Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel Of Thomas

"Had I known the Gospel Of Thomas," a Buddhist monk once told author Elaine Pagels, "I wouldn't have had to become a Buddhist." Presumably he was at least half joking, but the fact that he could say the words suggests the degree to which the subject of Beyond Belief veers away from what would become the Christian tradition. Pagels' 1979 book The Gnostic Gospels was one of the first works of popular scholarship to cover the early Christian writings rejected as the religion began to establish institutions and traditions, many of which would have been lost to history were it not for their chance 1945 discovery at the site of the Egyptian Nag Hammadi Library. It's no wonder that Pagels' monk would find an affinity with the gospel attributed to Thomas, which deals, at least in part, with the concept of earthly illusion; her book might have done well to explore such connections at greater length. Instead, the slim volume takes a hodgepodge approach to its subject, freely leaping from Thomas, which Pagels never fully explains, to other early Christian writings in an attempt to portray an alternate version of Christianity that never quite comes into focus. Pagels gives the impression of an expert who knows so much about her subject that too much of it gets crushed in the attempt to put it all in layman's terms. At her clearest, however, Pagels makes her subject fascinating, particularly in chapters suggesting the possibility that Thomas lost out in the spiritual horse race between its followers and those of the Gospel Of John–a theory that explains both John's portrayal of a doubting Thomas and the reason Christianity began to explore the paradox of a human divinity, instead of attempting to parse cryptic sayings like "But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty." History could have taken a different turn, and the speculation Pagels encourages by simply raising that possibility frequently compensates for her book's shortcomings.


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