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Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion according to Christianity's Oldest Heresy

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Gnostic America is a reading of current American culture, politics, and religious life according to the ancient movement known as Gnosticism. In it, Peter M Burfeind builds off the foundations of Hans Jonas, Denis de Rougement, Norman Cohn, William Voegelin, Carl Jung, and Harold Bloom, each of whom saw the effects of Gnosticism in contemporary American (and Western) life. He explores the spiritual mechanisms going on behind everything from transgenderism to so-called "contemporary worship," from the deconstructionist movement to the role pop music and media have in our culture, from progressive politics to the Emergent Church. Particularly challenging is Burfeind's claim that both progressivism and Neo-evangelicalism -- seemingly at odds in the "culture wars" -- actually share the same Gnostic roots. Burfeind's book is a tour de force through contemporary rock, pop, movies, television, politics, and religion showing how many of the values driving these cultural elements are informed by the ancient esoteric teachings of Gnosticism. Burfeind marshals a ton of surprising evidence to make his case, taking us through ancient and Medieval history, through the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, to today. Those willing to grapple with the philosophical and spiritual positions of the fathers of contemporary American life will be rewarded. Gnostic America is a must read for those who sense a new "spiritual but not religious" religion has arisen in America, but who can't put their finger on what exactly this religion is. Burfeind commits the sacrilege of defining a religion that claims to be "beyond" definition. More importantly, he poses the question, if the spiritual trends of contemporary culture are indeed a religion, what First Amendment safeguards remain for those who haven't "evolved" with the emerging new consciousness, but choose to remain stuck in supposedly retrograde paradigms of thought?

418 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 2014

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About the author

Peter M. Burfeind

1 book5 followers
Peter Burfeind serves as pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church and Student Ministry at the University of Toledo. He is also a US Army Chaplain and publisher of children's educational materials (Pax Domini Press). He lives in Toledo, Ohio with his wife Jillian and four children.

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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for Fergus, Quondam Happy Face.
1,029 reviews17.7k followers
August 30, 2023
In a viral age like ours - when the daily unearthing of more and more chthonically Gnostic earthiness surfs our media players seeking fresh, innocent victims like us - all is is lost, without our optimistic Hope!

But I have a very warm ‘n fuzzy feeling that we’re ALL Glory Bound - after many terrifying trials - and after laying to rest all the army of grizzled devils that thrive in our own deep Gnostic Subconscious. That unconsciousness is in fact our Hell.

For each one of us, as Jung says in the book which is his masterpiece - Aion - has a recalcitrant originary Gnostic Mind (original Sin). To be free we have to spend the Rest of our Lives hacking through the Gnostic Undergrowth of our own, and others’, perverted imaginations.

And winning.

Gnosticism is just a crude intermediate step on our road to the truth...

Have you noticed we’re now a virtual civilization - that we’re offloading our bodily oddities, physical quirks and aches and pains onto the Cloud, so we can play undisturbed in happy perpetuity, regardless of a dense and increasing plethora of physical obligations and responsibilities?

That’s pure Gnosticism. Mind over matter.

The Gnostic Heresy has its etymological root in the Greek Word GNOSIS - Knowledge. And that’s how it starts. Remember that long-ago day when you SAW how the world WORKS?

And it’s snookered us. It’s sucked out all our ordinary joys and happinesses. Because of it we have given up the Quest.

And here it refers to the semi-Open Secret of Dark Knowledge. The author unwisely thought he could mincemeat of his Gnostic targets by REALLY exposing them.

BAD move.

For Gnostics have very ready means at hand for promptly disposing of such naïveté.

Chogyam Trungpa called it the lubrication of samsara.

It’s like when you’re at a loud and crazy party and make a foolishly innocent comment. Your bad. You get plenty of KNOWing looks. Yikes! These guys are Gnostics.

Socrates was much subtler. He had to be.

And Old Socrates had his work cut out for him in ancient Athens, as any sober-thinking person does now.

He was surrounded by sophisticated snobs like our party pals - how many of them, we fondly wonder, were Gnostics? - and their oblique obtuseness tried to mercilessly assimilate him and his dialectic into their Darkness.

They were like giant, perverse amoebae, engulfing all and sundry in their seemingly innocuous, but dark play. But he was smarter. Way TOO smart, as it turned out. Poor Socrates...

Sound familiar?

The Gnostics, who outnumber Christians, say that ours is in fact a long Odyssey, striding many ages in our eternal quest for grace. But Christians say death is final.

That there’s no magical loop-de-loop somewhere out there in the endless reaches of outer and inner space that gives us a much-needed second chance.

And most people my age are forced to agree.

Life’s ditziness will inevitably be unveiled, unmasked, in the Hard obdurate pains and stark unconcealment of old age. Where I am now.

And from which - unfortunately - there can be no return. Ashes never return to firewood.

And at that point, kids, there are only two choices - God or nothingness.

The prevailing and widespread currents of fictional gnostic writing will conceal those hard brass tacks - when we are kids. But not later than that.

When I was a young adult, I remember so clearly trying to delineate the existential facts of life to such gnostic folks as these. Didn’t work.

Too many freebee fun n games for those kids. And boys will be boys.

My pals were impervious to reason! And if you tried to discuss matters of life and death with them, you’d be brushed aside with a knowing leer.

But that was years ago.

And so I resigned myself to my ignominy, turned within and, as the wise Francois Marie Arouet Voltaire advised, cultivated my own garden.

Well... like the silent monolith in Kubrick’s 2001, my Faith developed and learned to stand on its own two feet. With no apologies to, or further truck and trade with, my Gnostic friends.

Now, Gnosticism is the oldest cult in the book. As I say, it’s the search for Dark Knowledge. Like seeking out gossip. All part of our primitive brain.

And the author’s theory is that, just like gossip, it has damaged us, perhaps irreparably.

That goes without saying. And, you know... the ones it damages most severely are its practitioners.

So many of them turn into cynical, depressed and badly damaged souls, with nothing but endless night to look forward to now. Some are born for pure delight, Blake says, but some are BORN for Endless Night.

I look around me now, in my old age, and thank the Lord for the straight road I have followed. This search for Dark Knowledge is at the centre of Augustine’s City of Man. The City of God, on the other hand , is ruled by sheer Grace and Goodness -and pure, natural spontaneity. The spontaneity may wear thin but goodness won’t.

But could Jonah have mapped the body of the whale from the inside? The problem of Gnosticism, and it is a real problem, is of necessity a vital part of us. We are too close to it, I think, to see life and death better when young.

But we can, as Eliot says, continually purify our own motives in the Ground of Prayer. That works miracles in us, though not necessarily in the world. The fact remains that there are people who use the Dark Knowledge they secretly know to leverage themselves into positions of power over us.

But that story is as old, and as much a part of the human story, as Jacob and Esau’s.

Is one side wrong?

Yes, but salvation is offered to us ALL.

And with humanity’s survival now a very real issue - and our own too, as we age - it’s time to overlook our enemies’ prevarications and look at the common human ground and the Bigger Picture we all share.

If we, as Esau, cannot heal our inner wounds at our brothers’ hands, we cannot just sit and indefinitely wait for Jacob to make the first move at reconciliation.

We are all really tarred by the same brush.

And Forgiveness, as well as Insight, is always a very good first step towards real peace and Grace.

Forgive our TORMENTORS?

Why not? In their bleak midnights they’re ALREADY paying the price.
Profile Image for Heidi Clark.
41 reviews2 followers
July 5, 2016
This book is broad and deep, it covers a fascinating concept and attempts to do so extremely thoroughly. Rev Burfeind weaves together history, art, literature, pop culture and philosophy to make his case: our contemporary American culture is the culmination of the heretical gnostic movement. I wanted to give this 5 stars for the unique and timely topic, and for the bold attempt to grapple with it so thoroughly. But I give it 3 stars because he desperately needed a better editor. In fact, it smacks of a masters or doctoral thesis *before* the expert faculty adviser whips out a trusty red pen to bring order out of chaos, the kind of writing done in snippets at night after the days work is done--it contains redundant passages, long sections which are too full of opinion to be helpful, and often lacks solid flow or even clear topic sentences. There are many statements which are made (stories behind song lyrics; historical anecdotes) that are completely unreferenced, which makes me confused as to what kind of book this is--an academic discussion on culture, or a really long op ed piece.

Ultimately, I only got about 3/4 through it, it got too pedantic and convoluted. But I left feeling that scales had fallen from my eyes--I see the origin of the "spiritual but not religious" content splattered around (about enlightenment, self actualization, and finding oneself); I can more clearly identify the antiChristian, "new age" worldview held by many. I can see myself consulting this book again, and using it as a springboard for other reading as my curiosity has been piqued. I want to more thoroughly and intentionally develop my worldview, and Gnostic America was a good start.
Profile Image for Steve.
45 reviews
April 28, 2015
The sub-title of this book is: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion according to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy. Peter Burfeind has accomplished that by identifying Gnostic traits and following the movement of this heresy as it was vigorously opposed and suppressed in the early church, through to emergence during the Reformation and Enlightenment, then coming to full bloom in modern manifestations both politically (fascism, communism, and nazism) and religiously (Liberalism and Neo-Evangelicalism).

The interplay between political and religious elements was fascinating. Early on, the close ties of Church and State suppressed gnostic ideas from becoming a force. As this barrier began to crumble across Europe and into the U.S., gnostic thought flourished and became more ingrained in the psyche of whichever society had as its head a leader adhering to the principles. Gnostic traits would then seep into the Church causing multiple splits, as more and more splinter groups sought (and seek) to work toward the utopian “other” not bound by the strictures of any specific doctrine or practice.

Especially disheartening is the role of Anabaptists in fomenting gnosticism. Most of my Christian years have been spent in this part of Christendom, and it causes me to question some of the truths I learned, while reinforcing what had already been changing in my mind. In addition, the author shows how music has been used to subvert the Church from within, leading to the current state of Contemporary Christian Music and its use in worship. Western Christianity needs a “gut check,” and this book can do it.

A great deal of research and analysis went into this work, and it is written at an academic level. I was glad for my previous reading of Irenaeus which gave me background to follow, as the author traced the movement and pointed back to the early heresy. The reader needs to keep the gnostic traits and the spirit entities in relationship while going through this, but the reward will be a solid understanding of how Western Civilization got to this deplorable state.

There are some proofreading errors in the text, but nothing prevents comprehension. All in all, this is definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Lisa.
21 reviews18 followers
July 16, 2015
Check my book list to see how rarely I give 5 stars.
This is a must-read for everyone who thinks they've got it all figured, that they know what is right and what is wrong and why, for everyone who thinks they can explain what's wrong with the world and how to fix it, and for everyone who thinks they're smarter than everyone else for having figured all this out.
(However, if you insist upon Political Correctness walking, delicately, over eggshells, then you're probably too easily offended to handle this material. If you insist that you TRULY ARE SMARTER than anyone else, then your sense of intellectual integrity is already too fragile to learn anything and good luck with that.)
Profile Image for Don Incognito.
297 reviews10 followers
May 16, 2018
I actually didn't get to finish this book before it needed to return to the library it came to me on ILL from, so you can consider it a review of what I finished (between two-thirds and three-quarters).

This book was the best explanation I had yet read or seen about the theology of ancient Gnosticism, and I came out with a much fuller understanding of Gnosticism than I had before. The rest of the book is tiresome and very much a chore to wade through. Only a relatively small proportion is dedicated to Gnostic theology. The rest of the book, the vast majority, is about to what extent Western culture, and especially America, have been secretly and subtly influenced by Gnostic ideas. This creates problems of its own. One is strictly personal, the issue of my viscerally negative reaction to such an extended discussion of American pop culture. Since I can't stand pop culture and don't enjoy discussing it, this made the book something to hurry up and finish, not to savor.

The other problem involves the complex nature of gnosticism (more than "Gnosticism") and its influence over the centuries. If your initial knowledge of Gnosticism came either from the Bible or from lower-level college courses, what understanding you received relates to the most generic, basic features of classical Gnostic theology--matter evil, spirit good; the Demiurge; gnosis (knowledge) as means of salvation. Here is the sole reason I enjoyed any of this book: author Peter Burfeind's explication penetrates much, much deeper. Prepare to find the complex (but at the same time recognizable) features of Gnostic theology challenging, its long chain of intellectual descendants puzzling. Puzzling mainly for this reason: the geographical and intellectual origin of Gnosticism's antecedents (respectively, entirely Greek, and arising from the philosophy of Plato) is very clear, but Gnosticism's influence on the future Western culture (possibly world culture, even) is much much harder to track plausibly.

The book's very persistent, thorough, detailed efforts to pin many American philosophical and sociopolitical trends on gnostic thought are often unconvincing. The gnostic influences Burfeind laments don't clearly have much to do with these trends. This is partly because gnostic thought's influence over the centuries became very subtle and hidden, enough that Christendom probably thought the church had successfully defeated the Gnostic heresy. Obviously not, this book reveals. It was always there: in the Middle Ages, in various Renaissance thinkers, in the eighteenth-century English Romantic poets. But the closer toward contemporary America Burfeind's analysis creeps, the less convincing it becomes. Gnostic theology is hardly mentioned anymore. It's no longer a theology but a diffuse, nearly un-recognizable, philosophy; it's now gnosticism, not "Gnosticism"; and as such, the set of ideas has become very difficult to tie to ancient Gnostic theology. The connection may indeed be there, but it's no longer very meaningful. With probably one exception: Burfeind does succeed in making some of the more mystical artists and songs of the 1960s, especially The Doors' lyrics and one sociopolitical statement by Jimi Hendrix, sound theologically (not merely philosophically) Gnostic. But in the end, there's not much that doesn't get confidently ascribed to Gnostic influence.

It doesn't help that Burfeind maintains a snide, snarky tone toward these allegedly gnostic-influenced pop culture trends. Or that the book suffers from very poor editing, with many embarrassingly misspelled words appearing at regular intervals.
15 reviews
April 9, 2018
A Spiritual and Political Colonoscopy! Wow, this was a deep excursion on the history of the gnostic philosophy/religion and how it affects so many domains in our country today. This was not an easy read for me, it cut me deep in my thinking. For many years I have wondered about where progressive democracy may lead us, and this book help add flesh to my concerns. As a Christian, this book has challenged me to further my understanding of my faith journey and how that may inform my future choice of where to park my theology.

I can easily say that this book may have had one of the biggest impacts on me than most that I have read in the past ten years. Honestly, I feel that I owe the author more than what I paid for his book.
Profile Image for Richard Willsea.
98 reviews1 follower
June 1, 2018
This is a very difficult read, especial for what in the LCMS passes for a "Missionary pastor". I've Seen throughout my career. People leave their (boring) main line church to join the fun glitzy warehouse church. Only I find a few years later, they have now left the warehouse church. Rather that coming back to what they know, they just stop going altogether. The neo Evangelicals (and so called emergent church) are acting as halfway houses to Gnosticism. A spiritual but not religious mix of nihilism, self help, and ethical hedonism. What to do about it? Continue to preach the gospel. America needs it more than ever...
Profile Image for Becky F..
419 reviews8 followers
May 26, 2020
I was just starting to lean toward 4 stars, and then I read the concluding chapter. This book was in desperate need of a proofreader (I am here and willing!!) and I did not really appreciate the tone throughout. So I had to stick with 3 because of those things.

There's a lot of great and interesting information in this book, but it could have been presented in a more concise and organized way. I definitely understand gnosticism and its pervasive influence in society, though, and I can confidently say that I am not on that side of the idealogical fence.
122 reviews5 followers
August 6, 2020
It's pretty good for pop culture analysis, but the statements about the earlier Christian churches (especially attitudes towards monastics) are straight up wrong.

I read around half before running out of patience, but I know of a Franciscan priest with a PhD on 12th Century history that read the whole thing and the historical inaccuracies relating to that time period and it's thought, as well as any sort of mystical experience, really bugged him.
69 reviews1 follower
January 26, 2022
Avoid like the plague

Anything and everything that isn't strictly his own warped view of Lutheranism is Gnostic. He gives a definition of Gnosticism that breaks credulity. Hitler, Puritans and Barney the Dinosaur are all equal Gnostic threats to your soul. Save your money and your time.
4 reviews
October 7, 2016
Should Give It 2 Stars

Because of The Lie!
This panoramic view of American culture via Western history, the arts, politics and sciences staggered me. Most folks will be offended somewhere along the way and with a smattering of self-doubt readers will reflect on what and where we are headed in politics, culturally and as a country. I trust scholastic types will pick apart a smattering or three as that is how they do. The material covered applies whether one is 'religious' or not. After my Kindle read I purchased the hardbound for others....amazes me as I am a cheap guy! So read it.
Profile Image for K B.
243 reviews
December 10, 2016
the best book I've read all year! May be the best book I've read in a decade!! So well written, well-documented and educational/informative! HIGHLY Recommended Reading for all.
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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