America's Religious Fringe


  • J. C. Hallman. The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe. Random House, 2006.
  • Richard Smoley. Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to the Da Vinci Code. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.

Writer J. C. Hallman, takes the 19th century psychologist and philosopher William James as his literary guide and embarks on a Louis Theroux/Jon Ronson-style tour of America’s religious fringe. In this tour he encounters Unarians, Druids, Satanists, Born-Again Christian wrestlers, atheists, Scientologists, witches and a group of dog-breeding orthodox monks. Each of these encounters is set against a period in James’s life and used to illustrate aspects of his ideas, clearly Hallman is aiming, or professing to aim, at some more serious intent than the standard Therouxian freak show. Yet all these groups emerge as well, freaky, and rather sad and desperate, indeed the sort of characters which can found on daytime TV agony fests, which aim to reassure the audience that no matter how dumb and mixed up they are, there are folks out their who far crazier than they will ever be.

One religious fringe not encountered by Hallman, is Gnosticism. Though literary critic Harold Bloom claimed that Gnosticism was America’s secret religion, the fully blown thing is likely to have little appeal to today's' affluent west. The basic tenant of hard Gnosticism was that the material world is the evil product of a subordinate demiurge, but trapped inside it are sparks of spirit which are longing to go free. The good god beyond the universe has sent messengers such as Jesus to set people on the right path through self knowledge etc. Meanwhile matter is bad, flesh is bad and sex is very bad indeed, especially if it brings babies into the world, which is a very, very bad thing indeed.

Though the idea of a secret esoteric knowledge and enlightenment through personal experience rather than obedience to authority have obvious appeals, the rest seems largely crazy. But of course, these beliefs developed at a time when there were not today’s well washed, well cared for, groomed, medically supervised and often enhanced bodies; most people lived lives of desperate poverty either in back-breaking agriculture, or in the fetid slums of horse-shit filled cities. People stank, thire flesh was pot marked and boil marked, and most people at 30 looked much older than most western 70-year-olds of today. In such conditions the idea that matter and bodies were naturally vile didn’t seem so crazy after all.

The only contemporary example of a true Gnostic thinker that Smoly can come up with is the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick. However in the sort of fields Magonia is involved with there are a number of others. Perhaps the best example of a pop Gnostic today is John Keel. Keel doesn’t go in much for the vile bodies, but his vision of humankind ruled by the demonic forces of the superspectrum and of the world’s belief systems being an illusion fostered by 'the powers and principalities' is right out of the Gnostic tradition. Of course, as with more traditional forms of Gnosticism, we can read Keel’s ideas metaphorically, with the ‘ultraterrestrials’ being symbols of the human sensory, cognitive and belief systems, In this reading humans are trapped by the forces of our own imagination, because we have forgotten in some profound sense that we made them in the first place. -- Peter Rogerson.

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