Elaine Pagels (born 1943) is Professor of Religion at Princeton University; she has written many other books such as The Gnostic Gospels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, The Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters, etc.
She reveals in the first chapter of this 2003 book how (wearing t-shirt and running shorts) she stopped into a church, shortly after her son was diagnosed with a rare lung disease. "Standing in the back of that church, I recognized, uncomfortably, that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child; and here was a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the celebration in progress spoke of hope... Before that time, I could only ward off what I had heard and felt the day before." (Pg. 3-4)
She adds, "As I began to sometimes participate in church services after decades of absence, I experienced the power of worship in new ways. I had grown up nominally Protestant, and thought of ritual as empty form, but now I saw how it could join people of diverse cultures and viewpoints into a single community, and focus and renew their energies." (Pg. 14) She adds, "This, then, is what I dimly recognized as I stood in the doorway of the Church of the Heavenly Rest. The drama being played out there 'spoke to my condition,' as it has to that of millions of people throughout the ages, because it simultaneously acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while---paradoxically---nurturing hope. Four years later, when our son, then six years old, suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some shelter, along with words and music, when family and friends gathered to bridge an abyss that had seemed impassable." (Pg. 26-27)
She observes, however, that "The Church... helped me to realize much that I love about religious tradition, and Christianity in particular... At the same time, I was also exploring in my academic work the history of Christianity in the light of the Nag Hammadi discoveries, and this research helped clarify what I cannot love: the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs... coupled with the conviction that Christian belief alone offers access to God." (Pg. 29)
After the emotion of this early chapter, the rest of the book seems almost anticlimactic. Nevertheless, Pagels' analysis of early Christian history contains her characteristic historical illumination; e.g., "This sketch of what happened during the fourth century does not support the simplistic view often expressed by historians in the past---namely, that catholic Christianity prevailed only because their leaders somehow succeeded in coercing them... Nor does this sketch support the view that Constantine simply used Christianity for cynical purposes. We do not know his motives, but his actions suggest that he believed he had found in Christ an all-powerful divine patron and the promise of eternal life; and during the thirty years he ruled after that, he legislated... the moral values he found in biblical sources---the vision of a harmonious society built upon divine justice, that shows concern even for its poorest members." (Pg. 179-180)
She concludes on the note, "How can we tell truth from lies? What is genuine... and what is shallow, self-serving, or evil?... there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits... Many of us, wishing to be spared hard work, gladly accept what tradition teaches. But the fact that we have no simple answer does not mean that we can evade the question. We have also seen the hazards... that sometimes result from unquestioning acceptance of religious authority. Most of us, sooner or later, find that... we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists. What I have come to love in the wealth and diversity of our religious traditions---and the communities that sustain them---is that they offer the testimony of innumerable people to spiritual discovery." (Pg. 184-185)
Much more "personal" than Pagels' other books, this book will appeal to a very wide path of readers---those seeking historical insight, as well as spiritual "seekers" from Christian or other traditions.