I read this post from The Paper Chase about Elaine Pagels’s latest book The Gospel of Judas with interest; I’ve read a couple of Pagels’s books, The Gnostic Gospels most memorably, and I enjoyed them. I felt I learned a lot about the history of Christianity and I became more interested in Gnosticism. But lately I’ve read a couple articles critical of her and now I’m re-thinking. I’m not re-thinking my enjoyment of Pagels’s books, so much as I am re-thinking whether she’s quite the authority I thought she was. People have criticized her for inaccuracies and oversimplifications, and for publishing the same basic idea over and over again.
All this is fine — I’m happy to figure this out, and I wouldn’t mind being directed to someone who does a better job, but it does make me think about the reliability of the nonfiction I read, particularly of the books I read outside of what I think of as “my area” — literary studies. When it comes to literary criticism, I generally know what’s what, or I have at least a faint idea, or I know how to find it out. But when I read about religious history or about science? I’m not so sure I can so easily figure out what’s reliable and what’s a vast oversimplification that the experts would scoff at. The last thing I want to do is to rave about somebody everybody else already knows isn’t any good.
And, I suppose, reliability itself is up for debate, and it’s a legitimate question as to whether the general reader needs the most reliable and authoritative stuff out there. Popularizations of academic subjects always irritate at least some of the experts, after all, but that doesn’t mean that the popularizations aren’t worthwhile for some readers. We can’t all read the scholarly articles and university press publications in every discipline that interests us.
But it would be nice at times if it were easier to figure out what’s worth reading. Reviews help, but even there the reader has to make the judgment about whether the review is reliable. And maybe Pagels is worth reading as a start, that might then lead me toward other writers. And maybe Pagels is more reliable than the articles I’ve read say she is. You see the trouble a general reader can get herself in to?