I was simply disappointed with this book. I was hoping for a coherent and plausible worldview to be explained and advocated; an argument for gnosticism, or an explanation of why it is a plausible worldview, or even an explanation of historical gnosticism. I would have settled for an intelligent polemic against orthodox Christianity. What I read was largely a statement about contemporary gnostic beliefs, with a veneer of historical and scholarly language laminated over the top of it...
Pagels certainly references history, historical personages, and historical documents. She is herself a scholar, and she does reference scholarly opinion. But nothing she says actually links her contemporary gnostic worldview with either historical gnosticism, or the life of Jesus himself. She simply doesn't seem to care where her views come from. But of course, this is exactly what she is advocating: a spirituality unmoored from statements of truth about the world around us, a worldview that has no need to answer clunky questions about science or history.
The book progresses from a brief survey of literature about Jesus from the first three Centuries, to a bald assertion that there was virtually no consensus about the historical Jesus, and finally to another bald assertion that orthodoxy is the result of political pressures from the 4th Century. She uses this to conclude that Christians today should ignore Christianity (and more specifically, orthodox pictures of the life, work, and teachings of Jesus) and instead decide for themselves whatever they want to think, believe, value, and trust. It is as though she feels no need to connect the worldview she advocates with either the historical Jesus, or any particular historical gnostic community or document.
Instead of a book dealing with history and historical texts (which is what the subtitle of the book, and the constant references to history and scholarship suggests) we have a statement about Elaine Pagels personal spirituality, which is unmoored from any larger reality than Pagels' own personal navel gazing.
In my next post I will look at some of the historical claims she makes, and the overall historical framework she assumes. After that we will look at the spirituality she is advocating and compare that to what we do know of the historical Jesus and the spiritual life He offers us. Finally, we will look at some possible lessons the church can learn from Pagels' ideas.