A Luminous Adventure: David Bentley Hart’s Kenogaia

Author note: we are grateful for this post by guest blogger Aaron Jordan. He is a full-time music educator, a part-time choral conductor, a some-time film composer, and a voracious reader, especially of theology, spirituality, and poetry. He lives with his wife and two boys in eastern Nebraska.

I know next to nothing about Gnosticism, and even less about its storytelling, so when I saw the subtitle of David Bentley Hart’s latest work, Kenogaia (A Gnostic Tale), I was both intrigued and, admittedly, nervous. Hart, you see, has made me nervous more than once.

The first time happened as the twenty-first century was moving into its second decade, and I was spending most of my time in the middle decades of the first century trying to figure out if the early Christian movement had any real merit to it. I had been convinced it didn’t, since my time as an undergraduate at Bible college had, ironically, left my faith in ribbons on the floor. The onslaught of “New Atheist” literature happened to perfectly coincide with my blossoming unbelief, and I hungrily devoured the books of that movement as I scrambled to piece together a new belief system. It was a bit of a shock to the system, then, when a friend recommended Atheist Delusions and I first felt the white hot knife of Hart’s searing pen slicing through my worldview. His command of the “Christian revolution” and his genuine understanding of its “fashionable enemies” won me over rather swiftly, and my hunger turned towards the early, particularly Eastern, Christian tradition. That Hart was himself Orthodox only accelerated my interest.

The second time Hart made me nervous was less dramatic. Fast forward to the start of the third decade of this century, and another mysteriously titled book from Hart, called Roland in Moonlight. Many topics Hart (and Roland) lingered on here were well beyond my grasp (aside from the delightful surprise of Hart finding his mottled pup staring into the night listening to Schubert’s Wintereisse, something I became intimately familiar with while pursuing a music degree; I even sang “Gute Nacht” for my senior recital), but something intangible happens when you simply let someone’s expertise wash over you, whether the details make sense to you or not; like the aromas wafting in from a kitchen that make your heart ache with some unknown longing, even though you have no idea what the ingredients are.

So, I admit to blushing more than once when, after being ravished myself by one of Aloysius’s poems, Hart was less than impressed: “I sort of like the penultimate stanza, I think.” Or: “The subtitle is good. It’s all a little callow perhaps.”

Ah! “What poor taste I must have,” I thought. “People who know better would’ve seen the flaws. You’re in over your head here.”

It put me a bit on my guard going forward, any time those unmistakable indentations of another poem appeared on the next page; part of me was eager and part of me thought, “Don’t like it too much, it may not be that good.”

Silly, perhaps, but it’s an honest experience when I sit at the feet of someone with such a colossal command of so wide a range of topics that I myself know so little about. That’s what one can get with a Hart book: he may mercilessly lacerate something you hold dear (be it your shiny new worldview, or your beloved home—I laughed heartily at his descriptions of St. Louis in Roland in Moonlight, only to wince when he directed his gaze to my own cherished Nebraska), or you may find yourself painfully aware of your own unfamiliarity with so many beautiful traditions and cultures and thinkers.

I say all of that to say, I offer no deeply knowledgeable summation of Hart’s “Gnostic Tale.” I’ve no doubt there are layers to Kenogaia that I’m simply incapable of detecting, and look forward to those more “in the know” (ha!) unearthing the hidden treasures. I approached Kenogaia simply as a story. I let it take me wherever it took me, and affect me however it affected me. And the result was astounding.

Everything fans of Hart have come to love about his work is on full display in Kenogaia. His sharp wit, his warm humor, his deep love of childlike innocence, his marvelous mastery of language, all of it is used to magnificent effect.

It doesn’t take long for the story to get rolling, as we are immediately made aware of a mysterious star making its way to Kenogaia. It seems of special importance to young Michael Ambrosius’s father, who is swiftly taken into custody by menacing figures, setting our youthful protagonist on a coming-of-age journey of literally cosmic significance.

Michael races to where the star landed only to discover a boy, close in age to his own, yet of an otherworldly beauty, with “striking golden hair” and eyes of “luminous sapphire blue” clad in a garment “woven from shimmering moonlight.” His name is Oriens, he has traversed long ages through the entire Kenocosm, and he has come to Kenogaia to rescue his sister. Together, the boys set out on their epic adventure, with the crucial help of the fierce and lovely Laura, a lifelong friend of Michael’s whose friendship, for me, proves to be the true heart of the story.

The trio face harrowing encounters with shape-shifting wolves, a chilling river journey, a terrifying police state, and a labrynthine maze, deftly navigating betrayal, deceit, captivity, and foes of limitless, god-like power, with the aid of allies in “our circle” (who have long awaited the arrival of the “child from beyond the stars”) and most importantly, with the help of a mysterious white bird, whom Oriens calls his “pneumatagogue.”

Like a composer, Hart has divided Kenogaia into eight distinct movements, each with their own themes and development, crescendoing to a climax and finale that is genuinely breathtaking.

It has been a long time since a book has so utterly captivated me, soaking so deep into my subconscious that I often found myself waking in the night from dreams in Kenogaia. Not since MacDonald’s Lilith, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and Hart’s book owes an obvious debt to them all) have I entered a world so fully realized, where the mythic veil was so masterfully lifted, and where such wonderful imaginative beauties shimmered on virtually every page.

Kenogaia belongs on the shelf right next to them.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI).

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