The Mushroom in Christian Art: The identity of Jesus in the development of Christianity
John A. Rush (author of Spiritual Tattoo and Failed God)
Berkeley,California:North Atlantic Books, 2011
Paperback, 385 pages with CD of illustrations included.
review by Joe Szimhart, 2011
I purchased this book because the topic fascinates me. My interest in the Amanita muscaria began in the late 1960s along with things shaman, but it got more serious after some research. As a young artist in the early 1970s I painted a few yellow-phase Amanitas ‘en plein air’ in oil above the Delaware Water Gap and then I ingested a small one. I got a pleasant buzz with some of the psychedelic bells and whistles described in the literature. A short few months later a friend of mine and I ate several each and we both got sick with some bells and whistles—the hours long nausea and blurred vision was just as described in the literature when one eats them raw. I could not stomach a raw mushroom of any kind for over a year. Decades later I wrote a long essay that I titled something like “Bolond Gomba: Santa Claus, Jesus, and Amanita Muscaria.” Bolond Gomba is Hungarian for the red Amanita or any gomba (mushroom) that makes you bolond or “crazy.” I traced the shamanic influences on the Santa Claus legend and speculated how that interprets Christianity, but it was speculation.
John A. Rush writes like someone who is a product of the Sixties movements but more so as a true believer in the modern myths about the Amanita. Rush views the popular white-flecked, red-capped, fairy tale mushroom as the primal drug and deity called Soma in the Rig Veda and by extension the “fruit” of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” in the Genesis story of Jewish tradition. He goes much further in finding indications of Amanita (and entheogens in general) in nearly every transformative tradition on the planet. Now, as I recall in my research, it is true that nearly 70% of all ancient religions and cults used some kind of psychotropic substance in their rituals and initiations. The Amanitas however were notably employed by tribes on the Eurasian steppe and among reindeer herders. Evidence for widespread use is lacking to support Rush’s enthusiasm. No one knows what was used to make Soma, for example, despite R. Wasson’s formidable study in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality that focuses on the red-capped Amanita.
But more importantly Rush seems to ignore the obvious limitations to entheogen use and abuse as a vehicle for sustaining communion with transcendence, limitations that ancient cultures did not ignore. One glaring example is in Hindu traditions that evolved early on, perhaps three thousand years ago, to supplant chemically induced ecstasy (Soma) with various forms of yoga and meditation as more effective, conscious means to “yoke” with the deity or sacred consciousness.
But Rush concentrates on the Christian tradition with his notion, which is more a fundamentalist belief: Jesus was not a person, rather “Jesus” was an experience of Amanita later disguised in Gospels as a person to—well, 1. To keep the experience secret from the hoi polloi who might somehow screw it up, and 2. To keep from being found out by Roman and later Church authorities who allegedly frowned upon mushroom cults. Only the inner sanctum, the high priests were trained and enlightened enough to properly ingest and interpret the mushroom experience. Rush goes on to suggest and assert (he does both frequently) that there were “many” Christianities based on the mushroom cult and these included Gnostics as well as Essenes and the John the Baptist movement.
This book probably should get no stars because it should never have been published—it is a poorly formulated thesis that ironically undermines itself by the evidence provided. Other authors (e.g., J. Allegro, 1970) pushed the mushroom source of Christian tradition but their efforts amounted to scholarly nonsense, not evidence. I tried but did not get through the entire file of illustrations on the includedDVD. It soon became clear that Rush “reads” or reads mushrooms and entheogens into icons and religious art that are not intended or there. As I mentioned above, I have been an artist and have made at least a portion of my living through the arts since the late 1960s. Rush’s approach to the art referenced violates the evidence—he tortures any detail to find a mushroom. It could be in a strange fold in a garment or a fly that he asserts refers to Fly Agaric, another name for the Amanita.
But where does Rush get his authoritative attitude? And why bother when the façade is so easy to dismantle? I think he takes his cue from Joseph Campbell the pop-mythologist, for one.Campbellhas long ago been discredited in interpreting basic cultural uses of myth—he was more a literary scholar who did almost no primary research of indigenous myths. Rush pushes the “follow your bliss” Campbellism many steps further into a kind of neo-Gnosticism based on his personal experience of art and mushrooms. Gnostics tended to position themselves among the elite few who could “know” the Mysteries after initiation—they were the self-proclaimed pneumatics. Others who might grasp the Mysteries after significant training were designated as psychics. The vast majority of mankind to some ancient Gnostic cults was too dense to experience the truth in any form. These were the hylics or mud people with no potential for salvation.
Rush takes potshots at theistic religion throughout the text. He takes issue with clerics, rabbis and priests who hand down tradition rather than encouraging “individual spirituality.” On page 270 he writes: As Joseph Campbell stated many years ago, the Bible and Koran are “guide books to schizophrenia.” Now schizophrenia is well-known to me—I’ve worked in a mental hospital over twelve years. If schizophrenia indicates a split from testable reality due to a dysfunction in the brain, thenCampbellis sorely off track with his unfortunate, poorly worded suggestion. On the other hand, if one were to take Rush’s ideas about Amanita to heart and stomach, schizophrenia may be what one steps into on the “other side.” Rush endearingly calls this stepping in and out of two worlds, the “hokey-pokey.”
Rush’s personal experience with shrooms seems to have imbedded a certainty in his mind that proto-Christians ingested Amanitas. Rush reminds me of a zealous Christian who finds the face of Jesus in clouds, fried eggs, Walmart receipts and water stains. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it fails to qualify as scholarship to my way of thinking. The real reason for this book has less to do with Christian art and Jesus than with exploring a host of transformative substances named by Rush throughout his narrative—the reader will find that the author is an avid entheogenist who overvalues a wrongheaded thesis.