Jesus Christ Posts

Elaine Pagels “Why Religion?: A Personal Story”

Renowned Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, Elaine Pagels Why Religion? is a moving memoir. It is not only an account on the devastating grief she experienced of losing her six-year-old son Mark and husband Heinz Pagels within a year of each other but also of her academic trajectory. A phenomenal academic Elaine Pagels is credited with groundbreaking work in Bible studies. She is one of the earliest scholars to have written on the discovery of the Gnostic gospels.

Why Religion is a memoir that is extremely moving particularly when she discusses the moments of intense pain and grief she experiences. And yet what is remarkable is how she pulls herself together as much as she is able to for the sake of her two younger children, even managing to complete the adoption process for her son David in the absence of Heinz, and making a career move to Princeton University.

She has been awarded some of the most prestigious grants — the Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and MacArthur Fellowships. And this for someone whose initial application to Harvard to do a PhD in the history of religion was rejected saying:

Ordinarily we would admit an applicant with your qualifications. However we are not able to offer a place in our doctoral program to a woman, since we have so many qualified applicants, and we are able to admit only seven to our doctoral program. In our experience, unfortunately, women students always have quit before completing the degree.

But the letter continued to say that if she was still “serious” about doing the course in the following year, the department would grant her admission. So she did.

Her interest in religion began after having visited a Billy Graham event when she was fifteen years old. She was a believer for about a year and a half but then quit it after losing one of her close friends, Paul, in a car accident. She bailed out of evangelical christianity after her friends came to offer their condolences but were unmoved about the incident after discovering Paul was a Jew and not a born again Christian and so he would be damned to hell. Elaine Pagels could not comprehend this as to her mind Jesus Christ was also a Jew.

There are many, many nuggets of wisdom she shares in her memoir. Never is she didactic in her tone but it gives much to think about. Given that she was the product of her times when women were being recognised as individuals in their own right and had much to contribute to society and of course academics, Pagels began questioning the very texts she was studying. Texts that she began to question as being a construct of their times imbued with patriarchy.

One of the earliest passages in the book is:

…the creation stories are old folk tales, they effectively communicate cultural values that taught us to “act like women”. Besides revealing how such traditions pressure us to act, these stories also taught us how to accept the role of women as “the second sex,” a phrase that Tertullian coined in the second century. The same Christian leaders whose scriptures censor feminine images of God campaigned to exclude women from positions of leadership, often hammering on the Bible’s divine sanction of men’s right to rule — views that most Christians have endorsed for thousands of years, and many still do.

This questioning spirit has kept her mentally agile. Consequently the body of work she has published has been pathbreaking not only for Bible studies but also how religious studies are meant to be viewed. She insists upon being a student of the history of cultures that uses faith as a tool to dissect and understand social structures through the ages. “Why Religion?” is also a critical question to be asked today when the world is increasingly polarised along communal lines, making this book even more relevant.

Here is a fascinating conversation with her recorded on 30 November 2018. Pagels is in conversation with Dr. Eric Motley, executive vice president at the Aspen Institute and author of the memoir Madison Park.

Why Religion? is a book that will move you irrespective of whether you are a Christian or not. This is meant to be read by all faiths and non-believers. It is meant for all readers — a fascinating testimony on a life well lived. A life that many folks, ordinary folks live — of living and believing in one’s faith and how these threads co-exist in one’s life, it is impossible to compartmentalise these aspects.

Read it.

3 Feb 2019

Further Reading:

Memories of Heinz Pagels by Jeremy Bernstein ( LRB, 3 January 2019)

After her son and husband died, Elaine Pagels wondered why religion survives” by Ron Charles ( Washington Post, 6 November 2018)

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

“Looking for Jesus, the man” ( An interview with Reza Aslan, the Hindu, 16 Nov 2013)

I was asked by the Hindu to interview Reza Aslan. Earlier this year he published Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. It was released in India by HarperCollins in Sept 2013. The interview that was conducted via email has been published online on 16 Nov 2013 and in the paper edition on 17 Nov 2013. Here is the url . I am c&p the text below. ) 

Reza AslanDr. Reza Aslan on why he wrote his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Dr. Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, is the author ofZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which was in the news a few months ago and also reached the number one slot on The New York Times Bestseller List.

He is the founder of, an online journal and co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of BoomGen Studios, an entertainment brand for creative content from and about the Greater Middle East. His first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, was translated into 13 languages. His other works include How to Win a Cosmic War(published in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism: Confronting Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age) and Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalties, Contentions, and Complexities.

Excerpts from an interview:

How long did it take you to write this book?

I have been researching for more than two decades, ever since I began my academic work on the New Testament as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University in California. Of course the quest for the historical Jesus has been going on for 200 years. Countless scholars and academics have written about the Jesus of history. The methodology for that is more or less written in stone by this point. I have distilled these two centuries of debate and analysis and rendered it in an appealing and accessible way for a general audience.

What was the target audience you had in mind?

I wanted to give those who worship Jesus as God a different perspective of him as a man. Of course, Christians believe that Jesus was both God and man, yet they rarely understand the implications of that belief. If Jesus was also a man, it means he lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place shaped who he was. This book is an introduction to that time and place. But I also wanted to write to a non-Christian audience to help explain why, 2000 years later, this man and his teachings and actions are still so significant.

Has your upbringing influenced your thinking?

My upbringing taught me to take faith seriously, to respect it and not denigrate it, even when I am questioning some of the most fundamental tenets of that faith.

What was the most surprising thing that you discovered?

I suppose the most surprising thing about Jesus and his time was just how many other messiahs there were around the first century, many of whom were far more popular and far more successful in their lifetime than Jesus was.

What is the difference, if any, between the men who claimed to be messiahs in Jesus’ time and the many god men (across religions) today?

I suppose if you believe that all religious experience is a matter of the psyche, then there is not much of a difference.

In the “Author’s Note, you state that you “have chosen not to delve too deeply into the so-called Gnostic gospels… they do not shed much light on the historical Jesus himself”. But did not the Gnostic gospels actually reveal much more about the man we know as Christ, including that he probably belonged to the Essene sect? So would not a close reading have helped you “reclaim” the historical Jesus before he became synonymous with Christianity?

The Gnostic Gospels were written in the second and third centuries. While they shed light on the enormous diversity of Christianity in the years following the death of Jesus, they do not give us much information about the historical Jesus himself. Neither does the Gospel of John, which by the way was written between 100 and 120 A.D. These texts are simply too late to be of much use to those looking for the Jesus of history.

The Jews attached great importance to writing things down. Yet the testaments were written only some 70 years after Jesus’ death. Muhammad knew the importance of writing things down, yet the Quran ended up being a careful reconstruction of his words. In your opinion, why isn’t there a Book of Jesus?

Mostly because nobody could have written it. Jesus and his disciples were Galilean peasants. None of them could read or write.

Was your choice of Christ as a subject a natural result of being a scholar of religion or did it have something to do with the number of books on the topic, including Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ and Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary?

I think Jesus has always been an interesting character and always will be. While some argue that there has been a sudden flood of books about Jesus recently, the truth is that such books have been appearing every few years for some time.

Do you think that the days when men could start major world religions are over?

On the contrary, take Mormonism, which is only 150 years old and already a major world religion. I think the same could be said about Scientology one day. Religions are born all the time. Who knows which one will be seen as “great” one day?

Reza Aslan Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Harper Element, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers India, Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 300. Rs. 499

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

The Testament of Mary, Colm ToibinAt a little over a 100 pages The Testament of Mary is the slimmest novel on the ManBooker Prize shortlist. In this novella Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, narrates in first person the events leading up to the crucifixion of her son. She recounts the story in her old age to two people, whom she refers to as “Guardians”, but were probably those who were recording the events marking the life of Jesus. These testaments were to be later compiled into a text. All though in the Bible the only four gospels are by men – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. No women.

The Testament of Mary is a novel that has been adapted from the play of the same name, written by Colm Toibin. It was nominated for a Tony Award Best Play,  Best Actress, Best Sound Design of a Play, and Best Lighting Design of a Play. Even two thousand years or so after the Bible was created and nearly seventy years after the Gnostic gospels were discovered ( in which there was a script by Mary Magdalene ) it is rare to find a woman’s testimony on the events surrounding Jesus Christ. ( Recently there have been attempts to create a feminist Bible as by the German evangelicals and the new version of the Bible being translated by the NIV Committee on Bible translation is gender sensitive too. ) So Colm Toibin’s attempt at writing this testimony is significant within theological traditions and literary fiction. To create a woman character who speaks at length, it is like a monologue, but remains an observer. The story works dramatically and it is not necessary to be familiar with the events in the Bible to understand or even appreciate this novella. Yet I was left wondering at when Mary witnesses the crucifixion of her son on the cross, she continues to recount the events in the first person, whereas if a woman ever tries to record a traumatic incident in her life, she is only able to do so in the third person. It is a dramatic shift that occurs. So it is curious that Colm Toibin retained the first person narrative even for this section–maybe it worked well on stage? ( Passages on p.76-77.)

Recently it was announced that  actor Meryl Streep would be doing the audio version — .This is a good example of literary fiction. It will be read and it will be discussed over time. But whether it wins the ManBookers Prize on 15 Oct 2013 remains to be seen.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary Viking, Penguin Books, London, 2012. Pb. pp. 108 Rs. 299

9 Oct 2013 

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