Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by Mary Gordon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 2,326 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Mary Gordon

SOURCE: "Bedeviling Satan," in The Nation, Vol. 260, No. 25, June 26, 1995, pp. 931-33.

In the review below, Gordon concludes that The Origin of Satan is informative but fails to address some of the questions it raises.

Satan may not exist, but there are excellent reasons to invent him. He is called onstage whenever behavior pases our understanding of the limits of the human. To say that something is diabolical means it is inexplicable in ordinary terms. It ruptures the line of measurable cause and effect, or its sheer scope and efficiency seem untraceable. This kind of attribution can be seen as a failure of imagination or a type of species compassion. When we invoke Satan, we are saying that humans can't be that bad; they wouldn't do something like that on their own.

Recently, the temptation to demonize seems stronger than it has for a long time, a fallout, perhaps, of the information age. One intolerable piece of news we all must digest is that whoever we are, we are a minority, radically outnumbered by Them, the Others. We must now come to terms with Others who are more other than we'd imagined, therefore more inexplicable, easier to demonize. The readiness with which a term like "demonize" springs even to the lips of the popular media may signal the resurrection of an old habit of mind.

We seem newly in the grip of increasingly numerous, violent and finer-grained xenophobias that encourage those in their thrall to use any means necessary to justify the annihilation of the Other. It seems pandemic, from Islamic fundamentalists' referring to America as "the great Satan" to Pat Robertson's asserting that feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft" and, even worse, become lesbians. Hindus see the devil in Muslims, African nationalists in Nordic blondes. I myself believe I may have found him in the face of Howard Stern. Who else would have tied up forty blocks of traffic on Fifth Avenue with a book signing?

In such a world, a book about the Origin of Satan, by a scholar of Elaine Pagels's distinction, is awaited with unusual anticipation. An article on Pagels in The New Yorker recounting her personal tragedies—the death of her child and the freakish accident that claimed her husband's life just over a year later—and another in Mirabella have also generated remarkable advance publicity. And her first two sentences reinforce our expectations: "In 1988, when my husband of twenty years died in a hiking accident, I became aware that, like many people who grieve, I was living in the presence of an invisible being…. During the following year, I began to reflect on the ways that various religious traditions give shape to the invisible world, and how our imaginative perceptions of what is invisible relate to the ways we respond to the people around us, to events, and to the natural world."

The Origin of Satan is a fascinating and valuable book, but it is not the book these sentences suggest. Its focus is narrower; it is a philologically trained scholar's book, rather than an intellectual historian's. Pagels, who made her reputation with The Gnostic Gospels, a study of radical and dissident early Christian sects, turns her mind here to the history of Satan in the life and texts of the ancient world.

In examining the Hebrew Bible, she notes that whereas certain prophets call upon Canaanite monsters, like the Leviathan, to symbolize Israel's enemies, Satan is not a constant presence, and his role is not the one most familiar to later imaginers. He never appears as "the leader of an 'evil empire,' an army of hostile spirits who make war on God and humankind alike." He is one of God's servants. The biblical term Satan "describes an adversarial role,… one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity." The root means "one who opposes, obstructs, or acts as adversary." He can even act as a kind of messenger of God, as he did with Job.

It is dissident sects like the Essenes and the monastic community at Qûmran who begin to invoke Satan to characterize their Jewish opponents, those whom they consider insufficiently observant or pure. "In the process they turned this rather unpleasant angel into a far grander—and far more malevolent—figure. No longer one of God's faithful servants," he begins to become what he is for Christianity, "God's antagonist, his enemy, even his rival." Mark and the other three Evangelists who followed him adopted this radical strain, and Pagels gives us excellent reasons for their choice.

If the leader of your movement has been ignominiously murdered, Pagels suggests, it is helpful to believe that what seems to be disastrous is in fact chimerical; that the real battle is invisible and has, in fact, already been won. What appears to have been Jesus' defeat is actually the sign of a cosmic victory for the forces of God and good. These forces appear as characters in the Gospel narratives, an appearance, Pagels correctly notes, that "many liberal—minded Christians have preferred to ignore." Yet, she says, no one can deny the evidence that Mark (and those who followed him) "intends the presence of angels and demons to address the anguished question that the events of the previous decades had aroused: how could God allow such death and destruction?"

By creating such a supernatural and morally charged interpretation of conflict, Christians have created what Pagels calls "fault lines" that have allowed for the demonizing of others throughout Christian history. This tactic has been "effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter." Perhaps the most catastrophic of these fault lines has been a justification for anti-Semitism, which she rightly insists is an inextricable part of the Gospels.

Pagels traces the historical roots of this anti-Semitism, and indeed one of the most valuable contributions of The Origin of Satan is its ability to provide coherent and comprehensible historical contexts. She reminds us that "we cannot fully understand the New Testament gospels until we recognize that they are … wartime literature." A series of Jewish rebellions in the first century resulted in a vicious attack by the Romans lasting twelve years and ending in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

The Jewish community was sharply divided before this war, and in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, conflicting sects were eager to cast blame upon one another for the disaster. The followers of Jesus had refused to fight, because of their understanding of the approaching "end." Some, in fact, insisted that the horrors of war actually vindicated his call, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near," and that Jesus had predicted the destruction of the Temple and other terrible events.

There were several reasons for the followers of Jesus to dissociate themselves from the Jewish majority. Primary among them was their quarrel with Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and the majority's insistence upon observation of Jewish law as a prerequisite to salvation. This insistence conflicted with the Christian wish to spread their message among the Gentiles. It also allowed the Christians to justify allying themselves with the stronger power—the Romans. Thus, Pagels tells us, the Evangelists, beginning with Mark, place much greater blame upon the Jews than upon the Romans for the death of Jesus, although there is no historical justification for this. "Mark tells the story of Jesus in the context that matters to him most—within the Jewish community. And here, as in most situations, the more intimate the conflict, the more intense and bitter it becomes."

For Mark, then, the conflict is internecine, among Jews, and his use of the image of Satan reflects the Jewish tradition: Satan is not a hostile power assailing Jews from without; he is a representation of conflict within the community. Matthew, writing in 80-90 C.E., insists that Jesus offers "a universalizing interpretation of Torah … so that Gentiles can fulfill it as well as Jews. Matthew in effect encourages people to abandon traditional ethnic identification with Israel." It is one of the tragic paradoxes of Western history that the universal welcome offered by the Gospels is linked with a violent dissociation from, and vilification of, Jews. Followers of Jesus, in insisting that the circumstances of birth were irrelevant to salvation, placed themselves in direct opposition to an idea that had allowed the Jewish community to survive and know itself.

The Gospel of Luke continues the identification of the Jews with Satan and his cohort, but places the accusation in the mouth of Jesus himself. Luke, whom Pagels identifies as a Gentile, is determined to play up the non-Jewish aspects of Christianity, its openness to all believers. John, writing later than the others, around 100 C.E., portrays the struggle between Jesus and his enemies as a struggle between darkness and light. More than any of the other Gospels, Pagels tells us, John's has inspired believers who find themselves in a minority. Another paradox of the history of Christianity arises: The belief that one is the victor in a supernatural war allows for acts of courage that exceed ordinary understanding, and for bloodshed that efies comprehension. The same notion—that the invisible may be more important than the visible, and that one is on the side of the angels—inspired the behavior of both Savonarola and Martin Luther King Jr.

Up to this point in The Origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels presents us with fascinating information, and original and thoughtful elucidations. But she loses this lucidity after her analysis of the Gospels. She races through a discussion of Revelation, a book that has been crucial in the imagination of supernatural and cosmic war. And her discussion of the early Christian thinkers seems breathless and cursory. She has encouraged us to understand the Gospels as wartime literature, but neglects to offer a similar context for the early Christians, who were after all a horribly persecuted minority standing up, with superhuman courage, to imperial Rome. She fails to credit the moral value of the "good news" of Christianity, reflected in the marvelous passage of Tatian that she quotes. He is challenging the empire on the practice of gladiatorial combat: "I see people who actually sell themselves to be killed; the destitute sells himself, and the rich man buys someone to kill him; and for this the spectators take their seats, and the fighters meet in single-handed combat for no reason whatever…. Just as you slaughter animals to eat their flesh, so you purchase people to supply a cannibal banquet for the soul."

Pagels points out that Christians never gave up any of their old enemies; they just kept on adding new ones. They never abandoned their hatred of Jews even when their focus shifted to pagans and, later, to heretics. She notes that the rancor they directed toward non-Christians shifted when they, like the Essenes, began to see their insufficiently observant or doctrinally impure brethren as the greatest threat to their security. Tertullian, for example, thought that any questioning of any article of faith was the inspiration of the devil.

In the Olympics of Comparative Atrocities, it is tempting to believe that Christianity gets all the gold. But it is perhaps more the case that a love of cruelty and a desire to destroy one's enemies in ways that deny their humanity crosses race, class, ethnic and historical lines. This desire to destroy seems more connected to the possession of secular power than to the shape of belief. The Christians likened their enemies to Satan, and the Romans did not; nevertheless, it would be difficult to defend the behavior of the Romans toward the Christians, or to suggest that the Romans occupied the ethical high ground in this particular confrontation. Pagels tells us that the habit of interpreting the world as a cosmic battleground has its origin in the Gospels; but it is only after the church obtained an inordinate amount of power that it used these ideas to malign effect. The early Christians, with the same or more radical beliefs as their medieval and Renaissance descendants, were unable to do much harm because they had so little scope for action. They were a minority, and they were poor.

It is churlish of a reviewer to wish that the writer had written a different book from the one she has. But, grateful as I am for the illuminating information in The Origin of Satan, I wished for more in the way of interpretation and cross-cultural comparison. Having traced with admirable precision the sources of the Christian habit of placing themselves in the middle of a "cosmic war," Pagels doesn't wonder about the implications of such a belief. It would be fascinating to trace the connection, if any, between the way a particular people describes its enemies and the actions it then takes against them.

The Origin of Satan begs some very large questions. Why do some cultures, like the Greeks, the Romans and the early Hebrews, fail to be taken up by the idea of Satan in an important way? What is the connection between a tendency to Satanize and a taste for ritual and dogmatic purity? In which situations does human behavior cry out for a supernatural explanation, and when doesn't it? If a culture doesn't have a Satan, what does it have in its place?

But the title of her book suggests that Pagels's project is textual rather than interpretive—a task it admirably fulfills. If we forget the somewhat misleading anteor outré-texts and concentrate on the main body of The Origin of Satan, we must be grateful to her for not allowing us to forget that embedded in the narrative that tells us to Love Our Enemy and Do Good to Those Who Hate Us is the simultaneous injunction to see them as demons, creatures of darkness dedicated to the destruction of the everlasting light.

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