Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik has weighed in with his review of Elaine Pagels’ newest book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelations. In a previous post, I excerpted a lecture in which Pagels discusses the book and its themes. Gopnik’s review is a nice companion.
In keeping with a persistent Pagels theme, she laments the fact that steely-cold (Nicene) Christianity won out over mystical-warm (Gnostic) Christianity. While sympathetic, Gopnik has a sharp eye for realpolitik:
You can’t help feeling, along with Pagels, a pang that the Gnostic poems, so much more affecting in their mystical, pantheistic rapture, got interred while Revelation lives on. But you also have to wonder if there ever was a likely alternative. Don’t squishy doctrines of transformation through personal illumination always get marginalized in mass movements? As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues.
The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.
For it to become the Religion of (Roman) Empire, early Christianity had to be tamed and institutionalized. Its fate was domestication for purposes of power and consumption.