Monday, October 01, 2012

Paul Among the People

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
Associate’s Message

Paul Among the People

During this past summer, a determined, thoughtful and patient group of parishioners grappled with N.T. Wright’s provocative – and sometimes exasperating – book, After You Believe.  In this book, Wright argues that the early Christians introduced a new ethical system and, in fact, a new way of being human. Although Christian ethics and morality shares a passing resemblance to some classical philosophy, Wright insists that Christianity was wildly countercultural in the First Century, introducing notions like the precious value of every human life – and inspiring early followers of Jesus to sacrifice themselves for people unrelated and unknown to them, and who could offer nothing in return.

Wright bolsters his argument by quoting Christian Scripture, especially texts written by St. Paul, or written in his name. After Jesus, Paul is widely considered to be the most important and influential person in Christian history. After his dramatic conversion experience, this ex-Pharisee not only quit persecuting followers of Jesus but he spent the rest of his life traveling around the Mediterranean world telling people the Good News of Christ. Paul started congregations, squabbled with other disciples, suffered ridicule, arrests, beatings and ultimately martyrdom.  And, of course, Paul wrote letters, at least some of which survived and eventually were incorporated into the Christian Bible, making him the best-represented author in the New Testament.

Paul wrote his letters to specific communities in response to particular pastoral issues. Sometimes we are not entirely clear what those issues were since, unfortunately, we have only one side of the correspondence. Although he seems to have had a very healthy ego, undoubtedly Paul would be shocked to learn that his letters have been considered sacred for two millennia.

Paul would probably also be shocked by his reputation among many Christians today. My sense is that two things most commonly come to mind when – or if - we think of Paul. First we think of his familiar ode to love in First Corinthians, a passage often read weddings: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Second, today many people (including many committed Christians) think of Paul as the person largely responsible for twisting Jesus’ inclusive message of love and forgiveness into what they perceive as a rigid religion obsessed with rules, sexuality and patriarchy.

More than once during the summer we lamented that we didn’t know enough about the classical world or enough about Paul to evaluate Wright’s claims. Just how different were Christians from everybody else? Just how different was the message proclaimed by Paul from the teachings of others in the First Century?

In part to answer those questions, this fall everyone is invited to read and discuss Sarah Ruden’s book, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. (You can find out details about the group on page X of The Messenger.) Ruden is a classicist best known for her translations of ancient literature including The Aeneid. She uses her deep knowledge of ancient literature and culture to place Paul in his First Century context. Employing a witty and accessible style, Ruden takes a fresh look at what Paul has to say about pleasure, homosexuality, women, government, slavery, and love. She contrasts Paul’s thought with what other writers were presenting at around the same time.

Thinking about Paul in his First Century context is not just an interesting historical exercise, however. Looking back at Paul among the people of his time just might prompt us to reflect on the counter-cultural nature of Christianity in our own time. After all, like Paul, we live in a society that reduces many human beings from beloved children of God to mere objects for pleasure or use of others. Like Paul, we live in a society that celebrates and even, in a sense, worships individual material success without also expecting and celebrating a commitment to the common good. Like Paul, we live in a society that shows little concern about the increasingly desperate plight of the poor.

As someone who gave away his life to follow Jesus and who offered a radically different way of life, Paul still has some important things to say to us today.

This fall I hope you will give Paul Among the People a try and (re-)discover this essential, fascinating, complex, puzzling and courageous apostle.