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Believe It or Not

Elaine Pagels' 'Beyond Belief' takes on the controversial fringe of Christianity

By Cindy Campo

Readers who are searching amid the usual summer fare for something more robust might try sinking their teeth into Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief (Random House; 256 pages; $24.95 cloth).

Renowned as a historian of religion for The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels now offers an equally intriguing study of how Christianity grew from a religion practiced by scattered groups to a unified community around the world, despite violent opposition.

But charting the growth of one of the world's major organized religions is certainly not the sole endeavor of Pagels' new work. At the heart of Beyond Belief lies the ongoing debate over conflicting interpretations of what, exactly, Jesus was talking about in some of his more mysterious instructions. Pagels also discusses how certain heretical-yet-Christian writings escaped an attempt by orthodox Christianity to destroy them.

Believe it or not, this book gets more exciting with each chapter--if you enjoy reading the meticulous type of investigation and debate common to theologians and historians, that is. Was Jesus merely a very learned and inspired human, or was he God in human form? How can truth be distinguished from particularly spirited imagination? Pagels' beautifully organized research boldly engages these and other questions that have perplexed people for two millennia.

She also explores accounts written in the years immediately following the death of Christ which address theological issues such as what--if anything--existed before the Creation, different interpretations of the baptismal rite and who or what the "holy spirit" really is. You may want to sit down with a glass of red wine in hand to read this one.

Beyond Belief is not a difficult read. Its accessibility stems from the fact that the author is a historian, not a fanatic. She is skilled at impartiality within the religious framework of her research. She's not trying to convert or divert readers from what they do or don't believe.

Nor, for all its focus on the details of Christianity, is Beyond Belief simply a dreary recounting of this or that priest's monotonous prattle. Far from it. Instead, it peers at what has long been ignored in religious history (its subtitle is The Secret Gospel of Thomas), and presents its findings succinctly and practically. Among the neglected writings Pagels discusses is the Gospel of Mary Magdelene, the converted prostitute, thought by some to be the beloved apostle visited first by the newly risen Christ.

The source for much of these secret, banished writings is an enormous earthen vessel discovered in Egypt in 1945 and containing dozens of "gnostic gospels," early Christian analyses of the teachings of Jesus. Why were these gospels labeled "evil, heretical, and false"? Were they suggesting lewd translations of "love thy neighbor" or giving instructions on the real meaning of eating Christ's body and drinking his blood? Not exactly. Actually, those who condemned the writers of the gnostic gospels were the ones who insisted on the literal interpretation of the communion rite. Plus, most groups of early Christians who preached a different kind of gnosis (knowing) of Christ's teachings than that of Mark, Luke and Matthew abstained from sexual relations altogether. So what was considered evil about what they wrote? You know what the answer is going to be--you have to read Beyond Belief to find out.

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2003 Summer Lit Issue:
Jessica Neuman Beck's top 10 personal favorite books
'Living History' by Hillary Rodham Clinton
'Get Your War On' by David Rees
'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood
'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter slash fiction

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From the July 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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