BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

Five new novels offer suspense, scholarship and stylish writing.

BY now all of us have had enough of "The Da Vinci Code" in any guise — movie adaptation, book spin offs, controversies, merchandising and the twelve people or so in the world who still haven't read it (and ask you what it's about). There is, however, a phenomenon related to the book worth looking at — the curiosity and interest it has sparked in fiction writers and scholars to play with and explore an alternate or secret history of Christianity. What is becoming excitingly clear is that the early Christian church — from the first to the fourth century AD — was more diverse and plural than anyone could have imagined, with several different theologies and movements claiming attention.

Rich material

One such theology was Gnosticism (and much later the Gnostic gospels), which grew to prominence in the 2nd century A.D, and was later denounced as heretical by the early church. And it is Gnosticism with its secret and lost Gnostic gospels that now provide authors and scholars rich and tantalising material to construct books from. Gnosticism should interest not only Christians but anyone on a spiritual quest — salvation, according to the Gnostics, comes not simply by faith alone but by study and self-knowledge. Gnosticism proposed a revealed knowledge of God (gnosis meaning "knowledge" in Greek), held as a secret tradition of the apostles. The Gnostics believed that they were privy to a secret knowledge about the divine. Although the Gnostics were prolific writers, most of their works have been burnt or lost in favour of orthodox writings. "The Gospel of Thomas" is the best-known Gnostic gospel (some say quasi Gnostic) along with "The Secret Book of James", "The Gospel of Mary" and now the recent, startling discovery of a "Gospel of Judas" (Judas here is not the arch villain of Christian tradition but Jesus' most loyal disciple), which in one aspect at least differs from the other canonical gospels. The renowned New Testament scholar, Elaine Pagels writes in her book, The Gnostic Gospels, that Christianity could have developed quite differently if Gnostic texts had become part of the Christian canon. What might the Christian church be today if it had embraced Gnosticism (or other alternate, `heretical' movements such as the Cathars) than the more orthodox gospel accounts it canonized? That is what recent books dealing with alternate Christian histories are trying to speculate about. The most exciting, recent non-fiction book on the subject is Herbert Krosney's The Lost Gospel, which is an account of the quest for the Gnostic gospel of Judas Iscariot. The Lost Gospel reads like a gripping mystery — an exciting biblical archaeological detective story that unravels how the Gospel of Judas (a manuscript dating from the third or fourth century, containing the only known surviving copy of that gospel) was found, restored and authenticated after being lost for nearly 1,700 years. Krosney, an investigative journalist, "traces the forgotten gospel's improbable journey across three continents, a trek that would take it through the netherworld of the international antiquities trade, until the crumbling papyrus is finally made to give up its secrets." Jokes abound about, um, Dan Brown's prose style — how the book is about how not to write a good English sentence, etc. For those who want more complexity and texture in their Gnostic thrillers, i.e, religious/conspiracy thrillers, there are five new novels that offer erudite suspense, scholarship and stylish writing. Javier Sierra's The Secret Supper and Matilde Asensi's The Last Cato, both originally written in Spanish, and both bestsellers in Europe. Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, a more feminist quest for the Holy Grail, The Templar Legacy and The Last Templar by Steve Berry and Raymond Khoury, respectively. Instead of going ballistic, these thriller writers have gone Gnostic!

More secrets

The first remarkable religious thriller is The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra, translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel (the author of A History of Reading). There are more secrets hidden inside Leonardo Da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper than Dan Brown led us to believe. Sierra cleverly keeps from revealing what these are until the end (the ultimate secret he keeps for the last line of the last page) and the suspense is excruciating. Milan in the late 15th century is rife with heresies, heterodoxies, corrupt clergy and labyrinthine monastic scholarship and Sierra evokes this world precisely and stylishly. Unlike "The Secret Supper", Asensi's The Last Cato, a quest for the true cross of Christ was published in 2002 but it took all these years for the book to be noticed in Spain — the country where it was published, and now because of Pamela Carnell's compelling English translation, it is an international bestseller. Holy relics, said to be morsels of wood from the cross of Christ, have been disappearing all over the world and the Vatican sends Sister Ottavia Salina, head of the Restoration and Paleography Laboratory of the Vatican's Classified Archives, to investigate these disappearances. Engrossing and intelligent, The Last Cato links the quest for the True Cross with clues and codes from Dante's Divine Comedy. Kate Mosse's Labyrinth is the first best selling novel that features the Cathars, a fascinating medieval Christian sect who were known for their progressive theology and practice (such as Catholic women priests and openness to other faiths). The book features two female protagonists born 800 years apart as the heroines who become involved in a quest to discover and safeguard a precious, secret book that is part of a sacred trilogy connected to the Holy Grail. As with Sierra and Asensi, Mosse's writing is richly engaging and her scholarship, impeccable.

Page-turners

Berry's The Templar Legacy and Khoury's The Last Templar are the two Gnostic thrillers whose writing is not literary and stylish. They are serviceable, even exciting conspiracy thrillers, which, like DVC, provide the reader with enough hidden Vatican lore and intriguing medieval history to keep you turning the pages. The Last Templar has a knockout opening: "Four horsemen, dressed as Templars, ride up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, crash into a show of Vatican artifacts and steal a coding device that can unlock the Templars' secrets about the early days of Christianity." Reading these books, with their evocation of secret theological histories, I couldn't help feeling that if only the early Christian church had turned Gnostic (or taken the Cathars seriously), it would be today a more intellectual, mystical, inclusive faith. What all these Gnostic thrillers are attempting to do, while entertaining and informing us, is to resurrect and re-imagine lost Christianities.