Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

Today I want to talk about G N O S T I C I S M. Every time you read the word G N O S T I C I S M, imagine that you’re hearing me say it in a hushed, fearful whisper, while somewhere in the distance a funeral bell tolls. A cloud crosses momentarily across the sun. The temperature seems to drop a few degrees. You realize that all natural sound has ceased. The only things you can hear are the mournful tolling of the bell and the silent screaming of your own mind.

This is essentially how G N O S T I C I S M was talked about in the Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) environment in which I spent my late teen years. For those who aren’t familiar, G N O S T I C I S M is an umbrella term that covers a large collection of scriptures and traditions that the early Catholic Church decided not to include in its official canon. It’s a school of theology that has only recently come back into the spotlight with archaeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi texts, but it remains as controversial today as in the second century. Christians who believe that the Bible is infallible and/or divinely inspired are justifiably wary of this collection of branded heresies, and it’s not something that is really acknowledged or talked about in most churches, at least in my experience. It has, however, become hugely influential in Western media in the last few decades, even if we don’t realize it. Movies like A Dark Song (2016) depict G N O S T I C I S M as the dark side of Christianity, even going so far as to equate it with black magic. On the opposite end of the spectrum are books like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and movies like Stigmata (1999), which depict G N O S T I C I S M as the “real” truth and imply that the Catholic Church is involved in an elaborate cover-up of these radical beliefs. (For the record, I chose these three examples because they are all stories I enjoyed — fiction is based in elaboration, and I am not at all trying to attack their artistic merit.) This adds even more shadows to G N O S T I C I S M‘s already shady reputation, and generates even more controversy around the study and discussion of it.

So where do we go to discover the truth about such a shadowed, controversial, and hotly debated school of theology? I am fortunate enough to have multiple friends who have dedicated their lives to the study of religious literature, and this is exactly the question I asked them. They all pointed me to the same place: Elaine Pagels.

Pagels is a wonderful starting place for the study of Gnosticism (without all the scary historical and pop-cultural associations), delving into her own research and experience as a scholar of Christian history as she breaks down the Nag Hammadi texts, their main themes, and their conflict with orthodox Christianity, all in an accessible and readable way. Pagels is defending the Gnostic gospels as a valid addition to the world of Christian thought, but she is careful not to attack the orthodox in doing so. Her book reads almost like a historical account of a war — she describes the political, social, and philosophical motivations of both sides, and details the conflict between the two without ever making claims about who is right or wrong. If you want to know what gnostic Christians believed, what those beliefs meant in practical application, and why they were eventually rejected by the early Church, without being told what to think or believe, then this is the book for you.

As for the Gnostic gospels themselves, I found the content Pagels shares in this book to be deeply insightful and inspiring. I think Pagels describes it well when she says, late in the book, that Gnostic and orthodox Christians took two very different approaches to salvation, and that those approaches appealed to very different kinds of people. My relationship with the Divine has always been very introspective in nature — I find God most easily in the quiet, in the stillness, in emptying myself in order to be filled. That’s not to say I don’t see the value or benefit of community rituals like the mass, but I’ve been struggling for years to find a way to incorporate introspective, meditative practices into my Christian worldview. With Gnostic theology, I’ve finally found that missing link. The Gnostics, although diverse in their beliefs, all agreed on one thing: the importance of finding God within the self and of turning inward to seek our own salvation. The term “Gnosticism” comes from the Greek word gnosis, which describes deep personal knowledge of divine mysteries that can only be achieved through independent searching. Though we can receive surface-level knowledge of God from teachers, gnosis cannot be given — it can only be sought out for oneself. This is a core belief that has always been an important cornerstone of my personal theology, and I cannot express how validating it is to discover that entire communities of early Christians reached the exact same conclusion nearly two thousand years ago. It’s inspired me to read some of the texts themselves, and to do further research into this school of Christian thought.

In conclusion: Do I recommend you read The Gnostic Gospels? That depends. Do you have an interest in theology and/or philosophy? Are you interested in history? Have you been searching for an introspective, meditative aspect to Christianity to incorporate into your own practice? Do you just want to know what the whole “G N O S T I C I S M” thing is really about, and what the truth is? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then I would definitely say that yes, you should read The Gnostic Gospels. But if you know that reading differing (and sometimes radical) interpretations of Christian doctrines such as the resurrection, martyrdom, and the role of the clergy will upset or offend you, then this book will probably just waste your time and make you frustrated. I think this is definitely a topic that you should either approach with an open mind or not approach at all.

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

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