Why is religion still around in the 21st century? Why do so many still believe? And how do various traditions still shape the way people experience everything from sexuality to politics, whether they are religious or not? In Why Religion? Elaine Pagels looks to her own life to help address these questions.
Why Religion? is, as its subtitle states, a personal story, but it’s also a wide-ranging work of cultural reflection and a brisk tour of the most exciting religion scholarship over the past 40 years ... She is consistently, sometimes hilariously humble. She mentions that she started reading Greek the way one of us might mention that we started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt ... Her controversial professional triumphs and critical discoveries are recounted with head-spinning speed ... As she speaks of profound spiritual and religious matters, I pined for a more poetic and contemplative style, something along the order of Marilynne Robinson or Christian Wiman ... But when the memoir arrives at the death of her little boy, Pagels’s tone feels bracingly appropriate ... One gets the impression that studying herself in the crucible of grief was often the lone activity that kept her sane ... Pagels is as fearless as she is candid. In the depths of her sorrow, she recalls uncanny coincidences, acts of precognition, ghostly visitations and even a confrontation with a demon one night in the hospital. These episodes are never submitted as factual evidence of supernatural intervention. Instead, Pagels offers her subjective experiences to demonstrate the way our lives are molded by ancient stories, consciously and unconsciously ... Why Religion? feels miraculous and yet entirely believable.
A recounting of [Pagels'] personal story has been a long time coming. Her husband and child died more than 30 years ago, and reading about her life, love, work and unimaginable pain, we can feel how difficult it has been for this reserved scholar of early Christianity to enter the black hole of her feelings. Her account has none of the frenzied and claustrophobic madness of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; nor the wild pain and rushing love of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, written in the aftermath of the sudden death of her family in the 2004 tsunami ... Fueled by her intellect, and fortunate to have access to the Gnostic Gospels... Pagels, bravely, forthrightly and with a characteristic minimum of fuss, cracks herself ajar. This is a minimalist work of great majesty, akin to a shimmering Agnes Martin painting, whose stripped-down aesthetic allows light to pour forth from her canvas.
... searing and wise ... [Pagels'] account of [her son's] five years of life are tender and wrenching, sketched with exquisite detail ... Loss proves a powerful prod to a fiercely able scholar. [Pagels] is tenacious, prodigious, exhaustive ... Interestingly, the most powerful moments in this narrative are not her arguments with other exegetes, however. They are a series of remarkable visions and mystical experiences Pagels interweaves with her more intellectual journey and that leave her (and the reader) undone. She is strangely transformed by these brief moments, drawn beyond the labyrinth of grief and into a place of grace.