A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we’ve come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire.

BEYOND BELIEF

THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS

One person’s hagiography is another’s heresy, observes biblical scholar Pagels, though that hasn’t stopped generations of Christians from trying to reduce the faith to “a single, authorized set of beliefs.”

God is love, promises the New Testament—and those who don’t believe it are doomed. A mixed message? Well, Pagels observes, the Bible is full of such contradictions, the inevitable product of the many hands that had a part in making the authorized text and its associated creeds. Continuing the project she began nearly a quarter-century ago with The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels examines the first-century Gospel of Thomas, discovered with the Nag Hammadi treasury of early Christian writings, with an eye to showing how a given text comes to be sorted into the “heretical” or “canonical” pile. The case of Thomas is particularly instructive: Thomas’s Christ is a sort of Zen saint who, quite unlike the practical and sometimes impatient messiah of the four approved gospels, answers his disciples’ questions with koans along the lines of, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate; for all things are plain in the sight of heaven” and “The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will see that it is you who are the children of the living Father.” In stark contrast to this Christ is that of John, whose gospel, Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ.; The Origin of Satan, 1995, etc.), notes, “directly contradicts the combined testimony of the other New Testament gospels” at critical junctures and was itself considered heretical, not least because it insisted (prematurely, as it happens) that Jesus was “Lord and God.” Yet John made the cut, and Thomas did not. Peeling away accreted layers of doctrine—the triune God, the Athanasian canon—Pagels ventures alternative and sometimes novel readings of biblical history, all with the cumulative effect of questioning the orthodoxy that “tends to distrust our capacity to make . . . discriminations and insists on making them for us.”

A thoughtful and rewarding essay, as we’ve come to expect from Pagels, and sure to arouse fundamentalist ire.

Pub Date: May 13, 2003

ISBN: 0-375-50156-8

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2003

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

THE ART OF SOLITUDE

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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