Elaine Pagels is a scholar of religious history who holds advanced degrees from top universities and has a wide reputation for pioneering research on early Christianity. She's also a mother who lost a 6-year-old son to a rare lung disease a wrenching tragedy that caused her to seek comfort in a church community and to re-examine her own faith in God.
In her latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Pagels brings readers both her personal and intellectual perspectives as she explores the development of the Christian religion. The book is like an effective sermon: learned, yet accessible to ordinary people engaged in their own spiritual journeys.
Pagels' best-known earlier book is The Gnostic Gospels, an influential examination of early Christian texts that were ultimately rejected as heretical by church leaders as they built their upstart movement into a major religion. Pagles builds on that work in Beyond Belief by closely comparing one of those texts, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, with the canonical Gospel of John.
Both argue that the Kingdom of God is not just a future dream, but exists now, if we know where to look for it. But they differ radically on how to find that divine light. John contends that Christians can find salvation only through belief in Jesus, who is God revealed in human form; Thomas believes we are all made in the image of God and need to seek our own inner understanding.
Pagels ably explains how the political circumstances of the first centuries after Christ led to the triumph of those who believed in John's message. Along the way, she tells of her personal search for faith as a teenager caught up in the evangelical movement, as a skeptical adult, as a grieving mother. "Most of us," she wisely writes, "sooner or later, find out that at critical points in our lives, we must strike out on our own to make a path where none exists.''
Anne Bartlett is a journalist who lives in South Florida.