Elaine Pagels, professor of religion and bestselling author, was awarded the National Humanities Medal at Thursday noon by President Barack Obama.
“I was very surprised,” Pagels said. “I was especially happy that it’s this particular president because I really feel that he has brought honor and integrity back to this country.”
The National Humanities Medal is an award presented by the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was inaugurated in 1997 and awards up to 12 medals per year to individuals or groups who have worked to broaden the nation’s understanding of and engagement with the humanities, according to the organization’s website.
Before the ceremony, Pagels said that she was excited about all of the interesting people she would get to meet.
“I’m very excited to meet him — this is Obama — and all of people who are being honored. They’re really fun,” she said.
Among the other recipients are NPR Radio host Terry Gross, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, author James McBride, critic and essayist Louis Menand, and author Isabel Wilkerson, former University journalism professor.
Menand served as Whitney J. Oates Fellow of the Council of the Humanities and lectured for the Department of English in 2008-09.
Wilkerson did not respond to request for comment.
Pagels is a scholar of the religions of late antiquity. She became prominent when one of her earliest books, “The Gnostic Gospels,” became a bestseller. The Gnostic Gospels were a group of writings found in Egypt in the 1940s which presented alternatives to the books in the canonical Christian bible.
“She doesn’t just look at theology, but she shows how theology plays out in the life of people,” AnneMarie Luijendijk, professor of religion, said about Pagels.
Pagels said that what is most interesting to her about religion is understanding why it’s still around in the 20th Century.
“I was brought up in a family of scientists who thought religion would be completely obsolete when people learned enough about science,” Pagels said.
She added that her father gave religion up "for Darwin and became a biologist." Despite this upbringing, Pagels said that she was fascinated with the power of religious experiences and the way that people find meaning in them.
“[Religion] tells you what people think about gender and society and human nature and the universe and so forth. Because we now need to understand cultures, whether it's Islam or Buddhism or Daoism or Hinduism or whatever this is an excellent way to do it,” Pagels added.
Moulie Vidas, assistant professor of religion and the Program in Judaic Studies, said that Pagels works on the relationship between society and ideas, or politics and beliefs.
“She’s able to show... the times when ideas or beliefs have been the source of oppression, how for example how certain Christians use the idea of Satan in order to demonize certain kinds of human beings and exclude them from society,” Vidas added.
Public and international affairs professor Stanley Katz said that one of Pagels’ most defining traits is her ability to communicate her research clearly to the general public.
“Although she writes about very scholarly, very serious, profound kinds of problems, she writes about them in such a way that what she has to say is accessible to people who aren’t scholars.” Katz said.
Katz is a former recipient of the National Humanities Medal. He won the award in 2010 for his scholarship in public affairs and work as the President of the American Council of Learned Societies.
“She is one of the people who has made it possible for a good hunk of the general public to get an appreciation for why historical scholarship on the Bible is both important and interesting,” Katz added.
Martha Himmelfarb, professor of religion, said that Pagels is probably better known to the general public than most scholars of antiquity because she does such a wonderful job making her work available to a “wider, reading public.”
“Elaine is very intense. And in a good way. Her mind’s working all the time, and she has incredible energy,” Vidas added.
Katz said that Pagels models for a lot of people what it means to be an approachable and serious scholar.
“She is open and friendly, and I personally find her really easy to talk to. I mean, there are great scholars who aren’t particularly friendly, who aren’t that accessible, but that's not Elaine Pagels,” Katz added.