Sean martin's book is higly relevamnt and to be honest is not given the credit it deserves among the academic field. Comapred to Elain Pagels, Martins work is just relevant and thought provoking as Pagels and since Pagels is revvered by most on this field of sudy, so should Martin. I sincerly encourage anyone who is studying the gnostics or merely just researching them in your time to buy thisbook and read it. It has helped over the pasttwo years of my degree, which is B.A. Religiosu Studies and Theology.
A good general introduction to an enormous subject which brings the Gnostic story right up to the present day and Philip K Dick and The Matrix, via Blake, Jung and Kafka. It contains all you need to know to recognise and appreciate how Gnosticism has become an all pervasive part of contemporary culture, and is at the heart of so many things even when so many people have never heard of it; ignorance of it among the educated classes is quite astonishing, be they atheists or believers. Both have very good reason to find out more, otherwise their position is untenable (see my review of the book 'Better Never To Have Been'). The two other excellent and deeper introductions to Christian Gnosticism are 'The Gnostic Gospels' by Elaine Pagels and 'The Gnostics' by Tobias Churton. Ultimately the one to aim for is the groundbreaking masterwork on the subject from 1958 which is Hans Jonas' 'The Gnostic Religion: the message of the alien God and the beginnings of Christianity'. But for the influence of Gnosticism on Western literature, and indirectly on Catholic mysticism, the book to read is 'Passion and Society' by Denis de Rougement; and almost all of Harold Bloom's critical work on the Romantic poets and their successors; and his 'Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dream and Resurrection'. Sean Martin has also written another short book about Gnosticism called 'The Cathars'. Most of the material on the Bogomils in that book seems to be drawn from Prof. Malcolm Barber's book 'The Cathars - Dualistic Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages' where all the recent research on the origins of Gnostic ideas in Europe from Bulgaria is covered.
Sean Martin seems to specialise in short introductions to heretical aspects of the Christian church; I've previously read and enjoyed his book on the Knight's Templar, and picked this up as an introduction to a subject I know almost nothing about.
This is a solid and very readable introduction to a complicated subject which I've enjoyed reading and got through in only three sittings. Unlike the Templar book, which is a straightforward history book, this one covers the actual historical situation only briefly, presumably because the two millennia between then and now shrouds a lot of the detail and because far fewer sources are available than for the Templars. Of the sources that are available, they're either the relatively recently re-discovered Gnostic texts themselves, or they're the writings of the early Church Fathers who were polemically opposed to the Gnostics by definition.
This book instead concentrates on explaining the core tenets of Gnostic beliefs, including good explanations of both gnosis and dualism, briefly outlines what is known about the main Gnostic teachers and sects, and then describes some of the works that have been unearthed and identified as Gnostic texts and gospels. The book is therefore more theological than historical.
The final chapter is on the legacy of the Gnostics, including a brief summary of the Great Heresy of the Bogomils and Cathars in the early 2nd millennium, a subject Martin has also written a 'pocket essential' book on, and on more recent Gnostic-influenced writers and thinkers such as William Blake and Carl Jung.
However, in attempting to tell the Gnostic story 'through the ages', I think Martin has possibly stretched the premise too far; his section on medieval troubadors contains the line "there is no prima facie evidence that they were not Cathar sympathisers" rather than any actual evidence that they were, beyond some "interesting parallels". Similarly, the section on Existentialist philosophers has to admit that "no Existentialist ever cited the Gnostics as an influence'. If anything, these sections feel a lot like padding and what is already a very short book could have been a bit shorter.
The book ends on a bit of a rant about organised religion and feels almost like an attempt at proselytism for the Gnostic belief; I preferred the discussion in the appendices that highlights possible Gnosticism in the Canonical Gospels, as well as making a reasonable case that rather than being the "First Christian Heretics", Gnosticism is at least as old as Christianity itself.
All in all, it's a decent introduction to the subject and well worth reading.
This book is a short summary of the history of Gnosticism, the idea that this world is an illusion created by a wicked God and something that must be transcended with the help of divine wisdom - a bit like the Matrix.
Clear and to the point, it discusses the central tenets and leaves directions for further reading. If, like me, you know nothing about Gnosticism but need to get up to speed, this is a good place to start.