Religion is such a huge ugly topic. Somehow, though, historian Elaine Pagels makes it bearable. Fascinating. Refreshing. No wonder they gave her a MacArthur “genius” grant and made her a professor at Princeton.
She was frisking about this morning, babbling about the biblical Book of Revelation, to an appreciative crowd in folding chairs in Gresham Hall, across from the gymnasium, downstairs at Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco. Trim, spry, and birdlike in grape jacket over black everything else, Pagels commented on a brisk selection of illustrative slides, while lobbing the question of the canonical book’s having beaten out its competitors in a crowded field.
Why did John of Patmos’s Revelation make the cut? Begging the bigger question, Why do we pretend the Bible is a monolithic book? If she does nothing else, Pagels dissolves the notion that the Bible is ahistorical, preordained, inevitable. She humanizes the process of editing the Bible. Whatever else it is, the Bible is just a book.
Here to promote her own, newly released, book of Revelations, she seemed to be giving a drive-by graduate seminar, reviewing the hair-raising sequence of events including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the Whore of Babylon, sketching the historical situation of their author (an admirer of Jesus witnessing the obscene power of the Roman Empire), and describing different ways the scary images have been interpreted and reinterpreted by various people who found themselves in various pickles.
When my question, written on a card, was read out to her, “What’s your feeling about the human need to establish a canon and enforce it?” she didn’t exactly answer. She explained the uses of orthodoxy: to sort out the crazy and spurious from the genuine, and confided that during the nine years spent writing the book, she found the line between heresy and orthodoxy blurring.
Yes, but, who are these people we depend on to filter Truth? Why do they inevitably abuse the power we unwittingly invest in them? Why do they have all the great paintings, sculpture, architecture, and music? Why are they allowed to destroy lives and shape public policy in insane ways?
I know the necessary Reformation’s coming from Elaine Pagels. Her writing strikes at the heart of theocracy, spiritual bureaucracy, the Inquisition by any other name, not from a similarly excluding so-called scientific but really merely rival stance, but from the devastatingly compassionate commonsense position of a saint. Pagels is inspired, giddy, ecstatic on the dusty discoveries at Nag Hammadi that blow a whole in the Holy Bible by supplying alternative, contemporary, contradicting texts. Elaine gently leads Jesus off the throne of God to sit there herself and encourage each of us to similarly cast off the shackles of submission to external authority.
But how do her archeological insights — according to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, “the Kingdom is inside you,” such a Buddha thing to say — translate to institutional practice? Or is that a contradiction in terms?