Why Religion? A Personal Story
The twin tragedies Elaine Pagels endured in the late 1980s “would challenge anyone’s faith in religion,” said Chris Tucker in The Dallas Morning News. Pagels wasn’t just anyone, though. With 1979’s The Gnostic Gospels, the Princeton professor had established herself as one of America’s most prominent religious scholars. She had also devoted her career to exploring why faith endures in our modern age, so she knew where to look for solace when her husband was killed in a climbing accident a year after the couple’s 6-year-old died after a prolonged illness. In her new memoir, a story about finding a faith of her own, she revisits how those losses taught her to think more deeply about suffering and how the world’s religions have addressed it. “Readers of all faiths, and none, can learn from her brilliance and courage.”
Today, Pagels calls herself a Christian, yet her faith is “clearly unconventional,” said Tom Gjelten in NPR.org. The daughter of a Stanford biologist, she was raised to distrust religion but briefly became a born-again Christian at 15 after attending a Billy Graham stadium revival. Soon disillusioned, she left her church just a couple of years later. She remained curious about Christianity’s persistence, though, and while attending Harvard Divinity School gravitated toward the recently unearthed and then-secret Gnostic Gospels—early Christian texts that aren’t included in the New Testament. Those texts became the subject of her first best-selling book, a decade before she needed them to cope with her grief.
“Pagels is as fearless as she is candid,” said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Writing about her darkest period, she describes ghostly visitations and even a confrontation with a demon—all as evidence of how religious stories affect the imagination. Eventually, Pagels found resolution in a Gnostic Gospel insight: that suffering is not divine punishment but an essential aspect of life that binds us together because we all share in it. “When that ray of happiness finally pierces the gloom in her life, Why Religion? feels miraculous.” ■