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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THE MYTH OF SISYPHUS

AND OTHER ESSAYS

This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

THE BOOK OF GENESIS ILLUSTRATED

The Book of Genesis as imagined by a veteran voice of underground comics.

R. Crumb’s pass at the opening chapters of the Bible isn’t nearly the act of heresy the comic artist’s reputation might suggest. In fact, the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural is fastidiously respectful. Crumb took pains to preserve every word of Genesis—drawing from numerous source texts, but mainly Robert Alter’s translation, The Five Books of Moses (2004)—and he clearly did his homework on the clothing, shelter and landscapes that surrounded Noah, Abraham and Isaac. This dedication to faithful representation makes the book, as Crumb writes in his introduction, a “straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes.” But his efforts are in their own way irreverent, and Crumb feels no particular need to deify even the most divine characters. God Himself is not much taller than Adam and Eve, and instead of omnisciently imparting orders and judgment He stands beside them in Eden, speaking to them directly. Jacob wrestles not with an angel, as is so often depicted in paintings, but with a man who looks not much different from himself. The women are uniformly Crumbian, voluptuous Earth goddesses who are both sexualized and strong-willed. (The endnotes offer a close study of the kinds of power women wielded in Genesis.) The downside of fitting all the text in is that many pages are packed tight with small panels, and too rarely—as with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—does Crumb expand his lens and treat signature events dramatically. Even the Flood is fairly restrained, though the exodus of the animals from the Ark is beautifully detailed. The author’s respect for Genesis is admirable, but it may leave readers wishing he had taken a few more chances with his interpretation, as when he draws the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a provocative half-man/half-lizard. On the whole, though, the book is largely a tribute to Crumb’s immense talents as a draftsman and stubborn adherence to the script.

An erudite and artful, though frustratingly restrained, look at Old Testament stories.

Pub Date: Oct. 19, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-393-06102-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2009

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