I will address some of her specific points in later posts, but thought it best to start with some generalizations:
Pagels portrays orthodox Christianity as largely concerned with static doctrinal purity. Conversely, gnosticism, as she describes it, is entirely concerned with a perpetual quest for meaning. Pagels claims that the orthodox understanding of truth is largely in terms of propositional statements, and in the conviction that those propositional truth claims are absolute. Gnosticism, however, is open to other, intuitive and emotive, ways of knowing. Pagels implies often throughout the book that the orthodox position, far from holding to truth, actually prevents people from pursuing truth; we are more concerned with political correctness than with truth. I must confess, Pagels description here of the Church, while painful, is generally accurate.
This was, however, the only strength of the book in my opinion.
We have often set aside the pursuit of God, and the seeking of truth, for the sake of a sense of assuredness. We want to 'know the truth' but when we discover that the truth is complicated or even, at times, ineffable we settle for 'knowing doctrine.'
...a friend wants to know God more deeply, he is a Christian and a member of a local church, but the leaders of the church simply parrot creeds and doctrines at him. He doesn't know what questions to ask, but there is a sense of dissatisfaction with the answers they give him. They are frustrated that he won't just 'get with the program' but he simply wants to know the truth. (I thought that was the program!)
We have become more concerned with correctly pronouncing our theological shibboleth's while ignoring the content of our theology and our lives. How someone answers the question of Christology, or homosexuality, or ____________, is more important to us that whether someone prays regularly, loves deeply, lives intimately, or obeys readily. We are unwilling to question, or to allow (much less encourage) others to question, out of fear. I know of Christian pastor's and professors who have explicitly stated, "I don't want my students to learn to think critically, I just want them to believe the correct statements of fact and doctrine."
Gnosticism, of course, runs to the other end of the spectrum here! There is no real concern for truth, as such. Rather, whatever I discover within myself is truth. This is Pagel's real agenda behind her scholarship; yet another ringing endorsement of the Enlightenment agenda, the unshackling of individualism and hedonism.
The contemporary gnostic says, 'Look deep within yourself, and then be true to whatever you find there.'
As one who has looked deep within myself and been horrified, I find these sentiments naive at best, evil at worst, and obviously spoken by someone who has no intention of looking 'deep within' in any honest sense of those words...