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Jan 21

Written by: host
1/21/2010 7:00 AM  RssIcon

If asked to recommend some good books about Paul for laypersons and church professionals, there are several candidates that would come to mind. Two, though, would receive my top recommendation. Borg and Crossan's The First Paul would be tops on my list for its lucid and important description of the de-radicalization of Paul's message by the early church. (Read my review here.) Next, I'd recommend a forthcoming novel, A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle by RW Holmen, a compelling exploration of the Jewish (Nazarenes) and Gentile (Pauline) movements in the first century. If you've ever struggled to understand Paul's form of faith, Holmen's work of historical fiction will help you to imagine your way into Paul's life and times.

A Wretched Man takes its title from Romans 7:24, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" and refers more specifically within the novel to Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7) which has been the focus of scholarly speculation for hundreds of years. Many theories about just what that "thorn" was, including earaches, headaches, sciatica, rheumatism, demonic possession, epilepsy, bad eyesight, lust, depression, a literally embedded thorn, and many other off-beat possibilities. In recent years, some scholars have suggested Paul's thorn was repressed homosexuality. John Shelby Spong, for example, takes this view, writing in his book Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism that, "A rigidly controlled gay male, I believe, taught the Christian church what the love of God means." (p. 125). 

Holmen's fictionalized Paul explores this latter possibility in one of the book's sub-themes. As a teenager, Paul (or Paulos, as he is named throughout the book) meets a Greek named Arsenios, and they become close friends. Paulos and Arsenios never get to fully be in relationship with each other, though, as Paulos cannot allow himself to depart from and violate Jewish law. There's no doubt that this theme of the book will get the most negative press, but Holmen's gentle treatment of this topic never becomes overbearing or in any way explicit. 

The bulk of the novel, which imagines a full life for Paul between the ages of 15 and his death, explores the development of Paul's belief in and about Jesus and the friendships he made with disciples and individuals in the communities where he started ekklesias (churches). The novel's first half is a more disjointed collection of short episodes from Paulos' life as well as that of Ya'akov (James, the brother of Jesus). We learn about Paulos's Pharisaic training and his work as a tentmaker, and we are there as the friends, family, and followers of Jesus struggle to keep Jesus' message alive in their Roman and Jewish context. 

Eventually, of course, Paulos' Damascus experience and lack of personal knowledge of Jesus is the wedge that drives his movement and the Nazarene movement apart, and in the second half of the novel we travel with Paul from city to city, only occasionally revisiting the festering conflict between these two early "Christian" movements. You'll remember from your English classes that conflict is the engine that drives novels. In this case, growing conflicts between the churches, Paulos and Ya'akov, and Romans and Jews make the second half of the novel the more engaging part.

Several elements make A Wretched Man a highly worthwhile read.

  1. Holmen definitely captures the "feel" of first-century Roman territories. I suspect most readers will feel as if every chapter will add to their knowledge about life in those difficult days, from the basics of daily life to the realities of trying to exist as an oppressed religious community. Holmen clearly loves that period of time, and he describes it beautifully and (I think) pretty accurately. His training as a historian is clearly evident.
  2. The author brings to life the source of the conflict between the early Christian movements, namely that Jesus did not return as expected, and there were significant differences of opinion about what Jesus' life and teachings meant for Torah-followers and Gentiles alike. We cannot hope to fully understand and appreciate the differences between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of faith in the Pauline letters without understanding these two very different "Christianities."
  3. The novel helps contextualize the letters of Paul and clarify how their themes came about. Paul's conversations and private thoughts eventually are woven into bits and pieces of the letters. Unlike some novels about Paul, this one contains very little of the actual letters themselves, though, focusing only on their key phrases and themes. Stories from the book of Acts are woven into the story arc, though many scenes originate in Holmen's own imagined, fleshed-out version of the characters' lives.
  4. It's clear to me that Holmen (who has done post-graduate studies in theology and Christian history at a progressive Benedictine community in Minnesota) is well-versed in contemporary progressive scholarship about Paul. This is evidenced in subtle ways—I suspect many readers will not pick up on the progressive emphasis—and at times I wished Holmen had been able to more directly expand on some of the insights in the Borg/Crossan book I previously mentioned. Yet it's definitely the rare religious novel that can be recommended to your parishioners without reservation. 
  5. Finally, the novel treats Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, the various women Paul knew, Timothy, Titus, and many others as extraordinarily normal people. We witness their frustrations, their anger, their salty language and questionable behavior, and the mundane experiences of their everyday lives, not just their piety and faithful witness. In many ways, this is the greatest gift of A Wretched Man, because these characters can now leap off the page and into our imaginations. 

One final note: A Wretched Man would be appropriate reading for a book group or a small group that is studying Paul's writings. Though it does not contain discussion questions, there is a 6-page treatment in Q&A format of some of the questions readers may be left with: what ultimately happened to the Nazarenes, how do we know Jesus had siblings, why aren't all of the "Pauline" letters included in the novel, and what is the textual evidence for Paul's possible thorn in the flesh. 

If you'd like to get a copy of A Wretched Man, you'll have to wait a bit. Currently, the book is not available for sale, but it should be available in early February. We'll send an announcement out with a link to the book (and add the links to this page) when it's released.

~ by Tim Gossett

Copyright ©2010 Different Voice

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