exemplar, though not the founder, of their religion is claimed to be none other than John the Baptist.
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Could this really be true? Could an obscure middle-eastern ethnic religion really stretch all the way back to the Gnostics and John the Baptist? What is their relationship to other ancient minority religions such as the Yazidis and Druze? Could they have influenced the Knights Templar? Do they preserve traces of ancient Babylonian religion? Could they really have a link with John the Baptist, and who was that mysterious figure? Was Jesus himself an apostate Mandaean?
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Andrew Phillip Smith. The Gnostic Bible. Willis Barnstone. Gnostic Bible. Samael Aun Weor. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Marvin W. Essential Gnostic Scriptures. Not in His Image. John Lamb Lash. Rome so feared the good example that the Cathars offered that it condemned them as heretics and set up the Inquisition to kill them off and write them out of the authorised version of history. But you can't keep a good story down, and the broadcaster and novelist Kate Mosse is among those riding the Gnostic new wave. Her Cathar-based novel, Labyrinth , set for publication in , was sold at auction after a fierce bidding war among publishers.
There's an element of us, confronted by the state of our world, finally abandoning the linear view of history - that humankind has simply got better and better at things - and instead searching through the past for guidance, for wonderful flowerings and movements that seem to understand our needs so much better than anything else currently on offer.
And Gnosticism, I think, offers the possibility that the answer is there within us and always has been. Back then I could see its attraction - feeling free of any institutional constraints on being spiritual, a way for ordinary people to seek divine enlightenment. But if the new adherents get beyond the desire to look groovy and radical and really start looking at what Gnosticism was all about, they are in for a nasty shock.
The Gnostics split spirit and matter, and saw matter as evil. They believed that men were spirit and women were matter.
John The Baptist And The Last Gnostics
So, yes, there may have been some Cathars who allowed women a role - usually only after they had had sex with an enlightened man - but at heart Gnosticism was profoundly anti-woman and one of its greatest influences on Christianity was to make it the same. So beyond the initial thrill for The Da Vinci Code readers or Matrix Reloaded viewers of discovering this skeleton in Christianity's closet there lie some unpleasant choices if they want to take on board Gnosticism with the traditional zeal of a convert.
The bottom line is its demand that you reject everything to do this world as flawed and evil - homes, cars, money, all that is matter, not spirit. It is quite a challenge. There was always a pessimistic, bleak, almost manic, streak in Gnosticism. That is why the early church fathers tried to bury it because they realised it had nothing invested in continuing this world.
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And potential new converts might also like to ponder the example of the Bogomils, a Bulgarian Gnostic cult in the 9th century. It insisted, in line with Gnostic beliefs, that sex for procreation was the work of the Devil, as it only served to prolong a world that was a vale of tears. So all its adherents, if they wanted to make love, were only allowed to bugger each other.
Given such strictures, it is perhaps unsurprising that, despite the numbers of those expressing a fashionable interest in Gnosticism or the history of the Gnostic gospels, there are few actually signing up.
Not that this anti-institutional philosophy has ever been much given to organisation. The handful of UK-based Gnostic movements is apparently so otherworldly that they don't answer their phones, if indeed they have such evil contraptions.
And those with a presence on the web seem more concerned with using Gnosticism to bash the church. It takes the Gnostic belief that this world was the work of the Devil and turns it into a charter for Devil-worshipping that has the shrill sensation seeking of a latter-day Aleister Crowley. Mandeans are the only surviving traditional Gnostics, with no more than 20, adherents living in southern Iraq and south-western Iran. The tendency to use the term Gnosticism loosely to sum up a widespread disillusionment with organised religion has persuaded Professor Elaine Pagels for one to abandon the term altogether as hopelessly corrupted.
Other academics have followed suit. For a more populist audience though, as the phenomenon of The Da Vinci Code spreads around the globe - a Hollywood film deal has already been signed - Gnosticism will doubtless have its 15 minutes of fame as shorthand for the age-old yearning for there to be something more to this world than meets the eye. As an enthusiastic reader from New York tells other Amazon readers about Dan Brown's book: "It will only take you a few hours to read and it changes your entire perspective on religion, the church, and life. The grandaddy of religious cult books synthesizes Islam and Christianity.
Fans include hippies and Norman Schwarzkopf. Experiencing a renaissance as a result of the success of 'The Da Vinci Code', it mixes conspiracy theory with a tale of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's offsprings begetting the Cathars of France.
The first of Hancock's series of fanciful reworkings of history, based on disputed archaeology, reveals lost civilizations, lost religions and lost continents. Ancient Peruvian manuscripts give new insights in life, love and nature. Cher and Hillary Clinton lapped it up.
Elaine Pagels' 'Beyond Belief' is published by Macmillan. You can find our Community Guidelines in full here. Want to discuss real-world problems, be involved in the most engaging discussions and hear from the journalists? Try Independent Minds free for 1 month. Independent Minds Comments can be posted by members of our membership scheme, Independent Minds. It allows our most engaged readers to debate the big issues, share their own experiences, discuss real-world solutions, and more.
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