(Crossposted on LibraryThing)
In a quote on the back of the book, The Gnostic Mystery is put in the same category as The Da Vinci Code so it’s no wonder that I was expecting a fast-paced mystery thriller. I find what I consider false advertising a sad thing because it could turn away people who would find this book fascinating, while making those who do stop to pick it up feel mislead.
Luckily, I read with a very broad mind so when the book turned out to be much different than my expectations, I accepted what had come into my hands as a mystery of a different sort, a book whose purpose and focus remained to be discovered.
Randy Davila does offer a story in this novel, though to call that tale a mystery is a bit of a stretch to my mind. The true mystery has nothing to do with the story itself, but rather is a voyage in which two characters explore what religion in general and Christianity in specific means to them personally and how that meaning is strengthened or changed by new understandings that unfold as they interact with a religious scholar and her colleague. These characters are brought together by a chance purchase of an ancient Gnostic scroll that opens new vistas for the main character and his friend.
The book itself is a thinly disguised thesis on the history of early Christianity and the Gnostic movement. The material is presented by Chloe, a professor of philosophy and religion in Jerusalem, who is asked to translate the scroll initially as a first move in the dating ritual. But soon this quest for answers becomes so much more than that as the foundation of Jack’s and Punjeeh’s understanding of Christianity is undermined.
Jack goes to Israel to visit his friend and come to terms with the emptiness he’s found in his life. He expects to find the answers in the historical roots of the religion he was brought up in but which never quite captured his imagination. His friend and former college roommate has always been a devout Christian and so seems a reasonable guide. However, Jack soon learns Punjeeh has set aside the trappings of Christianity if not the teachings because he is horrified about what is being done in religion’s name in the conflict between Arabs and Jews. As an Emergency Room doctor, he gets to see first hand the damage done to uphold different religious views.
The scroll and Chloe’s explanations of both the Gnostic beliefs and what little is known about their historical presence challenge Jack and Punjeeh to question what they’ve always been told. They explore a different conceptualization of Jesus’ life and the historical events accepted as true in the Bible, guided by Chloe’s spoon feeding so that their worlds are not shaken so much all at once that they respond emotionally as opposed to considering the information for its value.
Rather than a quest for external treasure, this novel explores the religious beliefs and philosophies of the characters, offering information rarely considered outside of a scholarly environment and adamantly opposed by some Christian leaders, in a fiction framework that allows the reader to consider not only the revelations, but also the characters’ reactions. I think Davila did a good job of making the characters likable and revealing the information in small enough doses that though I could see the thesis aspect, the characters kept me wanting to see their journey through in a way no academic text could have, even if I read it for the information alone.
In case you doubt my interpretation, at the end of the book are discussion questions worthy of any advanced literature or philosophy course concerning both symbolism within the text and your own positions regarding the information presented to the characters. The marketing may attempt to disguise its scholarly nature, but the study guide supports the author’s apparent intent to educate.
Overall, I found The Gnostic Mystery fascinating. I’m a bit of an amateur philosopher and now I have to wonder where, in my rather unorthodox Catholic upbringing, I was exposed to Gnostic principles. The thoughts attributed to them here match rather well with my own religious ponderings, which seems an unlikely coincidence.
As a novelist, I feel Davila still has some growth to do. The balance between the thesis material and the tale that provided a vehicle was a little off, the resolutions too easy. Israel and Palestine provide a rich backdrop for these types of questions. I think the novel could have taken advantage of that fact more to build the narrative, and make the story as rich as the Gnostic discussions. However, this is his first novel-length work. Should he spend more time on the story in the future, and learn how to develop the complexity necessary for a novel plot, I think he will be able to offer many interesting works that explore philosophy and religion through the eyes of characters rich enough to avoid the lectures but reveal the same content.