Elaine Pagels | Critical Review by James Finn Cotter

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Elaine Pagels.
This section contains 2,589 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Finn Cotter

Critical Review by James Finn Cotter

SOURCE: "Pagels's Paradise Lost," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 165-70.

In the review below, Cotter argues that while Adam, Eve, and the Serpent is well-written and persuasive, it contains misleading and inaccurate areas.

In the epilogue of her new book [Adam, Eve, and the Serpent], Elaine Pagels tells us that, dissatisfied with contemporary Christianity, she turned to the earliest Christians for answers. She assumed that in that era, when the movement was pristine and primitive, things were simpler and purer. She found the opposite to be true: the movement was diversified, divided by controversy, and complex.

So what else is new?

Well, what Pagels found sounds strangely familiar, a not-so-distant mirror of our own time: martyrs, particularly women, ready to lose their lives rather than surrender their freedom to the will of the State; Gnostics, eager to include women in their services and open-minded in judging moral questions on the basis of situational ethics rather than by precept or authority; leaders like John Chrysostom who opposed wealth and position in ecclesiastical and civil hierarchies; and thinkers like Pelagius who insisted on the goodness of nature and the integrity of free will against Augustine's vision of a world riddled by original sin.

What happened? The martyrs perished, the protesters were silencd, the Gnostics suppressed, Chrysostom exiled, Pelagius condemned, and Augustine canonized. If only things had turned out differently, if only the orthodox had lost and the free spirits had won. Christianity and western civilization would not be the embarrassment they are to enlightened folk today. Certainly, there would have been fewer changes to be made in the contemporary church.

Pagels lets you draw such conclusions for yourself. The danger here, of course, is wishful thinking, history as a series of neatly discovered causes, anachronisms disguised as real ideas or events, and in many instances not history at all. To make freedom the central issue in the first centuries of Christian persecution takes some stretching of the imagination and the texts. The martyrologies tell us the saints died for their faith in Jesus as Lord; they hardly thought of themselves as freedom fighters. If given a choice—except for ardent souls like Ignatius of Antioch—they wanted to go on living. Refusing to sacrifice to the emperor as god, they were put to death for their infidelity. They had no choice but to obey their Lord or deny him. "Freedom," as we know it, hardly existed as "the classical proclamation" Pagels claims. In the texts she quotes it is mentioned in passing, never is it the focus of the Christian message.

The Gnostics are another problem. Pagels treats them as a Christian sect when they may have pre-dated Christianity and existed as an independent syncretic religion. They penetrated Christianity, but seem to have remained on the fringes. Gnostics held so many beliefs that one can find evidence for almost any religious theory in their enigmatic writings. As she did in her Gnostic Gospels, which I reviewed in the Summer 1980 issue of The Hudson Review, Pagels has a field day manipulating their texts. Here is "an extraordinary poem," called Thunder: Perfect Mind, as she quotes it:

    I am the first and the last.
    I am the honored one and the scorned one.
    I am the whore and the holy one.
    I am the wife and the virgin.
    I am the bride and the bridegroom,
    and it is my husband who begot me.
    I am knowledge and ignorance….
    I am foolish and I am wise….
    I am the one whom they call life [Eve]
    and you have called Death….

The subject of this poem, she says, "depicts the spirit, manifested variously as Wisdom and as Eve." George MacRae, in his introduction to it in The Nag Hammadi Library, writes: "In terms of religious tradition Thunder: Perfect Mind is difficult to classify. It presents no distinctively Jewish, Christian, or Gnostic themes, nor does it seem to presuppose a particular Gnostic myth." To add to the problem of analysis, Pagels has actually quoted as a single conflation five eparate passages scattered over five pages. The name "Eve" does not appear anywhere in the poem; Pagels does put it in square brackets, but the editors also use such brackets in the text. How is the reader to know what is going on?

Again, Pagels quotes The Secret Book of John as declaring: I am the intelligence of the pure life," when the original reads "pure light." And she cites the Gospel of Philip: "The law was the tree…. For when [the law said, 'Eat this, do not eat that,' it became the beginning of death." In the Nag Hammadi text God speaks these lines, not the law. The differences are minor, but they form part of the mosaic portraying the Gnostics as Pagels sees them and not as they really were.

Pagels persists in stereotyping orthodox Christians as law-abiding formalists who believe in a transcendent deity while Gnostics are true-believers open to an immanent divine presence. Jesus' words, "Live on in me and I in you," Paul's claim, "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me," Augustine's cry, "You are more intimate to me than I am to myself," the Eucharist, interior prayer, the mystics, none of these find a place in Pagels's polemics. For her, no orthodox Christian can say with the Hindu of his God, "I am Thou." Why not? What else is Incarnation? "God became man that we may become God," Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas tell us. Meister Eckhart's condemnation, which Pagels naturally drags up, was mired in the politics of its day and proves nothing. Her narrow-minded treatment of "the orthodox" (the name almost hisses in her pages) gives away the game she is playing.

Pagels covers the first five centuries selectively to support her thesis that after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in 313 a "cata—clysmic transformation" occurred. The thesis is hardly new but her examination of commentaries on the first chapters of Genesis does cover fresh ground. The reader learns a good deal about the period; the controversies are vigorously presented, and the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas is especially fascinating in Herbert Musurillo's lively translation. Chrysostom rightly comes across as an admirable bishop and Justin Martyr is an appealing apologist. Jerome and Augustine, however, appear as political opportunists and male chauvinists, which they probably were.

Is the book an accurate picture of the era? Pagels misrepresents Christianity. The Incarnation finds no room in the inn of her thinking; the sacraments, grace, charity, faith have no part in her historical vision. Only doctrines matter and only ideas make things happen. For Pagels the past is a text to be reduced to practical political issues. Jesus himself appears not as the crucified and risen Lord but as the preacher of a new doctrine. His "radical message" undergoes endless revisions at the hands of his followers. Pagels carefully selects her passages and, if one sounds suitably persuasive, she repeats it. She adds emphasis or shifts emphasis to suit her purpose. She magnifies small issues and ignores main ones. She sprinkles her book with terms like "shockingly" and "sadly," as if she too can barely believe what these men are saying about freedom, marriage, sin, and human behavior. She stacks the deck, to make matters work out the way that suits her best. To her innocent readers she is the serpent in the Garden.

In the controversy between Jerome and Jovinian, for example, Pagels makes Jovinian seem like a reasonable monk who, disenchanted with the ascetic life, saw value in a less rigorous way of living. In the debate about the superiority of virginity over marriage, the position which Jerome obstreperously defended, Jovinian appears correct and his subsequent condemnation incredible. Pagels never tells us that Jovinian was condemned for claiming that a person baptized with water and the Spirit cannot commit sin, for holding that all sins are equal, and for denying the virgin birth. In finding no worth in asceticism, Jovinian went against the grain of all religious tradition. Of course he was wrong, but not according to Pagels.

In Augustine's controversy with Pelagius and his follower Julian, Pagels ignores the question of grace, the essential issue for Augustine. She makes the extraordinary statement that Augustine "denied that human beings possess any capacity whatever for free will." Augustine, the author of "On Free Will" and "On Grace and Free will," has been called "the chief exponent of free will in the early church." He is the pastor who told his listeners: "Love, and do what you will." For him the will was not mere choice between good and evil; to do evil meant to lose your power of will. Free will is a love, a pleasure, an impulse and pressure. Sin prevents people from being spontaneous and caring. For Pelagius, the will was self-centered and based on self-control. Pagels is saddened that Pelagius lost the argument and was condemned. But Pelagius has had a long life. As a boy growing up in Irish Catholic Boston, I and everyone else were all semi-Pelagians at heart. Do not believe everything you read.

Of course, Augustine was wrong on a number of counts. He was forever changing his mind and contradicting himself. His Retractions reviews his 330 works and repudiates passages or works he no longer agreed with. Such is the prerogative or curse of old age: second thoughts. Thomas Aquinas dismissed his views of nature as contradictory: how can nature be good and utterly depraved? The Council of Trent made it clear that on the question of grace and freedom, Augustine was as fallible as his opponents. The history of the church has not been as monolithic as Pagels would have us believe, and many at the time were troubled by Augustine's exaggerations. He was an existentialist, gloomy, but no life-denier. He was Kierkegaard and Pelagius Norman Vincent Peale. "May nothing horrible happen, nothing inhuman," Augustine says, wanting only good and not bad for himself and others. But good comes from God who became human for our sake, to rescue us from evil. For Pelagius, Christ set a good example and leaves the rest up to us. Older now and no longer living in Boston, I am convinced that Augustine is right—most of the time.

Much of what Pagels writes about the rigorist traditional views of marriage and virginity is probably true, if one-sided. The ideas were not cast in tablets of stone as she seems to think. Surely she exaggerates when she claims that Jesus and Paul never endorsed "procreation in marriage": what does "A man shall cleave to his wife and the two shall be one flesh" imply? In the first century celibacy was a response to an eschatological crisis and not the outcome of a negative attitude toward sex. With the kingdom at hand why worry about sexual fulfillment? The marriage feast at Cana, however, was always seen as a sign of the Lord's blessing on young couples. You find no Cana in Pagels's exegesis.

Augustine's idea that some sin—even if only venial—had to be attached to lovemaking for married couples wanting children seemed harsh then and has seemed so ever since. It never became church teaching. The first church council to deal with sexual morality was Vatican II in 1974; it declared that the actions of marital sexuality "signify and promote that mutual self-giving by which spouses enrich each other with a joyful and thankful will." Augustine himself is ambivalent on the subject. He wrote "On the Good of Marriage" in which he upholds the sacredness of married life as a sacrament and praises fidelity as a source of salvation. He states that the couple should not refuse one another and both partners must agree if they are to abstain from sex. He believed that a humble mother pleases God more than her proud virgin daughter. Augustine is not the harsh marriage-hater Pagels makes him out to be. Jerome, on the other hand, overstated his case for virginity and made such wild claims that even his friends balked. Without him, however, we would not have had the Wife of Bath.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge of this topic. Jean Leclerq recently wrote on monastic twelfth-century views in Monks on Marriage; monks were sympathetic and had plenty of insights on marital relations. In 1650, the Jesuit theologian Thomas Sanchez attacked Augustine's rigorist views, and much has been written on religion and sex in the past decades. You would know nothing about these developments in reading Pagels. She writes as though she is pioneering some new and sensational discovery about that old story in the Garden. Some terrible secret has been at last revealed! Augustine had sexual hangups and they have darkened the centuries! Read all about it!

The mystery of Christianity here is treated as a whodunit, and Augustine is the villain: "From the fifth century on, Augustine's pessimistic views of sexuality, politics, and human nature would become the dominant influence on western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, and color all western culture, Christian or not, ever since." How did this disaster occur? "The eventual triumph of Augustine's theology required, however, the capitulation of all who held the classical proclamation concerning human freedom, once so widely regarded as the heart of the Christian gospel." Regarded by whom? With such sweeping cause-and-effect conclusions, Pagels draws her study to a close. Reader, beware!

Pagels writes well and argues persuasively. It is easy to see why her books are so popular. She explains so much and makes it clear how down through the centuries we landed in the mess of the present. Much is informative, more is shaded and distorted to fit her preconceived thesis. She knows who did it from the start. When she states that her task is "historical investigation" and not "religious inquiry," she sounds sincere, but the statement has to be weighed carefully. Her own confession that "dissatisfied with the representatives of Christianity" she turned to the origins of the early church certainly implies a "religious inquiry" that masks itself, consciously, as objective history.

Pagels answers those who say that she projects her own ideas into the text by first denying it and then admitting it is impossible—and not even desirable—not to make such projections. She quotes Foucault on "the politics of truth" and says that "what each of us perceives and acts upon as true has much to do with our situation, social, political, cultural, religious, or philosophical." "What is truth?" as Pilate asked Jesus, not waiting for an answer. To a colleague who objected that religious ideas cannot be reduced to political agendas, she responds by agreeing and then stating that "moral choices often are political choices." In Boston we called this "talking out of both sides of your mouth." Today it is fashionable as literary and historical theory.

How can you not trust a writer who documents every statement, who seems so fair-handed and scholarly, whose book contains twenty pages of closely written notes with references to French and German as well as English criticism? As compared to The Gnostic Gospels, where the notes would not pass the scrutiny of a freshman English instructor, this is a much more carefully researched book. Pagels has learned how to deal with her critics. As the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University and the recipient of a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, Pagels is a formidable academic figure. Whether or not her "brilliant new book," to quote its blurb, is "a work that will prove a landmark of historical thought and profoundly affect all future interpretations of the historical meaning of Christianity" remains to be seen.

(read more)

This section contains 2,589 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Finn Cotter
Follow Us on Facebook