Why Religion?

A Personal Story

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Elaine Pagels
  • New York, NY: 
    HarperCollins
    , November
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $27.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780062368539.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her compelling memoir, Why Religion?: A Personal Story, Elaine Pagels shares the story of love and loss that she privately lived as she produced the scholarly work that has made her so well-known. Though a historian—not a theologian—Pagels interprets her life theologically in a riveting work accessible and appealing to a general audience, but of special interest to those familiar with her academic work. 

The through line of Pagels’s story is her experience and understanding of what is more often referred to as spirituality, rather than religion. Not too many years after the death of a young friend—in a car accident—ended her adolescent participation in Evangelical Christianity, Pagels study of the Nag Hammadi texts becomes not only a historical and scholarly work, but a source of spiritual guidance, which she plumbs for the wisdom and grace she finds within them.

Pagels plainly explains enough of her academic interests and work for readers who do not know of her scholarship to learn a great deal about the significance of the Nag Hammadi texts, and the controversies regarding their relevance for biblical interpretation. For example, Pagels explains how participating in The Women’s Conference at Barnard led her to understand that religious ideas must be examined in their social context, and how conversations with her physicist husband led her to write The Gnostic Gospels (Random House, 1979) for a general audience, thereby taking her scholarly research into the public domain. She also describes, but does not dwell upon, its fiercely negative reviews from Christian scholars.

However, it is Pagels’s unflinching description of the devastating suffering she lived in for years that provides the gripping and forceful appeal of the book. She informs the reader that she wrote this book over seven years, finishing it during a year’s sabbatical from Princeton. The depth of her anguish, and her considered reflection upon her suffering, produced a memoir that took a lifetime to write. From the days of knowing that her young son would die of a heart condition, to his death, to the sudden death of her husband in a hiking accident soon after, to raising two young children on her own, Pagels brings readers, not only into the heart of her wounds, but also into the meaning she has made of living in their aftermath. 

Why Religion? shares personal truth with poignant vulnerability. Throughout her story, Pagels describes what may be called synchronicities and spiritual experiences without telling readers what to derive from them, even as she explains how they are meaningful to her. For example, before initiating the process that led to the adoption of their daughter, Pagels’s young son Mark enjoyed stories of dragons told by his father. One day, Mark told his mother that he was king of the dragons and that the queen was named Sarah. Curious, Pagels asked her son who he knew named Sarah, but he said he did not know anyone by that name. A year later, when Pagels and her husband received news that they could bring a two-and-a-half-month old girl home, they learned that the caregivers had been calling her Sarah and decided to keep the name she had become used to. Pagels also describes other experiences which make her consider the power of prayer, as well as some sense of connection among all things which may persist after death (176).

Aware of the theological controversies surrounding the value of the Gnostic texts, Pagels demonstrates how her academic work has been part of her personal journey. In perhaps the most succinct statement regarding what she received from the Gnostic texts, Pagels writes that “They helped dispel isolation and turn me from despair, suggesting that everyone of us is woven into the mysterious fabric of the universe, and into connection with each other, with all being, and with God” (177). 

Why Reliigon? is a profound and mature telling; demonstrating a lifetime of reflection. Anyone who agrees with Pagels that “everything we experience shapes what we are capable of understanding” (xiv), will want to read about the life journey she invites readers to understand.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alison Downie is Associate Professor in the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elaine Pagels is a preeminent academic whose impressive scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Pagels was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years. She is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, Beyond Belief, and Revelations.

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