A famed religious scholar’s poignant life story.
Pagels (Religion/Princeton Univ.; Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, 2012, etc.), who is especially renowned for her work studying the ancient Gnostic brand of Christianity, provides a raw and often moving autobiography. The author begins in the postwar suburbs of Palo Alto, California, where she was raised by emotionally detached, and certainly nonspiritual, parents. A visit to a Billy Graham crusade awakened the young Pagels to the world of religion. “It changed my life, as the preacher promised it would,” she notes, referring to Graham, “although not entirely as he intended, or at least, not for as long.” By the time she was a student at Stanford, she had lost her basic faith in Christianity but remained intrigued by religion as a whole. She went on to earn a doctorate at Harvard, where she first encountered the newly discovered writings of the Gnostics, a sect that had been branded as heretical and was extinguished early in the history of Christianity. The author’s academic pursuits unfold alongside a touching personal life story. After marrying physicist Heinz Pagels, the couple went on to have a son, who was eventually diagnosed with a fatal heart condition that took his life while he was still in kindergarten. As she was recovering from this tragedy, her husband fell while hiking and was killed. Much of the rest of the author’s story involves her attempts to remain sane and stable while raising two other adopted children and continuing her career at Princeton. In the process, she went back to Scriptures and early Christian writings, not due to faith but as a way of understanding how others dealt with tragedy in the past. Pagels is a controversial figure in Christianity, heralded by many scholars and modernists yet derided by traditionalists, and her approach to God—amorphous and skeptical—will either offend or resonate with particular readers. The story of her grief, however, will touch all.
A meaningful tale of pain and hope on the edges of faith.