Af­ter son and hus­band died, she won­dered why re­li­gion sur­vives

The Bradenton Herald - - Faith & Values - BY RON CHARLES

A rare lung dis­ease killed Elaine Pagels’ 6year-old son, and then about a year later her hus­band fell to his death while moun­tain climb­ing. Af­ter that Job-like run of tragedies, no one would have blamed Pagels if she had de­cided to “curse God and die.” But she held on. Through rage and ter­ror and de­spair, she held on.

“I had to look into that dark­ness,” she says at the open­ing of her new mem­oir, “Why Re­li­gion?”

Pagels ac­knowl­edges that “no one es­capes ter­ri­ble loss,” but as the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar his­to­rian of re­li­gion, she brings a unique reser­voir of spir­i­tual wis­dom to bear. A pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton Univer­sity, she has long been one of those rare aca­demics ca­pa­ble of speak­ing to lay and schol­arly read­ers.

Now, at 75, with dis­dain for “the facile com­fort that churches of­ten dole out like Kleenex,” Pagels leads us through the re­mark­able events of her life by con­sid­er­ing the con­so­la­tions

and the tor­tures of faith. “Why Re­li­gion?” is a per­sonal story, but it’s also a wide-rang­ing work of cul­tural re­flec­tion and a brisk tour of the most ex­cit­ing re­li­gion schol­ar­ship of the past 40 years.

Given Pagels’ fa­mously ec­u­meni­cal ap­proach, it’s sur­pris­ing to hear that her spir­i­tual jour­ney be­gan at a re­vival preached by Billy Gra­ham. “That day opened up vast spa­ces of imag­i­na­tion,” she writes.

That ref­er­ence to “imag­i­na­tion” fore­shad­ows her even­tual break from or­tho­dox Chris­tian­ity, but it also sug­gests her de­ter­mi­na­tion to think cre­atively about sa­cred texts.

When the mem­oir ar­rives at the death of her lit­tle boy, Pagels’ tone feels brac­ingly ap­pro­pri­ate. “I can tell only the husk of the story.” Pricked with the cruel sense that ill­ness is the pun­ish­ment for sin, she searched for the source of this self-re­crim­i­na­tion. Sud­denly, the Bi­ble texts seemed stained with dread. “I could no longer af­ford to look through a lens that heaps guilt upon grief,” she writes.

She turned to the New Tes­ta­ment, the Gnos­tic gospels of the Nag Ham­madi li­brary and Bud­dhism, ac­cept­ing in­sight wher­ever it might be. Those in­clude mys­ti­cal places that most aca­demics would be re­luc­tant to en­ter. But Pagels is as fear­less as she is can­did. In the depths of sor­row, she re­calls un­canny coin­ci­dences, acts of pre­cog­ni­tion, ghostly vis­i­ta­tions and even a con­fronta­tion with a de­mon one night in the hos­pi­tal.


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