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The Serpent’s Gift

Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion

“Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field.” With those words in Genesis, God condemns the serpent for tempting Adam and Eve, and the serpent has shouldered the blame ever since. But how would the study of religion change if we looked at the Fall from the snake’s point of view? Would he appear as a bringer of wisdom, more generous than the God who wishes to keep his creation ignorant? 

Inspired by the early Gnostics who took that startling view, Jeffrey J. Kripal uses the serpent as a starting point for a groundbreaking reconsideration of religious studies and its methods. In a series of related essays, he moves beyond both rational and faith-based approaches to religion, exploring the erotics of the gospels and the sexualities of Jesus, John, and Mary Magdalene. He considers Feuerbach’s Gnosticism, the untapped mystical potential of comparative religion, and even the modern mythology of the X-Men. 

Ultimately, The Serpent’s Gift is a provocative call for a complete reorientation of religious studies, aimed at a larger understanding of the world, the self, and the divine.


“In The Serpent’s Gift, Jeffrey Kripal provocatively advances a practice he names ‘academic gnosticism.’ Through such a method, he seeks to move beyond some of the obstinate binaries that have preoccupied, and sometimes thwarted, scholars of religion. This lively, accessible, and delightfully transgressive book also explores how the academic study of religion itself is implicated in, indeed emerges out of, some of the heretical subject matters it tries objectively to understand. In making conscious a culturally repressed, religious unconscious by means of his ‘mystical humanism,’ Kripal has once again succeeded in getting students of religion to think about (and with) old things in new and daring ways.”--Jeremy Zwelling, Wesleyan University

Jeremy Zwelling

“A trickster-guide, Jeffrey Kripal lures his readers through mirrored doors and ironic tunnels into the inner chambers of the study of religion. There he conducts a disconcerting initiation. The mysteries of his religious studies are an antidote to the imperial certainty, the bombastic piety, of too much religion. This shimmering serpent gives with its fangs.”--Mark D. Jordan, Asa Griggs Candler Professor, Emory University

Mark D. Jordan

"Kripal’s writing glows with insight and enriches our understanding of humanity’s gnostic dignity. Highly recommended."

Library Journal

"A fascinating meditation on gnosticism, sexuality, religious studies, and life in general. It will intrigue, challenge, provoke, and (possibly) alarm or offend the reader, but all for the sake of an important quest for a new way of thinking through and drawing together, our currently disparate studies of religion, mysticism, theology, and human and divine realities. . . . Each essay is well written and inviting, and most useful reading; cumulatively, they make the case that excluded, silenced, lost perspectives need to be heard in twenty-first century academe and also in our spiritual quests."

Francis X. Clooney | Harvard Divinity Bulletin

"[Kripal’s] trademark mix of autobiography and rigorous scholarship gives his writings a style all their own. His irenic style matches his approach: he reaches out to all sides rather than setting one side against another. . . . In any future course on the study of religions, I would assign The Serpent’s Gift."

Robert A. Segal | History of Religions

Table of Contents

Preface: Digging Up My Library


Introduction: The Serpent’s Gift

Faith, Reason, and Gnosis

The Premodern, the Modern, and the Postmodern

Toward a Gnostic (Post)Modernity


Writing as Hissing

Autobiographical and Pedagogical Contexts

The Essays

1 The Apocryphon of the Beloved


The Quest for the Heretical Jesus

“One Will Know Them by Their Roots”

From the Womb . . .

Sexual Healings: Dispelling the Demons of Abuse

Sexual Teachings

The Man Jesus Loved

The Woman Jesus Loved

The Secret

2 Restoring the Adam of Light

The Adam of Light Awakened by Her

The Fiery Brook

The Sacrilegious Secret of Christian Theology

Implications of the Method

The Historical and Intellectual Contexts

“Man Is God to Man”: The Virtues of Pluralism and Polytheism

Completing the Incarnation of Love (and Sex): Embodiment in Feedback’s Thought

The Sexuality of Numbers

The Cancer and the Cure

Toward a Mystical Humanism: A Gnostic Rereading

3 Comparative Mystics

The Rebuke of the Gnostic and the Oriental Renaissance

Comparative Mystics

Ramakrishna: Colonialism, Universalism, Mysticism

Doctrinal and Historical-Critical Analysis

Ramakrishna and the Comparativist

The Critical Study of Religion as a Modern Mystical Tradition

The Scandal of Comparison

Professional Heresy: The Gnostic Study of Religion

Interlude: Logoi Mystikoi; or, How to Think like a Gnostic

4 Mutant Marvels

Educational and Sexual Allegory

On Puberty and Powers

Denying the Demiurge

Toward a More Radical Empiricism

Dissociation and the Release of Nonordinary Energies

On Death as Dissociation

Real X-Men

On X-clusions and X-ceptions

Political Allegory; or, How (Not) to Be an X-Man

Conclusion: Return to the Garden

The Other Tree

The Forbidden Fruit

“When He Becomes Troubled, He Will Be Astonished”

The Flaming Sword and the Bridal Chamber


The Fruit of the Tree; or, My Gnostic Library before I Have to Bury It (Again)



American Academy of Religion: American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence

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