Wednesday, January 25, 2012
A Good Word for Paul
Several of my blog postings over the past months have been about politics or politicians. This time I am writing about Paul—but it is the Apostle Paul who is the subject of this article, not presidential hopeful Ron Paul or his son Senator Rand Paul.
Today, January 25, is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, celebrated by the Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. This Feast is also the final day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical observance observed by some churches since 1908.
Most of you who read this blog know well the biblical narrative about Paul’s dramatic conversion as he was on the road to Damascus for the purpose of apprehending and arresting followers of Jesus. He had a blinding vision of and encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
That life-changing event is depicted, with stark realism, in “The Conversion of St. Paul” by the prominent Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). (I find Caravaggio’s painting much more appealing than “The Conversion of Saul” by Michelangelo, 1475-1564, for whom he was named.)
The main matter I call to your attention here is the relation of Paul to Jesus and the question of whether Paul is a faithful proponent of the teachings of Jesus. There are now many Christians, and others, who see Paul more as one who perverted the message of Jesus rather than a faithful proclaimer of that message.
The current tendency among many is to downplay Paul. This is reflected in a new book by the young scholar/professor J. R. Daniel Kirk: the title of his book is Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? (2012).
Kirk (Ph.D., Duke, 2004) says that his book “is, in part, for folks who at times find themselves resonating with the statement, ‘Jesus have I loved, but Paul have I hated’” (Kindle ed., 100). That has especially been the position of many “liberal” Christians.
There are of course exceptions, past and present, but for a long time conservative Protestant Christians (evangelicals) have emphasized Paul’s teaching about Jesus far more than the teachings of Jesus. Those of us who have grown up in that tradition know well the significance of what is sometimes called the “Romans road” to salvation.
But among most non-conservative Christians, Paul’s emphasis on Jesus’ sacrificial death and miraculous resurrection have been downplayed and focus on Jesus’ teaching about working for the Kingdom of God now has become commonplace.
They also see Paul’s teaching about Jesus being exclusivistic, whereas the trend now is emphasis on an inclusive or pluralistic message. The teachings of Jesus can best be utilized for the latter.
Moreover, Paul is often seen as a supporter of slavery, patriarchalism, and anti-homosexual ideas and practices. Certainly writings in the New Testament attributed to Paul have been, and in some circles continue to be, interpreted in that way.
But Kirk rightly argues that Paul can, and should, be seen in a different way, in a liberating way. He makes much of the important words of Galatians 3:28 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ.”
That same verse is also seen as the key to interpreting Paul in the first chapter of another new book, C. K. Robertson's A Dangerous Dozen: 12 Christians Who Threatened the Status Quo but Taught Us to Live Like Jesus (2011). Paul is the first of those twelve, and the author contends that “at the heart of Paul’s message was a complete breakdown of all the boundaries and social divisions that he himself had previous guarded” (p. 4).
The conversion of Paul, and his subsequent life and activities, is certainly worth celebrating today, and I am pleased to have this means to put in a good word for Paul.