I’m no stranger to Elaine Pagels. Years ago I was so intrigued by what she had to say in a New Yorker article about early Christianity I borrowed a friend’s copy of Pagels’ breakout book The Gnostic Gospels and followed it up a few years later with The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (One morning before work I happened to be reading it at the neighboring Starbucks when one of our vice presidents, a practicing Catholic, wandered by and asked me what I was reading. After telling him I could tell he regretted asking because he quickly excused himself and hurried back across the street to our office. Poor guy probably thought I was a member of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan.) Happy to see another of her books hit the stands, not long after that I read Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Lastly, almost seven years ago I read Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation after spotting a copy on the New Books shelf at my public library.
You might remember from an earlier post I’ve been spending time in the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at the public library. While grabbing memoirs by Trevor Noah and Maxine Kumin one Saturday afternoon I stumbled across Elaine Pagels’ 2018 memoir Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Figuring this was as good a time as any to read a memoir by one of my favorite religion writers I added Why Religion to my small stack of library books and headed to the check-out desk.
Like I said at the beginning, I’m no stranger to Pagels. Over the years I’ve enjoyed her books and heard her interviewed more than once on NPR. Based on that, I guessed I knew everything there was to know about one of America’s premier experts on early Christianity. But perhaps like you can be married to someone for years and not know everything about them, Why Religion? showed me there’s a whole lot to Elaine Pagels I didn’t know.
For instance, I shouldn’t have assumed just because she teaches at Princeton she’s originally from the East Coast. I was surprised to learn she was born in Palo Alto, CA, home to Stanford University where her dad taught botany. After getting “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade at 13 she began joined a local evangelical congregation but left a few years later when she was told a Jewish friend of hers who had been killed in a car crash had gone to hell because he wasn’t a “born again” Christian. While attending Stanford and hanging out at Kepler’s Books and Coffee in nearby Menlo Park she made friends with a scruffy former Army private turned musician by the name of Jerry Garcia. Not long after that Jerry started his new band The Grateful Dead and Elaine was a guest at his wedding.
Sadly, like too many young women pursuing graduate degrees she was sexually assaulted by a professor from her department. (Without revealing too much his actions were premeditated and predatory and couldn’t be blamed on alcohol, social ineptitude and/or “mixed signals.”) Also sadly, like too many young women in academia her bold, ground breaking work in her discipline was initially rejected by the old guard. Eventually, her novel work began getting noticed and as it did she racked up awards and lucrative grants. This paved the way for her to produce intelligent yet accessible books for a mainstream audience, as opposed to a solely academic one. (I also didn’t know before she began her Ph.D. she briefly studied dance at Martha Graham’s famous dance studio.) In a brave move as a memoirist, or just being an honest and inclusive person Pagels also admits experiencing a same-sex attraction to one of her female friends.
I’d forgotten Pagels suffered two horrible tragedies, both within a year of each other. First, her young son died of an incredibly rare pulmonary disorder and then her husband, a physicist died in a freak mountaineering accident. (Adding insult to injury, suddenly bereft of her husband’s income she was forced to vacate her condo in NYC.) Pagels was devastated. Her recovery took years and drove her to seek comfort and understanding in the religious texts and traditions she’d devoted her life studying and teaching.
While I enjoyed Why Religion? for the excellent writing perhaps it taught me a bigger lesson. There’s nothing better than learning there’s more to one of your favorite writers than you ever imagined.