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Why Religion?: A Personal Story

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  215 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century? Why do so many still believe? And how do various traditions still shape the way people experience everything from sexuality to politics, whether they are religious or not? In Why Religion? Elaine Pagels looks to her own life to help address these questions.

These questions took on a new urgency for Pagels when dealin
ebook, 256 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Ecco
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Clif Hostetler
Nov 16, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
This memoir in addition to be of an account of overcoming personal tragedy, adds the unique dimension of insights of a respected historian of religion. Elaine Pagels is not only knowledgeable of the historical circumstances under which early scriptures were written, she found personal solace in those ancient words by identifying with the emotions and feeling that may have motivated those early writers. This book tells the story of how her personal and academic life combined to provide a unique r ...more
Ron Charles
Nov 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A rare lung disease killed Elaine Pagels’s 6-year-old son, and then about a year later her husband fell to his death while mountain climbing. After that Job-like run of tragedies, no one would have blamed Pagels if she had decided to “curse God and die.”

But she held on. Through rage and terror and despair so overwhelming that it made her faint, she held on.

“I had to look into that darkness,” she says at the opening of her new memoir, “Why Religion?” “I could not continue to live fully while refu
(3.5) Pagels is a religion scholar best known for her work on the Gnostic Gospels of the Nag Hammadi library, such as the Gospel of Thomas. She grew up in a nonreligious Californian household, but joined a friend’s youth group and answered the altar call at a Billy Graham rally. Although she didn’t stick with Evangelicalism, Christianity continued to speak to her, and spirituality provided a measure of comfort in the hard times ahead: infertility, followed by the illness and death of her long-aw ...more
Elaine Pagels is fairly well-known for her writing about early Christianity, especially the Gnostic Gospels and the Gospel of Thomas. This memoir doesn’t so much answer the question of “Why have religion?” as it does the question her not-yet-husband asked her with the two title words, which was “Why study religion, of all possible subjects?”

Pagels was brought up in an atheist family. But she was drawn into evangelical Christianity as a teen when she attended a Billy Graham rally (where he preac
Peter Mcloughlin
You might be put off by the authors focus on her biography in the beginning. It may come off as boomer navel-gazing that may annoy some readers. Be patient. The book gets much better as it goes on it explores some deep philosophical and religious ideas as she goes on with her journey. I assure you she is a deep thinker and she is seasoned with much life experience. She understands a great deal about human psychology and how religion expresses some deep things in it and how it is a driver in our ...more
Aug 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Elaine Pagels is a well known writer about religion. In this book, which is in many respects a memoir, she examines her own religious life as a jumping off point to look at what purpose religion serves and why people still turn to religion. She examines her own religious experiences, her skepticism about religion, her religious research, and how she experienced religion during the traumatic loss of her son as a young child followed by the unthinkable death of her husband only a year later. 

I fir
Dec 11, 2018 rated it liked it
This short book may have deserved an extra star. I felt I was handicapped by not having read any of her works. Book is both a personal and academic memoir -- Pagels, coming from a non-believing family, is a historian of religion, Harvard educated and one of the experts (and translators) of the Gnostic gospels. She talks about what religion has meant to her, particularly as she struggled with Job-like tragedies (losing her 6 year old son to heart defect and her husband in a climbing accident in a ...more
Megan Tristao
I went back and forth about whether or not I should even assign a star rating to this book, but I don't think I'm going to. What I was expecting was vastly different from what this book offered, and I once read you should review a book based on what it was, and not what you wanted it to be (thanks, Pamela Paul), and my star review would not be favorable.

That being said, here were my issues: I realize the subtitle is "A Personal Story," but I did not expect the book to be SO much personal memoir.
Nov 07, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been a fan of Elaine Pagels ever since I stumbled across The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics a couple of decades ago. It took me years of rereading to really "get" that book, because even though I had been immersed in the Bible for most of my life, I had no knowledge of ancient history outside the Bible. Pagels' books were intimidating but also invigorating because they made me look at the Gospels with fresh eyes.

Since then, I've read all of her scholarly
Mary Novaria
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Elaine Pagels is clearly more comfortable addressing her chosen field of study than she is writing about her own personal struggles. While she outlines the horrific tragedies of losing her young son and husband within a year of each other, she never does a deep dive into her agony and any ramifications it may have had on her own religious experience or faith.

To say it's "A Personal Story" is only partially true. She gives us the physical details but, unlike most successful memoir, there's too mu
Paul Womack
Nov 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
This gentle book combines personal story, theological reflection, and a fine summary of her academic work. The questions she asks are familiar, as are the answers she finds. Her scholarly work has informed my own thinking, although the life experiences which prompted my questions were deeply existential and quite unlike her own life and work. This is a book I recommend to my clergy colleagues and seekers of all kinds.
Jennifer Kepesh
Dec 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This is the first of Elaine Pagels books that I've finished. I have bought many of her previous books, which are an academic's explanation of some of the important religious texts (especially ur-texts to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and her area of expertise, the Gnostic Gospels and other manuscripts that didn't make it into the bible as it was constructed by early Christian leaders). She chooses fascinating subjects, but the books require either more attention/intention than I am willing to ...more
Robin Kirk
Nov 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've loved Elaine Pagels since some brilliant college professor (whose name I've forgotten) assigned The Gnostic Gospels: A Startling Account of the Meaning of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity Based on Gnostic Gospels and Other Secret Texts to my class. I was pretty atheist -- no, like radically anti-religion -- but examining these lost and heretical texts gave me new insight into why religion matters and why people fight over the interpretation of religious texts. Pagels has the rare gift o ...more
B. Rule
I really like Pagels and reading her account of the deaths of her child and husband in quick succession is anguishing. She tells her life story in a placid, almost prim reportorial style that belies the impressive breadth of her accomplishments and the titanic depths of existential questing that led her to them. She's not really one for bragging, and you get lulled into a rhythm where of course everyone goes to Harvard to study religion after being accepted into five Ph.D programs in widely vary ...more
Dec 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Since I discovered Dr. Elaine Pagels, I have regarded her as a role model based on her academic work as I came to appreciate it through her books. But this book is different. It is intensely personal. She shares the nightmares of she and her husband suffering through the death of their 6 year old son Mark to an incurable disease and then her suffering over the death of her husband Heinz a short time later in a climbing accident.

So how has her lifetime of study of religion helped or not helped i
Sam Mace
Dec 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir

I will expand on my review later. One of the best memoirs I've read in a long time, in part because it is half memoir and half cultural/religion history on how the biblical myths/stories so deeply embedded in our Western culture whether we are Christian or not affect how we experience suffering, love, the loss of loved ones, etc. Pagels is a brilliant historian of religion and expert on the Gnostic Gospels. One wonders how the the course of Christianity and Western culture would have been differ
Oct 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Curious about Elaine Pagels (renowned history of religion professor and MacArthur Award winner), I picked up an Advance Readers’ Copy of WHY RELIGION? at a booksellers’ tradeshow and devoured it in one sitting on the plane on my way home. I am not a particularly religious person, but I was riveted by this book which is more memoir than it is a history of religion. She tells the story of her somewhat drab, emotionally restrained non-religious suburban upbringing, her transformative encounter with ...more
Erica Pulling
Dec 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Pagels is Princeton’s most famous religious scholar and over her long career she’s offered extraordinary insights on early Christian texts (Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi papers) that have challenged traditional notions about the intersection of culture, religion, gender, and sexuality. But this is both a scholarly AND personal book - one that documents her own waxing and waning religious faith, particularly after the death of her six year old son, and, then, just one year later, the death of her ...more
Brian V
Dec 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
John Everard Griffith
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I found the interplay between personal story and the way religion provided a way for healing engaging. Elaine Pagels is a skilled writer, finding the words to express her yearning to learn, grow, explore and move deeply into her own life experience. Never settling for easy answers to difficult questions, asking difficult questions, living with challenging, life threatening experiences of grief and loss, and finding a foundation for her life in the depths where she could find new information that ...more
Dec 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
I am familiar with Elaine Pagels and her scholarship as I read some of her articles in grad school. However, I did not know much about her or her life. And this book really shines an intimate light on her life and her work. I enjoyed her in depth exploration of the Bible and religion and how and why they have endured over the centuries. I appreciated her attempts to relate it to her own life and her struggles. As a religious scholar myself, I wanted a bit more of the analytical stuff. That's my ...more
Sep 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
A wrenching memoir matched with intellectual study of Christianity from a groundbreaking scholar.

Elaine Pagels has had to endure incredible loss: first her six-year-old son, and a year later, her husband. She survived and apparently thrived in part through her research on the "heretical" texts of early Christianity. Her own story is interspersed with passages examining the meaning of the Nag Hammadi texts, also known as the Gnostic gospels. Pagels' personal suffering informs her research, and h
Alice Ye
Nov 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Delightful!! I'm choose this book because of her prior experience with gnostic texts and a hope that she could help me, an atheist and Buddhist in some way, understand the illogical nature of the modern Bible. Using what I only know as a Foucault-like framework of analysis, looking at the institutions/tools of power in place that influenced authors of both the Bible and gnostic texts, she describes the deeper social history behind Christianity, which is a swirling collection of various, diverse, ...more
Nov 18, 2018 rated it did not like it
Disliked this book intensely! First off, it never really answered its title question ("why religion?") and instead offered a personal litany of privilege and "grace" as antidote to terrible suffering. Yes, of course, I felt sorry for the author in her shattering grief, having lost her young son and then her husband soon after. The writing was quite bad, though. Despite claiming the gospels pablum for the masses and the secret writings wisdom, she herself seems to be writing simplified summaries ...more
Susie Webster-toleno
I enjoyed this book for what it is – a personal exploration. I do wish it had been a bit more rigorous in its delving into original texts. I felt she just scratched the surface. Furthermore, if her point was to explore her own faith, I wish she had given a more full throated testimony to what the beliefs sustained her through tragedy. I guess perhaps I was looking more for a personal testimony on some levels, if it wasn’t going to be her usual academic fare. Still, for reasons I can’t quite expl ...more
Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Ever since I first read The Gnostic Gospels soon after it was published, I have been incredibly impressed with Elaine Pagels, her scholarship, her insight, her writing skill. This personal story is a most illuminating exegesis of her life, both at an intellectual and personal level. Once again, my immediate reaction is sorrow that I never had the opportunity to take classes or study with her. My more measured reaction is an immense gratitude that she has provided such clarity in explaining her p ...more
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Elaine Pagels opens her new book with the question, "Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?" She obviously knows some academic explanations, but in this 'Personal Story' she suggests a simpler, poignant answer: It's because we suffer and need help.

She writes of feeling empty but fighting to remain sane and stable following the loss of her six-year-old child, and husband of twenty years. This memoir strips religion to its elementary particles: love, suffering, and mystery. "How
Nov 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have pretty much loved everything I have read by Elaine Pagels (and I think I've read most everything she has written), so what a joy to read this memoir where those works are set in the context of her own life. I have always loved her ability to make scholarship accessible, and this book gives such a beautiful, wrenching, unpretentious, honest portrayal of why and how it matters to her (and her readers).
Janet Eshenroder
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
A great book that covers not only the author’s own personal grief but how this interplayed with her professional career as an academic in religious studies. It gives relevance to why people continue to turn to religion when parts of life and living spin out of control, but also relooks at tradition religious responses of many Americans compared to other traditions, and to what we know of human psychology and physiology.
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Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian r
“Mary Beth initiated the evening by playing the sound of ocean waves breaking on a beach, as we sat quietly, focusing on a large diorama. As the evening darkened into night, she lit candles and asked me to sit inside a large, hollow sculpture, as each participant, in turn, spoke about giving birth. In that enclosed space, shaped almost like a birth canal, I felt the ritual focus intensify. Suddenly a single question formed in my mind: “Are you willing to be a channel?” That jolted me into awareness of something that had never entered my consciousness: I was terrified of dying in childbirth. In the shock of that recognition, something changed, perhaps an involuntary release of muscles tensed with fear. Later, astonished by what had happened, I couldn’t recall ever hearing anyone talk about a woman dying in childbirth, often as it has happened in other times and places; instead, this felt like a genetic memory of countless women’s experiences, stored in the cells of our bodies. During the final, intensely focused moments of our gathering, another sentence formed itself, startling me, as if speaking to my intense desire to control what we can’t control: “You don’t have to do this; it does itself.” Three weeks later, for the first time in my life, I discovered that I was pregnant.” 0 likes
“arrived in Cambridge, and made an appointment to meet the formidable Krister Stendahl, a Swedish scholar of fierce intelligence, now to be my first adviser. We met in his office. I was nervous, but also amused that this tall and severe man, wearing a black shirt and clerical collar, looked to me like an Ingmar Bergman version of God. After preliminary formalities, he abruptly swiveled in his chair and turned sternly to ask, “So really, why did you come here?” I stumbled over the question, then mumbled something about wanting to find the essence of Christianity. Stendahl stared down at me, silent, then asked, “How do you know it has an essence?” In that instant, I thought, That’s exactly why I came here: to be asked a question like that—challenged to rethink everything. Now I knew I had come to the right place. I’d chosen Harvard because it was a secular university, where I wouldn’t be bombarded with church dogma. Yet I still imagined that if we went back to first-century sources, we might hear what Jesus was saying to his followers when they walked by the Sea of Galilee—we might find the “real Christianity,” when the movement was in its golden age. But Harvard quenched these notions; there would be no simple path to what Krister Stendahl ironically called “play Bible land” simply by digging through history. Yet I also saw that this hope of finding “the real Christianity” had driven countless people—including our Harvard professors—to seek its origins. Naive as our questions were, they were driven by a spiritual quest. We discovered that even the earliest surviving texts had been written decades after Jesus’s death, and that none of them are neutral. They reveal explosive controversy between his followers, who loved him, and outsiders like the Roman senator Tacitus and the Roman court historian Suetonius, who likely despised him. Taken together, what the range of sources does show, contrary to those who imagine that Jesus didn’t exist, is that he did: fictional people don’t have real enemies. What came next was a huge surprise: our professors at Harvard had file cabinets filled with facsimiles of secret gospels I had never heard of—the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Truth—and dozens of other writings, transcribed by hand from the original Greek into Coptic, and mimeographed in blue letters on pages stamped TOP SECRET. Discovered in 1945, these texts only recently had become available to scholars. This wasn’t what I’d expected to find in graduate school, or even what I wanted—at least, not so long as I still hoped to find answers instead of more questions” 0 likes
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