Book Review:
“The Psychedelic Gospels:  The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity”
by Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., and Julie M. Brown, M.A.
(2016, Park Street Press)

Reviewed by John Reid ([email protected])

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About eighteen months ago, I spent a weekday evening at the home of my friend, Bob Banner, in San Luis Obispo, California.  As I was checking out his large library collection of New Age nonfiction, one book caught my eye: the front cover being an artistic reproduction of a classic painting, with Jesus, arms raised, over four colorful mushrooms, definitely belonging to the Genus Amanita.  The book is “The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity”.  I asked if I could borrow this book, and Bob said that I could, on the condition that I write a review of it for his on-line paper, HopeDance, when I was done reading.

I have completed this reading, and am ready to oblige.  This book, by Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., a university professor, whose previous works include several non-fiction political volumes “Profiles in Power: The Anti-Nuclear Movement and the Sawn of the Solar Age” being one, along with his family therapist wife, Julie M. Brown, M.A., tell the story of their pilgrimage to visit the historic churches and cathedrals in Europe and the Middle East, a journey which began in 2006.  Their mission, or so it became during their travels, documents the images of known entheogens in early and mid-Christian era artwork, strongly suggesting the prominent roles these hallucinogenic plants played in the development of this religion.

The book traces the Browns’ journeys, from the Roslyn Chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland, to continental Europe and Eurasian Turkey, describing the artwork they saw, accompanied by brilliantly reproduced photocopies of what they has seen, with generous plates in the middle, and references to the works of earlier researchers on the subject (R. Gordon Wasson “Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality”, 1968; John M. Allegro “The Secret Mushroom and the Cross”, 1970; and many others). It is an excellent travelogue, even if the discoveries of the Browns become predictable.

This is a moderately interesting read, although I did lose interest when the chapters, detailing the Browns’ suspicions, discoveries, and conclusions become repetitious, when combined with the works of previous researchers.  But it is summed up very nicely at the end, and the later chapters, on the role played by Gnostic Christianity, and the invalidation of the findings of Wasson, revived my interest, in both the subject and  the book. I would recommend it.

Entheogens have played a vital role in religions since the Rig Veda, the sacred book of Hinduism, written 2500 years ago, so the fact that they did so in Christianity as well should come as no surprise to any open-minded reader.  Emotions and experiences, which are difficult at best for a believer to convey to a non-believer in print, become easier when transformed into artwork.  Such visual images better describe the concepts of “We are all one” and the Death of Ego, far more than any written words.  The fact that most of the public at the time the artwork was drawn or painted were largely illiterate makes that job even easier.  The fact that religious experience can be better conveyed and shared with the use of entheogens, blocking out the monkey mind, is self-explanatory, from the Somatic rites of the Rig Veda to the Grecian Eleusian Mysteries, to the Christo-Pagan Green Man experience in Britain, to the Nuevo primitive Psylocybin rituals of Maria Sabina and her followers in Oaxaca, Mexico, documented  and researched in the 1950s.  Entheogens bind us together, and bring us closer to the Divine.     

One does not have to take a leap of faith to see these images recur in Christian artwork.  The Browns do a good job of conveying this, as well as describing the fact that the beauty literally lies in the eye one who beholds.  Some images have been discounted in the book as merely “looking like a mushroom”, such as the image of Saint Walburga holding what appears to be an Amanita muscaria mushroom, when it is in fact a vial.  And the Browns make use of the sketch of the beauty versus the hag, used in psychiatric evaluations, which conveys a different image when viewed from different angles.  But the majority of the artwork, from the Rosslyn Chapel to the Canterbury Cathedral, to the churches at
Plaincoureault and St. Martin in France, to St. Michael’s in Germany, to the ruins of Aquilegia n Italy to those in Cappodochia in Turkey are unmistakably psychedelic mushrooms, from Amanita muscaria to Psylocybin cubensis.

Christian literature alludes to the usage of these plants, in both the Christian and Gnostic gospels.  The artwork becomes noticeably more infrequent about the year 1300, when Gnosticism had been driven into seclusion by the Vatican, and the dark days of the Inquisition and witch burning lay ahead.  These was a undisputed and concentrated effort on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to discredit the role of entheogens in church history, and frescos and paintings with entheogens diminish greatly during the later Middle Ages, disappearing completely by the 1500s.  And yet the images remain as painted or sketched in the earlier Christian houses of worship, mostly hidden in tapestries and garments, but present nonetheless, sometimes in images which call attention to their presence.  “If you want to hide something, put it in plain sight”, it is written, at the beginning of the book’s preface.

The Browns conclude their book with a chapter on the Psychedelic Renaissance, and a calling for an international Interdisciplinary Committee on the Psychedelic Gospels. The role entheogens has played in the realization of religious ecstasy  of all religions and beliefs is unarguable.  The time is now for a committee such as this one, with evolving law now legalizing plants which were formerly legal to use a century before, prior to our recent Dark Ages of the War on Drugs.  Let this Enlightenment continue.

Let it Be…