Religion in the spotlight

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University since 1982, has been known throughout her career for writing books that appeal to academic and lay audiences. Her latest, a memoir titled “Why Religion? A Personal Story,” blends an often tragic autobiography with her concurrent exploration of early Christianity and its enduring influences on modern society — including its effects on how we approach death and grief.

Pagels, raised in California by non-religious parents — her father was an eminent botanist at Stanford — had her first religious experience at a Billy Graham rally, which led to a temporary foray into evangelical Christianity that ended after a Jewish friend was killed in a car accident.

Still fascinated by the New Testament, she studied at Stanford and earned a PhD in religion in 1970 at Harvard, where she met her future husband, theoretical physicist Heinz Pagels. Their son, Mark, was was diagnosed with a lung disease at age two that would take his life in 1987. The following summer, in Colorado, Heinz fell to his death during a day hike with a friend. This series of events led Pagels to move with her two adopted children, Sarah and David, to Princeton, where she has lived since. From the book:

What I had to do next, since my salary alone could not pay the mortgage for our apartment in New York, was to put it on the market and takes the children to live in Princeton, since now I’d be supporting the three of us alone, and, I hoped, somehow, find the resources to forge a new life.

The next January, in 1989, the New York Academy of Sciences’ annual dinner was to be held at the Museum of Natural History. Especially since Heinz would not be there, his colleagues expected me to come. A year earlier, he had invited his respected senior colleague, the physicist Freeman Dyson, to be the speaker. Walking alone to that dinner . . . felt nearly impossible; crying uncontrollably, I almost turned back home. . . . I was relieved to be seated next to the speaker, having deeply appreciated his kindness, as the father of six children, during Mark’s illness. As we talked over dinner, he suggested that I . . . come as a visitor to the Institute for Advanced Study. Since often I felt exhausted, depleted of the energy that teaching requires, I was grateful for his suggestion, but since membership in the Institute is a privilege that its faculty offers on the basis of prospective research, I didn’t want to be there simply because kind friends might suggest it. So I applied to the Institute’s School of Historical Studies, proposing as my project the research that would lead to my book, ‘The Origin of Satan.’”

“Why Religion? A Personal Story,” Ecco, $27.99.

One road to Rome

While Elaine Pagels’ story is one of enduring curiosity about religious beliefs and exploration of spirituality without adherence to a specific denomination, “Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome,” a new book by Robert P. George and R. J. Snell, is all about the paths people have taken to arrive at their Catholic faith.

George, a lifelong Catholic, is a Prince­ton professor of politics. Snell, who directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Stockton Street-based conservative think tank, the Witherspoon Institute, came to Catholicism while earning his master’s degree at Boston College. Through a series of interviews, Snell and George tell the conversion stories of 16 people who are prominent in their fields.

“For many, although certainly not all, converts entering the Catholic Church as adults, whether from another Christian community, another religion, or no faith at all, the Catholic intellectual tradition was experienced as part of the struggle to come home,” the authors write. “Some turned to the Patristics for guidance, others to the Scholastics, yet others to the mystical or spiritual authors. For some, no one period or figure stands out as much as the entire ‘symphony’ of truth found in the Catholic traditions of music, poetry, art, theology, and moral philosophy.”

“Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome,” TAN Books, $27.80.

Fletcher Knebel’s encore

Longtime followers of the literary set in town will recognize Fletcher Knebel’s name not only as the political columnist and author of “Seven Days in May,” the 1962 bestseller about an attempted right-wing military coup, but also as one star in a constellation of big league writers who lived in Princeton in the 1970s and early 1980s. They were all bright lights, profiled in the New York Times on May 20, 1983. (Among those still remaining are John McPhee and Joyce Carol Oates, who will read from her new book, “Hazards of Time Travel: a Novel,” on Tuesday, December 18, at Labyrinth Books.)

Meanwhile another book by Knebel, who died in year 1993 at the age of 81, is drawing renewed attention. It is his 1965 “Night of Camp David,” described at the time in a New York Times review as “too plausible for comfort.” The plot includes a young senator who discovers the an apparently deranged president at Camp David, ranting about the media, political enemies, imaginary plots, and arranging “a high-level conference with the Soviet premiere that could damage our national security,” according to a Times review.

Now some will find it just eerie. A Supreme Court justice in the novel is named Cavanaugh.

A Penguin Random House imprint, Vintage Books, is re-releasing the novel as a paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 Princeton Echo.