Listen to this article

After spending time with my mom in Wichita, Kan., last month, I drove 300 miles to my northwestern Kansas birthplace to take care of some personal business, including visiting the graves of relatives at the Hoxie, Kan., cemetery. On the hot afternoon I drove into Hoxie, where I spent my first 10 years, the brownish-yellow buffalo grass crunched beneath my feet as I walked toward my father’s grave (Darrel A. “DA” Follis; Jan. 1, 1928-May 13, 2009). Next to dad’s grave are my grandparents, Charlie and Ruth Follis. A few yards away is a wooden cross, marking the grave of my cousin, Elliott Follis, who died in 1977 at age 23.

My visit to the cemetery seemed fortuitous, given that earlier that morning I had finished reading Elaine Pagels’ compelling memoir “Why Religion: A Personal Story.” A renowned scholar (a MacArthur “genius grant” winner) and professor of religion at Princeton, Pagels is known for her extensive research into early Christianity and Gnosticism.

In the memoir, Pagels explains her scholarly fascination with Gnosticism and in particular her translation work of the Nag Hammadi texts (13 ancient books) discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Now 76, Pagels’ life work with these texts has helped her accept and understand a core element of her own story, losing a 6-year old son to a rare lung disease, followed by the death of her physicist husband less than a year later in a mountain climbing accident. Pagels was left with two children under age 5.

Though Pagels broke with orthodox Christianity and settled on a broadly ecumenical approach to understanding religion, her spiritual journey began in a San Francisco stadium when, at the invitation of friends, she attended a Billy Graham Crusade in the late 1950s. Though Pagels’ mother occasionally had taken her to a Protestant church, her father, a science professor at Stanford, scorned his own Protestant background. When Pagels decided to become “a born-again Christian” the night she attended the Billy Graham meeting, it was met with her father’s derision.

Barely a year later, Pagels’ high school Jewish boyfriend died in a car accident. When Pagels’ friends asked her if he was born again, she said no, he was Jewish. When they followed by telling Pagels they weren’t sure of his salvation, she was so angry and confused she immediately dropped the friends and the church she was attending.

After graduating from Stanford, Pagels landed at Harvard Divinity School, where she obtained her Ph.D. in religion. At Harvard she joined some religion faculty members in studying the recently discovered materials known as the Nag Hammadi texts. Her fascination with the texts led Pagels to write her popular “The Gnostic Gospels,” a book I read 30 years ago.

“Why Religion?” explains how the Gnostic texts found in Egypt in the mid-20th century ultimately gave Pagels the insight and comfort she needed in life. The heart of the book is Pagels’ stirring recollections of her son and husband’s deaths more than three decades ago, and how she faced her grief.

There is no framework for grief, and Pagels makes clear there is no substitute for the inner work that loss, and in particular the loss of our loved ones, forces on us. Over the decades as Pagels has reflected on both personal loss and religion, The Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi texts often has spoken to her. One saying attributed to Jesus from The Gospel of Thomas especially is helpful. “If you bring forth what is within, what you bring forth will save. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy.”

While there is plenty of theological controversy surrounding the Gnostic texts discovered in 1945, Elaine Pagels’ memoir nonetheless demonstrates how her scholarship in studying religion is central to her personal journey. In her most succinct statement from what she received from the Gnostic texts, Pagels writes that “they helped dispel isolation and turn me from despair, suggesting that everyone of us is woven into the mysterious fabric of the universe, and into connection with each other, with all being, and with God.”

In the end, Pagels looked squarely at her pain and made her peace. Suffering happens to everyone. It is not a sign of failure. As I meandered beyond my own father’s grave, suddenly I noticed a grave with a temporary marker. To my surprise, it is the grave of a childhood friend from kindergarten through fouth grade. He died a year ago. I lost touch with him 50 years ago, when my dad was transferred and we moved. As I paid my respects, I remembered Pagels saying that “everything we experience shapes what we are capable of understanding.”

That understanding doesn’t mean things are fine with her, but “sometimes hearts do heal, through what I can only call grace.”

Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).