9 March 2002


That was the sound of my button being pushed, hard. Mark Woods quotes a very short essay by Alex Burns about Elaine Pagels from disinformation, the closing words of which are,

Pagels’ magisterial and witty writings reveal an important neuro-political lesson: Salvation must be found from personally mediated truths.
Heed her call and remember. Always.

Okay, some premises: First, Elaine Pagels is way, way smart, and has lived gracefully through intense heartbreak. Second, orthodox Christians have involved themselves in rotten things like the excesses of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Third, Christians have consistently beaten up on Judaism, for a variety of (bad) reasons.

Burns’s adulatory endorsement, however, screws up multidimensionally. First, Pagels’s interpretation of Gnosticism has been debated not just by hidebound traditionalists who oppose her exclusively for ideological reasons (as he hints); there are worthwhile scholarly disagreements about her historiography. Though she’s not by any means out on a fringe, neither are some of her critics–and it does a serious scholar no favors to impute unworthy motives to her opponents. Let’s talk through the disagreements, not write them off as knee-jerk reactionary impulses. (I should add that I say this in part because I disagree firmly with some of the premises of her recent work on the origins and social function of Satan.)

Second, Burns makes of her a martyr-prophet, opposed by the clerical villains while the historically-sensitive masses shake off their shackles to the bloody juggernaut of orthodox Christianity. Observe, though, that Burns offers no reason for anyone to assent to Pagels’s premises or his romantic battle-cry of spiritual autonomy. Personal tragedy doesn’t authenticate historical arguments (or spiritual counsel), though, and Pagels’s life has not been utterly blighted by her harrowing losses of the mid-eighties (she’s married again, she has several lovely children, she’s a tremendously successful author and speaker, all without trading in her scholarly standing or the appreciative respect of those of her students whom I’ve known). Few of the dissenters to her theses fit Burns’s picture of scheming reactionaries. If the reading public that she attracts worries a lot about Christianity’s historic iniquities, they are more attentive to the church’s failings than to any other cultural institution’s. She has not, so far as I know, repudiated Christian faith; we used to attend the same church in Princeton, and she has been a regular visitor to the Cistercian monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. None of that stops Burns from concluding with the pompous, “Heed her call [to seek salvation in personally-mediated truths] and remember. Always.” Why? First, why Pagels? Then, why “always remember”?

One can put together a reasonable argument for the kind of personal-mysticism spirituality that he espouses, but Burns declines to do that. Instead, he relies on the premise that “more controversial is better.” He proffers this under-reasoned exhortation with a degree of self-righteousness that would embarrass even his ideological adversaries. Pagels’s readers should think through her scholarship and learn from her insights without the intrusion of under-informed, self-important journalist-oracles.

( 8:22 AM )
Proceeding by Digression

What can be said about digressive blogging more than what Jeff Ward has so eloquently said? Well, a lot–partly because that’s the nature of digression, and partly because Shelley (once, twice) and Jonathan and probably others whom I’m forgetting to acknowledge have expatiated on the theme so helpfully.

Digressing and storytelling share many elements, and (as Jeff suggests) they can coalesce in ways that sometimes illuminate, sometimes obscure. In my freshman year Shakespeare classes, the professor regaled us with free-ranging monologues about his relationship with his father, about his role in the Korean War, and so on; I later heard that he was under the influence of strong medications. Some people liked the class more with the semifictional meanderings, but I wished that Shakespeare had figured more prominently in the class. Other professors wove digressions around the main topic for the day, but by drawing on biographical asides, intellectual genealogy, sketches of the material conditions relevant to literary-philosophical-theological explorations, these digressors enlivened their exposition and heightened my interest in whatever they talked about. (Cornel West was one of the best lecturers and most entertaining digressors I heard.)

I’m probably inclined toward the digressive side myself. My students readily point this out to me, and anyone who reads this blog will realize that I don’t know the meaning of short-form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *