Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale) by David Bentley Hart (Review)

Who Should Read this Book – Readers who enjoy a good story, readers who enjoy books that make them think and especially readers who appreciate a combination of those two things.

What is the Big Takeaway – The best theologians write good fiction.

And a quote – “Orthodoxy is a humble half-truth exalted to the majesty of a total falsehood” (136)

With this book, David Bentley Hart moves from my list of favorite theologian to my list of my favorite authors. The former is a list of the scholarly types whose writings appeal to a specific small subset of humanity who takes on the task of working through such heady works. While Hart was on the former list, he has always defied it. His best writings have been his books of essays which defy easy categorization (The Dream Child’s Progress, The Hidden and the Manifest, A Splendid Wickedness). With this novel, he moves to the latter list, my list of authors who are a pleasure to read regardless of what they are writing.

I am not sure what other writers are on Hart’s level today, possessing the ability to write theological or philosophical tomes and then turn around and give us imaginative novels that are both page-turners and deeply thoughtful.

This does make me think that the best theologians are the ones with imagination. I would include Marilynne Robinson, George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis on this list (I am tempted to throw Tolkien on there too). Imagination in writing is not just about writing fiction, but about writing enchanting books that speak to both heart and mind. Last year I dove into Russian sophiologist Sergius Bulgakov and his theology was enchanting (and I suppose, the translator gets some credit here). Of course, you get plenty of beauty in some of the early church fathers as well. Maybe the point is simply that I have developed a great distaste for any sort of theology that reads like a systematic outline. Its boring.

Give me something imaginative and fun.

I seem to recall writing something similar to all of this in my review of Hart’s Roland in the Moonlight last spring. These might just be my two favorite books by Hart and both are beautiful, enjoyable, enchanting and imaginative.

Kenogaia is a fantasy story. It has elements familiar to popular fantasy, taking place in a world familiar to ours but also a bit different, a world where magic may be (is) real and there are supernatural beings at work. I could see readers who would never pick up some of Hart’s other books, readers who only read fiction, enjoying this one. It is a bit more challenging, as Hart employs a wide vocabulary, than a typical popular level fantasy story. Yet nothing here is too difficult for the average reader. I’d say if you can handle Lord of the Rings, you could handle this.

In the story Michael Ambrosius’ father is arrested by the sinister world government due to his questionable beliefs and research. Shortly after this Oriens shows up, a divine being who has come from the land far beyond this universe in search of his sister who is being held captive. Oriens and Michael set off to find and rescue her, along with Michael’s friend Laura.

Kenogaia is a retelling of the ancient Gnostic poem the Hymn of the Pearl. Portions of the hymn head up each part of the book. For anyone interested, Hart has recently written about Gnosticism on his substack. He argues that “Gnostic” has become a pejorative term thrown out to describe anything one does not agree with. The ancient Gnostics were much closer in thought to the writers of the New Testament. There are certainly differences between ancient Gnosticism and mainstream Christianity, but they are not as stark as we think.

Actually It’s Good podcast – DBH interview on Gnosticism – https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/actually-its-good-actually-its-good-REbGYdZPhFU/

Article – https://davidbentleyhart.substack.com/p/modernity-is-not-gnosticism

Those familiar with Hart will find expected themes here. For example, Oriens has no patience for the idea of suffering in some sort of unending hell (or Hel, in this story):
No good creator could allow such an end, even for the sake of freedom. And how could it be freedom anyway? No creature could truly be free whose choices could lead to such an end. They would be choices made int eh darkness of ignorance and fear . . . Delusion. Eternal suffering could never be anything but a work of vengeful, cruelty – especially from a creator whose world is so flawed that its children die of incurable diseases” (135).

Overall, this is a beautiful and thoughtful book while also being a page-turner. Hart’s description of eternal bliss at the end is deeply moving. I’ve always said my favorite description of heaven in fiction is Lewis’ The Last Battle. I am not sure I’d call what Hart is speaking of here as “heaven”, but it is a vision of the afterlife. Hart’s vision is one of continual progression towards beauty, goodness and bliss (which is in line with Gregory of Nysa among others).

Finally, Hart’s view of evil (or let’s just say, “the bad guys”) is refreshing. Oriens mentions frequently early on that he does not think his antagonists are all that smart. The evil forces here certainly have power, but their defeat reveals them to be almost comical. Rather than leaving the characters, or the readers, with feelings of vengeance we are left with hope that even the worst evils can eventually be redeemed. That said, this theme also pops up in the new Spider Man movie, so maybe such hope is becoming more commonplace.

Do we want our villains and enemies annihilated or redeemed?

I’m sure a never ending hope for redemption would be seen as naive by a lot of people. Yet such hope is at the core of the gospel and, when done with skill and imagination, makes for a brilliant story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s