By Chet Yarbrough
By: Elaine Pagels
Narrated by: Lorna Raver
Elaine Pagels is a Professor of Religion at Princeton University. One can draw different conclusions from Pagels’ history of religion but end times holds a high place in Pagels’ research and opinion about “Revelations”.
The following is a quote from an Elaine Pagels’ interview: “I realize that I cannot live without a spiritual dimension in my life. I mean, I was brought up to believe that that (sic) was some archaic relic that we could live without. I don’t think that is true anymore. The sense of a spiritual dimension in life is absolutely important and the religious communities are also important. The question of believing in a set of creedal statements is a lot less important, because I realize the Christian movement thrived then and can now on other elements of the tradition.”
“Revelations” is the second Elaine Pagels’ book reviewed in this blog. From her chosen profession and the previous quote, one presumes Ms. Pagels is a spiritual person but a review of her work seems to challenge bed-rock Catholic beliefs. The first review in this blog, “The Gnostic Gospels”, shows Catholic religion and its hierarchical organization as more man-made than divinely inspired. That sentiment is equally drawn from her history of “Revelations”; which is not to diminish Pagels’ spirituality but to infer that her scholarly histories of religion are interpretations of mankind’s divine belief rather than manifestations of a supreme being.
Pagels addresses the historical importance of “Revelations”; i.e. how it came into being, why it is as relevant in the time of its writing as it is today, and how it suffuses itself into works of art and literature of the past and present. Pagels recounts the curious history of “Revelations”. It is alleged to have been written by a semi-literate believer named John of Patmos. “Revelations” is not written in the cultured tones of the first books of the “New Testament” but becomes a widely accepted final book that predicts the “end times”.
Pagels notes that Martin Luther initially reviled “Revelations” but came to adopt it as a tool of reformation in the church that began with his “95 Thesis”. Pagels categorizes “Revelations” as “wartime literature” that predicts apocalyptic ends for godless societies; with the return of a Messiah to lead believers to a promised land of peace and Holy Communion.
Pagels vision of “Revelations” is as an apocryphal story of the fall of evil and resurrection of good. In the time of its writing, it predicted fall of the Roman Empire and the resurrection of Christian belief. Pagels explains a possible origin of the mark of the beast, 666, as a Latin representation of Nero. Pagels recounts Emperor Constantine’s surprise acceptance of Christianity before a crucial battle for control of the Roman Empire. Pagals explains religion’s split from Judaism into stewardship and control of Christianity which evolves into Catholicism. The organizational structure of the Roman Catholic’ church copies the hierarchy of the Roman Empire.
“Revelations” reappears in history through world events like WWII and Adolph Hitler, the creation of Israel, the end of WWII, etc. The story of “Revelations” resonates throughout history and is drawn on by religious cults like “Heavens Gate” in the 1970s (38 committed suicide to escape Armageddon) and the MRTC in the 1980s (1,000 committed suicide when the end times failed to arrive); as well as socially accepted religions. The idea of rising sin, destruction, and redemption lives through the centuries.
How much literature, how many sculptures, how many paintings have been inspired by themes from “Revelations”? Everything from movies, to comics, to video games has shown images of the end times.
Are Pagels’ books an endorsement of humanism or religion? One draws their own conclusion; however, her scholarly pursuit of religious’ history is, at the very least, fascinating and informative.