“Why Religion?: A Personal Story”
by Elaine Pagels
ECCO/HarperCollins, 2018, 235 pp.
You may not be familiar with the author of this memoir, religious history professor, Elaine Pagels,* but she made a huge splash in 1979 with her book, “The Gnostic Gospels.” First, a little background:
A farmer by the name of Muhammed al-Samman discovered a collection of 52 ancient manuscripts, mostly Gnostic discourses, near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Gnostics were a first and second century AD heretical sect that propagated the divine potential within each person that could be released through the acquisition of ascending levels of secret knowledge. Sounds quite a lot like the advocates of today’s New Age philosophies. The manuscripts were eventually secured by museums, but not before several were haphazardly destroyed. Scholars began the task of translating and analyzing these Gnostic manuscripts and Pagels’ book brought them to the attention of the general public.
Elaine Pagels (b. 1943) was a bit of a celebrity following the publication of “The Gnostic Gospels.” I was increasingly interested in the Bible and spiritual matters at the time (although it would be a few more years before I accepted Christ), so I attended her guest lecture at the University of Rochester in 1979 or 1980. Pagels claimed that the early-church patriarchy persecuted the Gnostics and repressed their writings as part of a competitive power grab. Although the academic dismissed Christianity as just another set of ancient myths and fables, she somewhat admired the heterodox Gnostic writings because of a few allusions to God being a female. Pagels subsequently wrote several additional books, which continued to rationalize away the early-Christians as just another group of ancient, unsophisticated people attempting to explain the complicated world via religious myth.
Recently, I noticed Pagels’ “Why Religion?: A Personal Story” at the bookstore and discovered our library had a copy. Hmm. A personal story about religion? What’s Pagels up to now? In this memoir, Pagels describes events in her life that took place thirty-years ago. First, the Pagels’ son, Mark, died in 1987 at the age of six after a long illness, leaving the parents devastated. Only one year later, Pagels’ husband, Heinz, was killed in a hiking accident. Pagels attempted to cope with the horrific double-loss via, among other things, psychiatric consultations and long, silent meditation sessions with Trappist monks. She states that she also found comfort in the “divinity within” messages of the Gnostic writings. Pagels alleges that her dead child and her dead husband mystically contacted her to reassure her of their well-being.
So the bottom line to this book is that Pagels now believes in a quasi-spiritual, supernatural dimension, but still dismisses the Bible as ancient folklore. She urges the reader to get their “faith” and comfort, wherever they may find it, except in a personal faith in Jesus Christ and Biblical Christianity. Sounds like Oprah.
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” – John 14:6
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” – Matthew 7:13-14
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.'” – 1 Corinthians 1:18-19
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Matthew 24:35
*Before starting her academic career, Pagels had briefly “dabbled” in evangelical Christianity as a teenager after attending a Billy Graham crusade in San Francisco in 1958 and claiming to have been born-again.