Elaine Pagels and popularizations

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?


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

7 responses to “Elaine Pagels and popularizations

  1. Ooh, you should have a long, long talk with Bob about Elaine Pagels and Gnosticism. I feel the same way about nonfiction and its nonreliability. I always approach it with a very skeptical eye (even stuff I think I know a little bit about). It’s really all so subjective, and most people have an agenda.


  2. Emily! How could you not give me just a little clue as to what Bob thinks of Pagels!? I’m dying to know.


  3. I’ve heard good things about Pagels and she is on my list to read one of these days. I know what you mean about not being certain if nonfiction books are giving you good information. Unless it is proven fact or something that is so well argued and documented that it is just as well proven, I remain a little sceptical and open to someone else coming along with a better argument. I think in every discipline there are experts who disagree and as a reader it is up to me to decide who I agree with more based on their arguments and my experience.


  4. Oops, sorry! Although he was intrigued with The Gnostic Gospels when he read it, he’s not impressed with her overall and doesn’t think she knows enough about the Gnostics (or at least ignores whole aspects of them in order to make her point).


  5. Gnosticism is one of those subjects that I’ve found hard to study, mainly because of the issues that you have all raised. I’ve approached it first from a Christian perspective, which is critical of Gnosticism and it appears that this was so from the start. Then I read and enjoyed Elaine Pagels’s “Gnostic Gospels”, whilst wondering how reliable is this, but thinking that she seems to be. I haven’t come across criticism of her, so am interested in to read views from those who know more about the subject than I do. Perhaps, Emily, Bob could elucidate?


  6. I think I tend to be a bit of a pushover when I am reading–I want to think that the author is being truthful and accurate–at least as much as possible. But I have thought about this issue you raise–the accuracy of NF books. Someone recommended The World Lit Only By Fire as a good history book on Medieval England and reading the blurb made me want to buy it. But after looking at Amazon reviews (and here I always read knowing I should take it all with a grain of salt) so many people criticized the book for not being historically true–it was enough to make me not buy it. I’m not sure outside of really academic works how much “popular” NF titles are really accurate. Sometimes I’m not sure that it is absolutely possible to be so unless you happened to be at the event that is being described, and even then it is filtered through your own perceptions and understanding. Of course I know I am totally talking about something else–but I think it must apply to other NF areas as well. Good question–so what do you do? Does this now lessen your enjoyment of Pagels work? Will you continue reading her?


  7. Thank you for the explanation, Emily 🙂 I’d love to hear more details next time I see Bob. Stefanie, it’s a good idea to be a bit skeptical of anything factual we read, I think, and you’re right that even the best of the experts are going to disagree and may get things wrong. BooksPlease, I don’t really remember the details of the criticisms, or even where I came across them, just the general criticisms that she oversimplifies and also that she makes gnosticism into something that fits very well into the 21st century, when the reality doesn’t fit so well. Danielle, I don’t think I will continue to read Pagels, actually, although that’s partly because I’ve read a few of her books already and so have gotten a sense of what her arguments are. If I hadn’t ever read her, I might still be tempted — but less likely now that I’ve heard more. I think you’re right that it’s very hard if not impossible to be perfectly accurate — certainly writers shape and interpret the things they write about, even if it is very factual. I’m not sure what lesson to take from this, except perhaps to ask lots of people their opinions of writers and try to get a better sense of what’s reliable that way.


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