Why Religion? By Elaine Pagels

That was the question her parents asked when young Elaine announced she was going to enter Harvard Graduate School to study religion. A few years earlier her secular father was furious to learn that she had gone forward at a Billy Graham crusade and given her life to Christ.

Describing the crusade she attended with friends in California, she said the evangelist spoke of the national sin of racism and mentioned that the USA was the first and only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon. Although her personal religious perspective changed over the years, she never criticized Graham, and expressed gratitude for the world the experience and Evangelical Christianity opened to her.

She continued to attend a weekly Bible study with her evangelical friends throughout high school—until tragedy struck. Her close friend Paul was killed in a car accident, and her evangelical friends told her he was in hell because he was Jewish. A curious reminder of the atmosphere in which she grew up, Jerry Garcia was part of her circle of San Francisco friends and was riding in the car and injured in the accident. She believes his reaction to surviving the accident was reflected in the name he chose (from the Egyptian book of the Dead) for the new band he formed shortly after the tragic event.

Tragedy is the theme of the book. I don’t need to give a spoiler alert, because she mentions in the introduction the tragic deaths of her son and husband. The details are heart wrenching.

Reading those details was uncomfortable for me, but her main theme, her religious journey, was disquieting for me. She describes sexism at Harvard (she was first denied admission to the program because they didn’t believe a woman could persevere and complete her research), and sexual harassment by her adviser, who was not named in this book, but was in some of her earlier writings. Nevertheless, she did persevere.

Her research centered on the newly published Nag Hammadi texts, Coptic translations of secret or lost Gospels. She described her findings and those of her colleagues in the book The Gnostic Gospels. Her approach to the history of early Christianity is popularized by Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. She believes the Gnostic Gospels represent a faith free from dogma, a faith that emphasizes free inquiry and looking within for the truth.

Professor Krister Stendahl, professor and later dean at Harvard, was one of the good guys in her story. She described telling him at her admission interview she wanted to explore the essence of Christianity. He asked her, “What makes you think it has an essence?” The group of researchers she joined came to describe various diverse Christian movements in the days before a defined dogma suppressed diversity and dissent.

I have long believed that Christianity will always be in need of renewal and reform; but I have also believed that the resources for that renewal will always be in available in the traditional sources: primarily the New Testament Scriptures, with some guidance from the church fathers, the Apostles Creed, and support from the Old Testament prophets. The numerous recent failures of various Christian leaders and the followers makes me wonder if the traditional resources are enough.

Professor Pagels is a good story teller. I listened to the audiobook version, and I had several driveway moments waiting to finish an episode. The reader was pretty good, but not perfect. She didn’t always pronounce the words correctly and sometimes paused prematurely. When Pagels spoke of a beautiful “Reformation hymn,” the reader said “re-formation.” But audiobooks are great for someone who spends much time in a car.

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Go Set a Watchman

I just finished listening to the Audiobook of Go Set A Watchman, read very effectively by Reese Witherspoon. The manuscript was written in the 1950s but never published until it was discovered in 2014. The story is set after To Kill A Mockingbird, when Jean Louise (Scout) is a grown woman of 26. Go Set A Watchman was written before the more famous book, the main theme of which is summarized in a brief section.

Mockingbird was a gentler and more effective way of dealing with racism. Had she published the Watchman manuscript in the 50s, it would probably have been banned and its author blacklisted.

Mockingbird is probably a more perfect artistic accomplishment. Go Set a Watchman, though, has its literary moments, with some colorful characters and amusing scenes.  The scenes of the motherless child reaching puberty and the anxiety it causes should be required reading for every teacher or youth worker who deals with middle school children.

The last few chapters resemble a platonic dialog more than a dramatic story and consist of a series of intense exchanges between Jean Louise and those closest to her.  Her angry speeches against racism are countered with genteel defenses of the way things are and why it is necessary to go along and get along. It is this social commentary that we need now.

You remember back in November when everyone warned us to avoid politics and religion at the family gathering for Thanksgiving? Jean Louise’s speeches are the models for what we should have said.

I’m Hooked

I met a new writer today, and I’m hooked.  A link on another site led me to the “Omega Course.”   Helen Ingram is using the blog format to write a novel about Jesus and Magic.

A year ago I was in Scotland and learned that the church there was using the Alpha Course as a nonthreatening way of introducing people to the life of following Jesus.  The Alpha Course has been around for a while, and it seems to be fairly popular.

The Omega Course is a way of introducing interested readers to the life of scholarship about Jesus and biblical studies.

It’s a success.  Helen has got me hooked.  I like her writing.

Of course, in the upside-down world of blogging you have to go back to the beginning and start reading from the bottom up.  The first post is “Biting the Bullet” from February 15, 2009.

My One Book List

1. One book that changed your life: 
In His Steps
by Charles Sheldon.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

The Inferno by Dante Alleghieri

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

Oxford Classical Texts edition of Homer, Iliad and Odyssey.

4. One book that made you laugh:

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

5. One book that made you cry:

The Source of Life by Jürgen Moltmann–the first chapter relating his experience as a prisoner of war in WWII. I read it about the time news of Abu Graibs came out; and Moltmann’s description of how he was treated with kindness and dignity by the Allied Forces made me weep for our nation.

6. One book that you wish had been written:
1968-1999 The Peace Years; ed by Robert Kennedy, with chapters by Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and John Lennon.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

Medea by Euripedes.

8. One book you’re currently reading:
Jacob’s Tears by Mary Douglas.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Purgatorio and Paradiso by Dante.

Mark

A Little Help from My Friends

Here are a few “One Book” picks from some of my friends, and some of my friends’ friends. What are yours?

Zvaigznite’s books (artist)

1. One book that changed your life: Rachel and her Children by Jonathan Kozol
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: Complete works of Anthony Trollop

4. One book that made you laugh: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
5. One book that made you cry:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

6. One book that you wish had been written: The Autobiography of Andre Sedriks
7. One book that you wish had never been written: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
8. One book you’re currently reading: Sweet Revenge by Diane Mott Davidson
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: War and Peace by Tolstoy

Bill’s Books (former chess champion, cure for cancer researcher)

1. One book that changed your life: 1, 2. 3, Infinity by George Gamow
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: Nature of the Chemical Bond by Linus Pauling
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: A water resource management book
4. One book that made you laugh: Anything by Mark Twain

5. One book that made you cry: The last Harry Potter
6. One book that you wish had been written A book in the manner of Faraday that teaches modern science to kids.
7. One book that you wish had never been written: The Old Testament
8. One book you’re currently reading:
Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:
Huck Finn by Mark Twain — I’ like to read this again

Carlos’s books (clinical psychologist)

1. One book that changed your life: Clinical Series on Self Psychology by Heinz Kohut
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: The Intersubjective Perspective by Robert Stolorow
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: The Complete Works of Western and Eastern Religions and Spirituality
4. One book that made you laugh: The last Harry Potter
5. One book that made you cry: A Prayer for Own Meany by John Irving
6. One book that you wish had been written: A seminal book on addressing the integration of neurobiology and psycho-analytic theory

7. One book that you wish had never been written: All Nazi Propaganda books and communist propaganda books
8. One book you’re currently reading: Retire on Less than You Think by Fred Brock
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Joanne’s books (grandmother)

1. One book that changed your life: The Enneagrams
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: The Blind Heart by Storm Jameson
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: The plays of Eugene O’Neil
4. One book that made you laugh: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
5. One book that made you cry: Can’t recall
6. One book that you wish had been written: The Walter Family Genealogy
7. One book that you wish had never been written: Charles Manson: Music, Mayhem, Murder
8. One book you’re currently reading: Dangerous Admissions by Jane O’Connor
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare