The danger of reviewing books is that I have to decide how ignorant to appear in my reviews. Do I let you know how much a book made me rethink everything I ever knew? Do I crack open the door to say, “I blindly trusted XYZ and I have come to regret that decision”? How much should I let you, the review consumer, know that I didn’t know until I read a book?
I came to Why Religion: A Personal Story with what I would consider a reasonable familiarity with Elaine Pagels. I’ve read or skimmed much of her work. I’ve also been taught to hold some of it at arm’s length. When I’ve been told to hold the Gnostic gospels at arm’s length, there’s always a “Father Knows Best” quality regarding the reasons why even if “Father” at the time is actually “Mother”.
Nevertheless, when I saw that she had a new memoir out, focusing on grief and trauma in her life and her own religious processing of those incidents and feelings- I knew it was a book for me. (Incidentally, I read the paper version of this book because the narrator of the audiobook has received poor reviews, though the content is highly rated.) Why Religion is the intellectual memoir of grief that I didn’t know I wanted and yet I craved.
I am spoiling nothing to tell you that the central traumas of the book are the death of her young son to a terminal illness, followed a year later by the accidental death of her husband. Pagels’s writing is raw and clearly reveals that these wounds always ache, no matter how much time passes. Yet, within the story of her own grieving, she reflects on the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth, drawing a sense of deep connection to generations and centuries of religious and spiritual people, who sought and found a connection with the Deep and the Divine.
After someone suggested that Pagels and her husband might eventual “find meaning” in the death of their son, Pagels rightly rages:
Even if she hadn’t just spouted a sentimental cliche, how dare she suggest that any benefit to us could possibly be worth a child’s life? Find meaning?
What is clear is that meaning may not be something we find. We found no meaning in our son’s death, or in the deaths of countless others. The most we could hope was that we might be about to create meaning. (104)
As Pagels reflects on the struggle to breathe, move, and then find life after death, she also unspools how we make community by creating meaning in what seems beyond our control and our comprehension. Through story and ritual, people throughout history have worked together to make sense of suffering and to bring reason to joy.
According to Pagels, religion seeks to make sense of the world and to preserve the lives of those who find community through the practice of religion. It was in seeing the depth and breadth of this story-making that preserved her own life, giving some order to the chaos around her and helped her to put one foot in front of the other.
This book contains bits and pieces of her work with the gnostic gospels, on Satan, and on Revelation, as well as some of her other history. Reading this made me want to go back and spend some time with her original work, to read it with a contemplative eye and a heart that is prepared to ponder.
Within the book, Pagels is greatly supported by her own academic community as well as that of her husband. Even without significant family support, which I do not discount, there is almost no reflection on the privilege she had to be able to retain faculty positions and financial help. While I was glad for her to have those things, I kept wondering if they would have happened for a person who was not Elaine Pagels- whether lower on the faculty totem pole or simply less well-known (and thus desirable for retention).
In the acknowledgments, she thanks James Cone, who helped her process this book. She mentions his book Said I Wasn’t Going to Tell Nobody, which was published around the same
time as hers. Since the Reverend Doctor Cone is not available for the book promotion circuit, his book has not had quite the same elevation as Pagels. I didn’t know that Dr. Cone’s book was out until I got to the end of Pagels. I am attempting to correct that for you by letting you know that I will be getting to that book quickly and I think that you should too.
The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.
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