Was Jesus Christ talking about magic mushrooms when he told his disciples to eat the “bread of God” at the Last Supper? That’s one theory explored by The Psychedelic Gospels: The Secret History of Hallucinogens in Christianity, a new book by Santa Barbara residents Jerry and Julie Brown that blends travelogue, art history, and the anthropology of mind-altering substances to explore alternative understandings of early Christianity.
“We do not and did not set out to challenge any of the beautiful beliefs of Christianity,” said Jerry, who taught anthropology, including a very popular class about hallucinogens, at Florida International University from 1973 to 2013. “We have no smoking-gun evidence of this, but there is a plausible argument that, if you interpret these enigmatic statements in the Bible, one could draw the hypothesis that they are about a sacred plant.”
The couple’s path to this book began while celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in Scotland in 2006, when they were inspired by The Da Vinci Code to check out the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel. “There, in the most sacred part of the chapel, I found a psychedelic mushroom sculpted upside-down,” said Jerry. “This made my head spin.” He knew how much hallucinogens played into other religions, from the Hindu Vedas to ancient Greece to Mesoamerica, and wondered whether that could be true for Christianity.
“We decided we would regret it for the rest of our lives if we did not visit churches and chapels to see if there was other evidence of psychoactive substances in Christianity,” explained Jerry, who examined imagery in churches throughout Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. “In the nine sites we visited, we found surprising and extensive evidence. We concluded that this was not marginal — rather that this was clearly widespread, even in the high holy places.”
They’re not the first to suggest as much, but the Browns do so in a more measured, evidence-based way. “We rely on very concrete, visual images to make our case,” said Jerry, who hopes his findings are considered along the lines of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic Gospels. “This is an alternative gospel, and we need to look at it as such.”
Though they could have taken a more academic approach to the topic, the Browns — who moved to Santa Barbara so Jerry could work as a renewable-energy activist for the World Business Academy — decided to write the book for the general public so more people would be turned on to the idea. They believe this theory will help others realize that hallucinogens — which are also classified as entheogens, which means “generating the divine within” — can have a place in modern religion.
“We know that these substances, both the natural entheogens and the chemical entheogens, can directly create mystical and otherworldly experiences,” said Jerry, also noting recent progress in treating depression with psilocybin mushrooms. “We believe they can bring the direct experience of divinity back into religion.”
Though the Browns argue that their use should be protected by the Constitution’s religious freedom laws, they are not advocating for recreational use or widespread legalization. “We call for the responsible use in the presence of a trained guide,” said Jerry. “These can be dangerous substances.”