cover image Why Religion? A Personal Story

Why Religion? A Personal Story

Elaine Pagels. Ecco, $27.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-06-236853-9

In this beautiful memoir, Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels), professor of religion at Princeton Univ. and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, addresses the titular question by recounting her life story. Raised in an intellectually atheist household, she “came to Christ” at a Billy Graham Crusade in the late 1950s. While her traditional Christian beliefs tempered over time, that conversion unlocked her spiritual imagination. With haunting echoes from the Book of Job (which she unpacks with skillful clarity), Pagels tells a story of love, marriage, and family life alongside a vibrant academic career. Her 1979 bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels, launched her to academic fame. Nearly a decade later, her six-year-old son, Mark, died of a heart problem, and her husband of 20 years, Heinz, died in a hiking accident. In her deepest grief, Pagels’s body was covered with boils, like Job’s—an acute stress reaction. She writes of feeling empty but fighting to remain strong in order to care for her two young children (“When we confront the unknown, any interpretation is provisional, necessarily incomplete”). Pagels treats readers to the examined life behind her intellectual feats with extreme grace and depth. This luminous memoir strips religion to its elementary particles: love, suffering, and mystery. (Nov.)