Religions and Spirituality

Biblical Scholar Elaine Pagels Draws Parallels with ‘Revelations’ at St. Peter’s Church in Morristown

Elaine Pagels
MORRISTOWN, NJ – Mark your calendars for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown when noted historian and writer Elaine Pagels will be the speaker at the Bishop John Shelby Spong Lecture Series.  Her theme is “Art, Music and Politics in the Book of Revelation.”
In preparation for Pagel’s appearance, four discussion groups will be held on the first three Thursdays in April: the 4th, 11th and 18th.  The daytime group meets at 10 a.m. and the evening group at 7:30 p.m. in St. Peter’s Parish Hall.  To participate, contact Christine Spong at   
“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?”  She will draw on artwork from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, as well as contemporary images.
“I hope people can connect with what they’re seeing and come to understand it in another way,” she said. The final book in the Bible is based on the mystic, John of Patmos, who lived on that island off the coast of what is now Turkey.  “John was extraordinary and the book has a graphic, multifaceted dimension,” she said.  She described one example of the artwork as having the image of a monster with seven heads and the blood of innocent people. “John updated the ancient prophesies,” she said, 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.

“John updated the ancient prophesies,” she said, 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.
“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,” she said of the clash between good and evil.  “The same image of cosmic war still exists, from World War II to Iraq, even the Civil War.”  But, she said, there is hope in John’s message as “a new world, something glorious.”
Much of this contrast and conflict is seen in children’s literature, she said, from “’Lord of the Rings’ to one of my childhood favorites, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’” Even “Star Wars,” she said, has celestial good and evil. “People identify with those issues of conflict.”
Pagels has been instrumental in uncovering texts that were banned by Bishops from the Bible that we are familiar with today. One of her best known works, “The Gnostic Gospels,” has helped readers see that there were other visions of Christianity, many of them more hopeful than what has been generally known.
She clarified a couple of myths that seem to follow Revelation around. For instance, The Rapture was never in Revelation, but in Thessalonians. The Apocalypse, too, she said, doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. Rather, it is a presence that means God’s transcendence beyond comprehension. "Political movements often deal with the end of time; people long for a catastrophic chapter, part of a divine plan.”
The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Bible and has often been considered the book with ‘all the answers,’ particularly when Jesus will return to earth.  Her talk will include art works and what artists throughout the ages have imagined regarding Revelation. 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 sees 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.
Her approach has been described as calming and broad minded, with hints of the Arab spring that we witnessed in recent times. 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 God as powerless to stop evil.
Pagels arrived at the Episcopal faith by a circuitous route. She was raised, she said, as a liberal Methodist, but 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.   Pagels grew up in Palo Alto, California, in an evangelical faith.  But when a friend who was Jewish 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 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 PhD from Harvard University.  In 2012, she was awarded the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton University.
This biblical scholar 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.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church is located at 70 Maple Street, Morristown. For more information, call 973-538-0555 or visit

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