Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by Mary Troychak

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 838 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mary Troychak

Critical Review by Mary Troychak

SOURCE: A review of The Origin of Satan, in The Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1995, p. 23.

In the review below, Troychak discusses how events in Pagels's life motivated her to explore the dark side of Christianity.

Five hundred years ago, Elaine Pagels would have been burned at the stake. She has read the sacred texts of Christianity and become fascinated with the devil. She expresses doubt that Jesus was actually crucified by Jews. She contends that the New Testament gospels—which millions of Christians believe to be the actual word of God set down by his apostles—are polemical tracts written generations later to strengthen the fledgling church against its enemies: the pagans without and the heretics within. Finally, she has gained this knowledge by studying forbidden books, suppressed and deviant gospels that had remained buried until 50 years ago.

The personal tragedies that preceded and inspired The Origin of Satan have received almost as much attention as the work itself. For almost 20 years, Pagels was married to physicist Heinz Pagels. In 1987, their six-year-old son Mark died of a lung disease. In a PBS World of Ideas interview around that time, she told Bill Moyers that she had become interested in the question of how Christianity interprets bad fortune. Confronted with the death of her child, Pagels admitted that she felt it easier to blame herself, to blame anyone, than to accept the random and meaningless death of someone so beloved. In 1988, when friends perceived that the couple was finally emerging from their mourning, Heinz Pagels fell to his death while hiking in the mountains outside Aspen, Colorado.

Pagels begins her Introduction to The Origin of Satan with the observation that, like many people who grieve, she found herself "living in the presence of an invisible being." A historian of the ancient Western world, she began to reflect on how religions have shaped our views of the invisible world, and how those views affect our relationships with other people, with events, and with nature. She assumed she would find that Christianity moralized the universe: Disasters such as she had suffered would be seen as the will of God or a judgment on human sin. What surprised her as she worked was the predominant role of the devil.

Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, has published two books for the general public about the roots of Christianity. She was among the first scholars to translate the Nag Hammadi Library, 13 papyrus books bound in leather that were discovered in 1945 by a man digging for gold in the upper Egyptian desert. Pagels encountered texts that would revolutionize her views on Christianity, direct the course of her future work, and establish her as a creative, intuitive scholar with a gift for making history come alive for the general reader.

The Gnostic Gospels, which concerns a second-century Christian sect, received the National Book Award and has been published in at least 10 languages. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent shows how creation as described in Genesis has influenced our culture's beliefs about gender, sex, and reproduction. In her most recent book, Pagels confronts the dark side of Christianity. She peruses ancient manuscripts—the Bible as well as Hebrew, pagan, and heretical Christian texts—to construct what she calls "a social history of Satan." At what point did Satan emerge as a principal player in the Christian drama? How has belief in the devil influenced Western perspectives on ourselves and other people, and affected the course of human history? These are questions Pagels invites the reader to consider in this illuminating and provocative book.

For nearly two millennia, millions of Christian believers have viewed their personal and political struggles as reflections of an eternal cosmic war waged between God and the devil. Many in our culture were raised on this cosmology; the battle continues over whether it should be taught in out public schools. During the Gulf War, Satan was present in the rhetoric of both President Bush and Saddam Hussein. Susan Smith's Methodist pastor told the New York Times that when she parked at the lake with her two sleeping children, "God made a her a presentation, and Satan made her a beautiful presentation." The importance and the power of Pagel's latest work is her insistence that we scrutinize our dominant mythologies.

Pagels acknowledges that strife between groups is as old as umanity:

What may be new in Western Christian tradition is how the use of Satan to represent one's enemies lends to conflict a specific kind of moral and religious interpretation, in which "we" are God's people and "they" are God's enemies, and ours as well. Such moral interpretation of conflict has proven extraordinarily effective throughout Western history in consolidating the identity of Christian groups; the same history also shows that it can justify hatred, even mass slaughter.

Pagels concludes [The Origin of Satan] with this hope:

that this research may illuminate the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that "otherness" is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.

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This section contains 838 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Mary Troychak
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Mary Troychak from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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