Why Religion? Historian Elaine Pagels Reconnects at St. Gregory’s

(Photograph courtesy of Elaine Pagels)

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty / If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain / That was not made by the hands of men —
“Ripple,” music by Jerry Garcia, lyrics by Robert Hunter

The acclaimed historian Elaine Pagels, who will be discussing her most recent offering Why Religion? at 3 p.m. Sunday, December 15 at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, 2578 Route 212, only recently appreciated Robert Hunter’s liturgy-worthy lyrics to “Ripple.” 

“All this time, I’d not really listened,” she says of the iconic Grateful Dead tune. “But now I see. They’re beautiful words.” 

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 “All this time” alludes to the 55 years since Pagels and “Ripple” co-writer Jerry Garcia hung out in Palo Alto, California. The friendship was marked by a tragedy that would thrust the two youngsters — Pagels a wide-eyed 17-year-old infatuated with evangelical Christianity, Garcia a scruffy 19-year-old guitar whiz — onto different paths. Among other things, Why Religion?, Pagels’ first foray into memoir, brings those paths together.

In addition to detailing how Pagels’ abiding fascination with religion sustained her through the losses of her son to illness and, the next year, her husband to an accident, Why Religion? covers the life-changing 1961 car crash involving Jerry Garcia and three other friends. In it, 16-year-old painter and poet Paul Speegle perished. Among the lucky was Alan Trist, who would go on to work alongside Garcia, directing the Grateful Dead’s publishing company. Garcia always said the accident was “where my life began. Before then I was idling. That was the slingshot for the rest of my life. A second chance.” Within four years, after much merry prankstering, the Grateful Dead was born. 

For Pagels, the crash was a different kind of slingshot, propelling her away from evangelical Christianity. When her “born again” friends learned Speegle was Jewish, they told grief-stricken Pagels he’d gone to Hell. This soured Pagels to organized religion, and opened her eyes to problematic religious dogma. Her fascination with the history of Christianity remained, however, particularly the evolution — and frequent suppression and alteration — of the New Testament gospels in the first millennium CE. Pagels’ books, beginning with 1979 bestseller The Gnostic Gospels, sparkle with insight into how and why these writings shape Western culture and social codes to this day, despite advances in science and technology. Her skill at making cutting-edge scholarship accessible, granting readers — regardless of creed or lack thereof — a sense of connection to history, has brought her a measure of fame. (David Bowie was a fan.) Why Religion?, her 11th and by far most personal book, has garnered raves.

Needless to say, the arc of all of the above, combined with family, didn’t allow a lot of time for deep listens to her old friend Jerry’s band. “When the Dead got big,” she says, “I was running off to Egypt, studying and writing. We were in different worlds. If you’d mentioned ‘Ripple’ to me then, I’d have thought you were talking about cheap wine.”

Now, however, “Ripple,” the Grateful Dead, and Why Religion? are all part of a reconnection to Pagels’ roots, to loved ones both living and otherwise, to experiences she needed to address, record, and share. Some of the reconnections are intentional, some happenstance. Aforementioned Alan Trist was informed his old friend Elaine was discussing Garcia with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, and invited Pagels to see Dead and Co. in Colorado this past summer. She loved it. Trist subsequently invited her to the Hunter Gathering, a Robert Hunter tribute at the Colony this Sunday, December 15 at 6:30 p.m. Why not an accompanying event at St. Gregory’s for Why Religion? Why not, indeed?

Pagels is looking forward to being surrounded by friends, in counterculture haven Woodstock, with open minds and hearts listening to her alternately heartbreaking and inspiring personal story. Although well established as an author, and a savvy interviewee, the weaving of excruciating loss with a remarkable journey of scholarship — including some Indiana Jones-worthy escapades — was a new experience, and daunting. Why Religion? isn’t just the sharing of insight into esoteric Christian writings, but additionally, the revelation of seemingly unbearable pain that shaped her life, and how she survived, and thrived.

“I was rather terrified,” she admits. “I had no idea how people would respond [to Why Religion?]. I didn’t want it to be a grief memoir, but rather a reminder of how we can get through what we don’t know we can get through.” For Pagels, much of her solace and strength has come not only from ancient texts, but also from poetry and music.

Forty years into her writing career, it seems ancient scribes — her subjects over several decades — inspired her to at long last tell her story alongside their own. In Why Religion? Pagels cites a passage from the suppressed Gospel of Thomas, which purports to be “The Secret Teachings of Jesus”: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

“I’ve learned trauma doesn’t go away,” she says. “You must engage with it, or you’re not living your full life.”

Elaine Pagels will be living her full life at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church this Sunday, December 15, at 3 p.m. The event is free. For more information, call 845-679-8800.

The Hunter Gathering follows at Colony Woodstock, doors open at 6:30 p.m. See colonywoodstock.com or call 845-679-7625 for information on this show.