Here is my roundup of a couple of books that I’ve been reading, or finishing, lately. You’ll see what you think.
Why Religion? A Personal Story
by Elaine Pagels.
She’s the author of The Gnostic Gospels. That book made her a landmark figure. It came out when (as Pagels recalls) “women were starting to challenge traditional gender roles.” I didn’t pay much attention to it back then. Only later would I have occasion to think about gnosticism, its attractions and dangers.
Before she wrote the book that made her famous, Pagels had translated ancient materials newly unearthed that purported to give accounts of the secret teachings of gospel figures like Jesus and Paul. These were texts that had been rejected as heretical by the men who compiled the canonical gospels and epistles. The alleged secret teachings inverted the official stories. The Kingdom of God became a transformed inner state rather than a future historical condition. Women were viewed as equal in spiritual authority (or more advanced than men). The masculine God of Hebrew and Christian scripture was treated as the negative of the true God, who was divine Mother — at least as much as Father.
When, at a conference on women held at Barnard College, Pagels shared these gnostic teachings, “two thousand women … clapped and shouted … ”!
Why Religion? is Pagels’ personal memoir. Her story is real and serious. When she introduced the gnostic side of the Jesus movement, she was not trying to subvert the traditional doctrines. She was discovering a source from which she could counter the repressive contempt for the female sex that her parents had conveyed to her. As she discovered the gnostics, she also found that Church fathers like Tertullian and Irenaeus condemned women as a sex for causing humanity’s fall into sin.
There was one other thing she had in common with the gnostics: her paranormal receptivities. After enduring many failed treatments from approved fertility specialists, she let feminist friends persuade her to try an artistic fertility ritual. That treatment actually did work!
Her story includes shattering personal losses. I never read any report of grief as full and honest as the one she gives.
So she did what so many academics fail to do. She considered scholarly discoveries in their bearing on her own life experience. I admire in Elaine Pagels a life lived in the painstaking search for truth: intellectual and personal.
These Truths: a History of the United States
by Jill Lepore.
I wrote about this book earlier, but now I’m on p. 729. It ends on p. 782, not counting the Epilogue. So the end is in sight and I’m reporting back on a long journey.
This really is an extraordinary accomplishment! It revives and revitalizes narrative history, the big picture, rescuing her craft from colleagues who only want to see an era from the bottom up. Lepore has heroes and villains. She covers a huge amount of territory, yet manages to lift out the odd wisecrack, the private diary, the nasty rumor, the campaign slogan, or the line of poetry that sums up a historical moment. It’s an eagle’s eye view, vast and panoramic, but the eagle keeps landing, finding a juicy morsel here and a rocky crag there.
We start with the first European explorers and — as I’m careening toward the close – end with Donald Trump running for president. There’s a great deal of information here and some of the writing is wonderful.
What about the point of view? Description without a point of view is not possible. What’s hers? Broadly speaking, she takes three approaches to her material.
The first is absurdist. The canvass of America’s early years she treats as a medley of trivial accidents interwoven with blazing injustices. She cuts her figures down to size. This approach seems to me unduly selective and condescending.
Her second approach is more riveting. Taking as her metric the noble affirmations in the Declaration of Independence, she measures the shortfalls, betrayals and occasional heroic leaps forward. That’s fair enough. Once a person, or a nation, takes the risk of committing to high principles, a second risk follows: being judged in the light of those very principles. That is the American epic — tragic and significant.
Her final approach bears the burden of proximity to the events she reports. She writes about what’s been happening very recently. The eagle is flying so close to the ground that its feathers will be singed. Posterity’s view from high up is not accessible — not to Jill Lepore as historian nor to me as reader — yet.
Reading her closing pages, I am struck by the difficulty of holding opinions about current events that can be defended reasonably. A wide array of views can find factual support. It all looks a bit like lawyering. Each advocate will foreground one set of facts and shroud in deepest silence any data that would make the opposing side look good.
That said, I learned a lot from reading These Truths. Jill Lepore has given us a longitudinal and wide-angled view of our beleaguered Republic.