Elaine Pagels is considered one of the leading authorities in the world on Gnosticism. Her earlier work, The Gnostic Gospels has been a standard reference on the subject for over twenty five years. In Beyond Belief, Pagels personalizes her journal, detailing her Christian roots, followed by disappointment with Christianity and her resulting interest in the alternatives, especially Gnostic beliefs.
The reader is given a number of valuable pieces of information in Beyond Belief. There is a brief history of the early church fathers such as Tertullian, Irenaeus and Athanaius doing battle with opposing teachings of the time. Some of the debate sounds highly similar to debates of our time. While not obnoxious about it, Pagels obviously believes that orthodoxy was created by men wishing to solidify and retain their power base. As a result, Gnostic “Christians” were forced to flee and their “holy books” destroyed. But apparently some Gnostic monks were able to hide about 50 of their Gospels and other works in a cave in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These books were discovered in 1948 and reveal a rival Christian-like movement that existed in the first centuries after the time of Christ. The movement, known as Gnosticism because their adherents believed that they had discovered secret knowledge not privy to the common Christian, differed in vital ways from orthodox Christianity. Pagels details many of these differences and quotes liberally from the Gnostic writings. As an added bonus, the entire Gospel of Thomas, the best known of the Gnostic gospels, is included.
Gnosticism is enjoying a revival in our day. It has much in common with Christian mysticism and some of its tenets can be found in the emerging church movement. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularizes some of its teachings and opens the door to suspicion of the orthodox faith. As a result, it would be wise for Christian leaders to be familiar with Gnostic teaching. Toward this end, Beyond Belief would be most helpful.