Observation: The devil and Elaine Pagels at Getty Center, 1/17/07.

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Elaine Pagels had something to say about heavy metal during her lecture on the recently published Gospel of Judas. Indirectly.

The Princeton prof, a leading expert on early Christianity who’s written hot-selling books on Gnosticism and the history of Satan among other topics, classified the Gospel of Judas as belonging to a “contrarian” strain of Christianity.

In the first centuries of the religion’s existence, she said, the “orthodox” viewpoint stressed the notion of martyrdom as the surest path to salvation -- a little suffering now, followed by an eternity of bliss. Other believers, though, notably Gnostics, didn’t think this bloody form of Christ-imitation ought to be encouraged; they were more into personal spiritual enlightenment, a bias that got them branded as elitists by the emerging hierarchy of shepherds, who would have lacked sheep if each congregant was struggling toward his own separate goal.

As it turned out, martyrdom was one of Christianity’s biggest bullet points: It demonstrated awesome faith, which, rather than knowledge/understanding, ended up as the religion’s cornerstone. And when Christianity came to rule the Roman world after the conversion of Constantine, the persecuted became the persecutors, killing those who opposed “orthodoxy” and suppressing Gnostic texts.

Having stolen liberally from Pagels over the years, I said something along those lines when writing for L.A. Weekly in 2006: If the dominant powers embrace violence in the name of God, some people of conscience may identify themselves with Satan -- or, in the case of the Gnostics, with the contemptible Judas, who’s characterized in his possibly second-century gospel as possessing the real dope about the Truth. (Gnostics were big on light, which was vigorously contested property. As much as Jesus got called “the light of the world” in the New Testament, bishops considered light and enlightenment tainted by Gnostic associations. Hence a popular Latin name for Satan -- Lucifer, “the light-bringer.”)

So, weird as it seems, our generation’s moralists, protesters and “adversaries” (one translation of the word >satan>) are the heavy-metal musicians. It’s a sign of the times that three of 2007’s Grammy nominees for best metal performance are Slayer, Ministry and Lamb of God -- one for a song called “Eyes of the Insane” from an album titled Christ Illusion, one for a song called “Lies, Lies, Lies” from an album titled Rio Grande Blood, one for a song called “Redneck” from an album titled Sacrament. One guess what madman-liar-redneck is being referenced. And whose self-appropriated deity. The good guys are over here, with Satan.

Scratching her bandaged nose (what happened?) and jetting across the stage in her lilac blazer, Elaine Pagels was, as always, much too diplomatic to make her points so bluntly. Her way is to give you the information and let you draw your own conclusions. But it was obvious she’s a metal chick at heart. And if she wanted to shed some light on the early Christian bishops (and, by extension, modern crusaders), she wasn’t about to let Islam off the hook, either. There are many Muslims, she said, who don’t think homicidal martyrs earn the love of God. (Greg Burk)

Comments (1)

Matt Piper:
The writings of Elaine Pagels came to me at just the right time and were great brainfood during my transition from Christian to agnostic in my early twenties. Specifically, her books "The Gnostic Gospels" and "Adam, Eve, and the Serpent" shed some bright light on the history of the Christian church, and on the politics, psychology, and machinations responsible for which ideas and texts were embraced by the early church, and which were branded heretical. Highly recommended reading for anyone searching for truth from within Christianity or without.