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Beyond Belief: Early Christian Paths Toward Transformation [Hardcover]

Elaine Pagels
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 Feb 2004
When her infant son is diagnosed with fatal pulmonary hypertension, Elaine Pagels is moved to explore her faith. In "Beyond Belief", her spiritual journey becomes a springboard for an intellectual and professional one and prompts her to re-examine the faith of early Christians. She looks at faith before there was doctrine and discovers that Christianity as we know it could have been radically different. Pagels compares the traditional New Testament Gospel of John with the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi. She uses the contrasting gospels to investigate the politics of Christianity and how the Church crafted a Bible and a faith according to a rigid conception of God. As a result, she argues, alternate versions of the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ have been lost to the world.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Macmillan (6 Feb 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0333738829
  • ISBN-13: 978-0333738825
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.6 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,031,315 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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...offers a model of careful and thoughtful scholarship in the lively and exciting prose of a good mystery writer. -- Publisher's Weekly, May 2003

This packed, lucid little book.. a spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise. -- Frank Kermode in New York Times Book Review, 8th June 2003

About the Author

Elaine Pagels studied both at Stanford and Harvard Universities and has taught at Barnard College, Columbia University, and currently is Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has written several books including The Gnostic Gospels, which won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her family

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and Inspiring 29 Jan 2004
The Gospel of Thomas and more than fifty other ancient Christian texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. As scholars examined these unique writings a new appreciation of the varied nature of early Christianity began to emerge.
The Gospel of Thomas encourages us to find out what is concealed within us instead of telling us exactly what to believe. The Jesus of the Gospel of John claims that He is the light. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas directs us to search inside ourselves for the light.
Ireneus, a church leader in Lyons in the late second century, was the champion of the theology expressed in the Gospel of John. It was Ireneus who wielded more influence than any other Christian of his time over the formation of the canon which was finally accepted in the fourth century.
Elaine Pagels writes with an optimistic tone similar to that found in many works by Marcus Borg. Pagels weaves her own personal testimony throughout the text of BEYOND BELIEF. Anyone who is on a journey of spiritual discovery will find much encouragement and inspiration from this book. Still others may consider it to be one of the most interesting publications they have encountered in a long time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can you keep a secret? 23 Nov 2005
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME
Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known for her text, 'The Gnostic Gospels' first published in 1979, in which she explores the different alternative gospel and scriptural writings used by (or at least known to) the Gnostic sects of Christians and proto-Christians in the early years of the common era. In this book, 'Beyond Belief', she returns to this subject by focusing more intensely upon the Secret Gospel of Thomas, one of the many gospel texts floating around the ancient Christian world, prior to the time the canon of scripture was more-or-less solidified.
She begins with a remarkably personal tale, her idea of faith and the power of God in the face of her own son's problem - he had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, one that is required painful and risky procedures with little hope of success. Where does faith come from in a time like this? Where does faith go?
Her first chapter talks about the power of the community, and she traces a history of early initiation rites and community-forging events (including the martyrdom of many). Pagels then relates these back to her own experiences, tracing a connection between then and now. The controversies the early church faced - the participation in communal feasts that were misunderstood, the renunciation of the world in dramatic ways, coupled with a care for persons in unique and egalitarian ways - these are not always the issues faced today. However, Pagels shows how these issues served to form what we hold today as normative Christianity. She also sets the stage for a look at the diversity of practice and belief - prior to the formation of the canons and creeds, there were more points of difference in the Christian world - texts such as the Secret Gospel of Thomas is one such.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
By Steven H. Propp - Published on Amazon.com
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.
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