This is one of the most compelling books I've ever read.
MOST mainstream Christians will attack this book. MOST mainstream Jews probably will too. And, I predict the authors will be probably be denounced by Islamic clerics at some point for their treatment of the religious personality Muhammad (which is very illuminating).
Freke and Gandy, working on the premise that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam were all originally Gnostic (deep wisdom) traditions, completely pick apart the Literalist streams of each tradition, and their scholarship totally slams the self-serving ego-driven political shenanigans of each of the faiths as well--again, specifically in their Literalist forms.
The Jewish Fantasy Factory:
The section on the Jews is absolutely fascinating and asserts from the historical record how a monism of Jewish identity as a people is a problematic idea; the authors suggest multiple sources for the Jewish ethnic roots, and go on to suggest -- again from archaeological evidence and the historical record -- that their mythic odyssey out of Egypt, and the Israeli claim to Jerusalem, is a complete fabrication, driven, in essence, by a religious and cultural identity crisis of sorts that still fuels the conflicts of today and is driven by Literalist interpretations of what was originally a myth-line.
A number of the formative myths in the Jewish tradition, the authors assert, are actually derived and inspired from exposure to Greek tradition, while they go through the Tanakh/Torah (the Old Testament) with something of a fine-tooth comb and, in a truly riveting manner, show how its authors were essentially attempting to synthesize a number of competing desert Pagan traditions in the region.
The Most Famous Man Who Never Lived:
The premise of the section on Christianity I was already familiar with, having read one of their other equally powerful and controversial books, Jesus and the Lost Goddess: The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians. But, again, I found myself truly fascinated to learn that certain books that comprise the "universally agreed upon" Christian canon (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts--renditions of Peter and Paul) were almost single handedly emphasized (Bishop Irenaeus), whose word-sculpting was, quite intentionally, attempting to suppress and debunk the Gnostic stream of Christianity (which relates to the Jesus myth more as a personal initiatory, archetypal, and transformative process rather than a literal historical set of events involving a quasi-divine/human person).
Freke and Gandy articulate with a real shine how Irenaeus was simply attempting to compete for followers in Rome at a time when it had become a spiritual marketplace of sorts. Irenaeus sought to establish a viable tradition in Rome, and in time, thanks to Constantine, it worked, for the Literalist version of Christianity was offered political support by the state of Rome and all other versions were declared as heresy (funny, isn't it; heretics declaring those following the path closer to the original essence as heretics?)
Almost with the same deftness of a detective story one finds in such fictional works as The Da Vinci Code (only this book is real), The Laughing Jesus unveils how the theme, archetype, and imagery of: 1) the virgin birth, 2) the idea of the Son of God, 3) the murder/crucifixion of the "godman", and 4) the resurrection, are all connected to a number of Pagan myth lines (worked with symbolically in various Mediterranean mystery schools for thousands of years) that actually pre-date Christianity (and its myth formation) by 1,000 years.
Going through each tradition and their version of "Godman" -- Egypt (Osiris), Greece (Dionysus), Asia Minor (Attis), Syria (Adonis), Persia (Mithras), and Alexandria (Serapis), to name only a few -- Freke and Gandy articulate how the myth-formers of Christianity, in essence, borrowed (plagiarized) from these earlier compelling themes. They also clearly assert that such myth-forming and myth-following is not a threat in the Gnostic Christian context, whereas in the Literalist vein everything is, well, taken quite literally -- and therefore poses a real threat to the authority upon which the Church bases itself.
Muhammad: From Mystic to Mobster:
Pardon my French, so to speak, but Muhammad [The Religious Figure] in the book gets a serious ass-whipping. One senses the disappointment in the authors that such a beautiful tradition as Islam could fall prey to the clutches of the individual ego of Muhammad later on in his life (as he turned military war-lord), and then --really by example-- be hijacked by Literalists within the Islamic tradition to assert their own political goals, but the authors also reiterate that it was predictable; that it happened with the Christians and Jews as well.
They describe Muhammad as someone who was profoundly influenced by both Jewish and Christian thought (and culture), and -- as a response -- initially began a powerful process of bringing forth a mystical path of Gnosis for the Arab world. However, they then describe, again drawing straight from the historical record of battles, and from lines within the Qu'ran, how, after having been snubbed by both Jews and Christians (not acknowledged as a prophet), Muhammad began to interpret his divine mission as one of imposing Islam on the world (not at all different in tone from the early Christian Church's Inquisition, or the evangelizing, missionizing, and proselytizing of a great many Literalist Christians today).
The chapter on Muhammad, which does give a nod to the Gnostic Sufis within the cultural milieu of Islam, is a compelling read that requires that we look at the personality and full psychological range of Muhammad. I also found it personally very interesting that such Islamic customs as ordering women to wear veils actually was derived from early Byzantine Christian practices.
The first half of The Laughing Jesus is a radical debunking of all Literalist interpretations of each of these traditions. The second half of the book is dedicated to exploring Gnosis in the present day, as educated people, what the authors suggest certain Christians, Jews, and Muslims *knew* and *know* was the truly transformative core of the traditions but which were hijacked by political agendas.
The fact that the real spiritual essence of each of these traditions was overcome by Literalist propaganda shouldn't cause a person to lose sleep at night. The fact that the holders and followers of each of these Literalist traditions hold the seats of power in global politics, however, is disturbing. This book touches on how this reality is a phenomenon that is dictating decisions that determine what is happening to our economy, foreign policy, and the environment (note: Armageddon-minded Christian Literalists don't really care about global warming or the financial viability of future generations if they believe it's all going to end up in a fire ball in the end anyway; why concern ourselves with sustainability, environmentally or financially?).
On the one hand, I find such a book promising. It can potentially shock some people out of religious apathy and/or cultural sleepwalking, or out of the absurd cultural monism and religious conditioning that leads toward the huge barriers to interfaith dialogue.
On the other hand, I find some of my own personal conclusions that I derived from the book to be troublesome; that given the particular ideologies that are running this country (Christian Literalists), and the particular ideologies that are *required* to oppose the West (Islamic Literalists), we could be barreling full steam ahead toward a much more prolific global clash than the likes of 9/11 or the Iraq war.
But, that is probably one of the clearest articulations in the book of all -- that the environmental crisis, as well as the conflict in the Middle East is all tied to Literalist propaganda, not just by Islamic Literalist/Fundamentalists, but also by Jewish Literalists and Christian Literalists/Fundamentalists alike.
The conclusion of Part One of the book (called The Bathwater), which I completely agree with, is that all of this is a formula for disaster if the leaders of these faiths, the practitioners of these paths, and the larger society as a whole does not find its own authentic Gnosis. This is where Part Two of the book (called The Baby) comes into play...which I won't comment on because it would be like telling you the end of a really good movie.
Summary and Conclusion:
Practicing Christians, Jews, and Muslims definitely need to read this book. Everybody else probably should too, because much of what it describes assists greatly in understanding what is both truly redeeming in each of these wisdom traditions, while also helping to paint a clear picture why each of these traditions are also being hijacked by a narrow-but-widening band of religious psychopaths who could end up making Armageddon a self-fulfilling prophecy.
--Frank MacEowen, M.A., (...)