By Liz Keill
Noted historian and writer Elaine Pagels will discuss Art, Music and Politics in the Book of Revelation as this year’s speaker in the Bishop John Shelby Spong Lecture Series at 7:30 p.m. April 25 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown.
“My talk will be quite different from the book,” Pagels said in a recent interview. “I’ve asked myself: How do people today relate to a 2,000-year-old book?”
The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible and has often been considered the book with “all the answers,” particularly to when Jesus will return to earth. It is based on the mystic, John of Patmos, who lived on that island off the coast of what is now Turkey, she explained. “John was extraordinary, and the book has a graphic, multifaceted dimension.”
In her talk, she will draw on artwork from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, as well as contemporary images depicting what artists throughout the ages have imagined regarding Revelation. One example depicts a monster with seven heads and the blood of innocent people.
John had a mystical vision of a scroll with seven seals, including the “rapture,” heralding catastrophes such as the destruction of much of mankind by 200 million horsemen, leading to the millennium. Pagels said she saw these words as a coded account of events that were happening at the time. She has said that John resisted a Christian view and remained Jewish, with its rituals of circumcision and dietary laws.
“I hope people can connect with what they’re seeing and come to understand it in another way,” she said. “John updated the ancient prophesies” in his anguish over the war against Rome, she said. There are examples throughout history of plagues and the Black Death, right up to today’s climate change, she said. “There are so many open symbols that you can read into any situation of ferocious conflict, where the forces of evil have taken over the world.”
“The same image of cosmic war still exists, from World War II to Iraq, even the Civil War,” she said, adding that there is hope in John’s message for “a new world, something glorious.”
Pagels has been instrumental in uncovering texts that were banned by former bishops from the Bible that is familiar today. One of her best-known works, “The Gnostic Gospels,” showed readers that other visions of Christianity existed.
A couple of myths seem to follow Revelation around, she said. For instance, the “rapture” was never in Revelation, but in Thessalonians, she said, while the Apocalypse doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. Rather, it is a presence that means God’s transcendence beyond comprehension, she said. “Political movements often deal with the end of time; people long for a catastrophic chapter, part of a divine plan.”
There are a number of contradictions in Revelation, according to Pagels. A poem that contrasts the female as virgin/whore could be taken from today’s lyrics, some have said. The book also raises the question of whether God is powerless to stop evil.
Pagels’ approach has been described as calming and broad-minded. She arrived at the Episcopal faith by a circuitous route. She was raised in Palo Alto, California, she said, as a liberal Methodist, but she found it “pretty boring.” Her father was skeptical of most religious practices, seeing the Bible stories as folk tales. “He had a rational dismissal and was much more connected to Darwin,” she said.
As a teenager, she became fascinated with an Evangelical revival movement, to her parents’ dismay. But when a Jewish friend died in a car accident, members of her church said the woman would not go to heaven because she had not been “saved.” She then realized that she could no longer support that point of view.
Of the Episcopal Church, she said, “I came to this much later. I like the Episcopal tradition, with its deep and powerful services and the way values are articulated and practiced.” She noted real world issues are dealt with, such as poverty, gay marriage and women in the priesthood.
Pagels was married to physicist Heinz Pagels, who died in a mountain-climbing accident in 1988. Her son, Mark, died after five years of illness. She has said that these deaths deepened her search for religious meaning.
Pagels teaches at Princeton University. Her career spans earlier teaching at Columbia University and studies at Stanford University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She received her doctorate from Harvard University. In 2012, she was awarded the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton University.
In preparation for the lecture, four discussion groups will be held on the first three Thursdays in April: the 4th, 11th and 18th. A daytime group will meet at 10 a.m. and an evening group at 7:30 p.m. in St. Peter’s Parish Hall. To participate, contact the church at 973-538-0555.