As a doctoral student of religious studies at Harvard, Elaine Pagels found her own “forbidden fruit,” which came in the form of secret writings that were decreed heretical a very long time ago.
As with Eve, the scholarly Pagels couldn’t resist the allure of learning all about these mysterious ancient texts that had been banned from the official church canon many centuries ago. She wanted to find out why they were considered so dangerous that they were locked away for nearly two millennia.
Unlike her infamous foremother, following temptation turned out very well for Pagels, who discovered she had a talent for turning scholarly studies about heretical ancient texts into popular and critically-acclaimed books. This first became apparent when her 1979 book, called “The Gnostic Gospels,” won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and ignited worldwide interest on the subject (A Newsweek story about the “Gospel of Mary,” one of the gospels, was titled “An Inconvenient Woman”).
Provocative ideas form a link throughout her life’s work, whether they are being discussed in her Princeton classroom or found in one of her several books, such as “The Origin of Satan” and “Adam, Eve and the Serpent,” or “Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and spent more than three months on the “New York Times” best seller list. In 1981 she was recognized with the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant.”
Pagels, this year’s Weltin Lecturer, will continue to provoke our curiosity with her presentation on “Art, Music and Politics in the Book of Revelation.” She will lead us on a fascinating journey through the last book of the Bible, considering the astonishing range of art and music it has inspired for 2,000 years, and explaining how its visions of monsters, beasts, and whores have played out in political conflicts, beginning with the 7th century through the Crusades, the American Civil War, World War II, the recent Iraqi war, up to the current clash between ISIS and the West.
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