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Posts Tagged ‘Lent’

I’ve been intending to read more of Karen Armstrong for years. Longtime bookconscious readers will know I read and re-read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life a few years ago. We have acquired a few of her other books over the years, but recently I turned to a Kindle version of St Paul: the Apostle We Love to Hate. I’m a member of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry (yes, the guy who preached at Harry & Meghan’s wedding) calls “The Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement,” and as part of his work, Bishop Curry has challenged people to follow The Way of Love. One of the recent challenges related to this was to read Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the season of Epiphany (which runs from the Feast of the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, on Jan. 6, to the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, which this year, is on March 5).

Romans is tough going. Although I have a serious church history and scripture nerd in my house (yes, the Computer Scientist is a man of many talents), and my own personal seminarian to call on (the former Teen the Elder) I found myself looking for more context for this repetitive, rambling letter than seems to contradict itself, and at times, to contradict the entire notion of loving your neighbor as yourself. At a discussion group about Romans at church I got a taste of what Karen Armstrong talks about in her book, and also several people recommended it.

Now, I was raised Catholic and except for a few years in my late teens and early twenties, I’ve attended church pretty regularly my whole life. But I learned all kinds of things I never knew from this book. For example, Pauls’s second letter to the Corinthians is actually five letters, out of chronological order, and with a couple of passages he probably didn’t write stuck in (including the infamous cover your heads, ladies, and the women should be seen but not heard in church). Paul was the earliest writer in the Jesus movement, and he wrote his letters and did his work before there were any written gospels. He only took on a trade (probably tent making or leather working) when he hit the road, as a way to connect with people and to make money for his travels. He believed the “Parousia” or coming of Christ was imminent, and he never meant his writing to be read later, much less a couple thousand years after he wrote. In fact, much of his advice to the communities he wrote to was very specific to their issues and concerns, and wasn’t meant to be taken as general advice for Christians (who didn’t exist yet, anyway).

I knew bits of this, but hadn’t ever read it all in one place before, nor had such an erudite but accessible guide to Paul as Karen Armstrong. She admits that as a young writer, she was prepared to dislike him (her first book was also about Paul) but she came to admire him as she researched. Other things in the book were a complete surprise to me — she writes that the American scholar John Dominic Crossan surmises that the disciples left Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and probably didn’t know what happened to him in the immediate aftermath, and reminds us that the passion accounts are “prophecy historicized” rather than actual history. The stories are so familiar to believers, and even to nonbelievers as a result of Western culture (even network TV showed Jesus Christ Superstar last Easter), that Crossan says “It is hard for us, I repeat, to bring our imagination down low enough to see the casual brutality with which he was probably taken and executed.” Armstrong notes that Paul, too, was probably killed brutally and without fanfare, as was the Roman empire’s specialty.

She reminds us that only seven of Paul’s letters were likely to have been written by him. And that his words, and his legacy, were mediated by various figures, from the author of Luke and Acts through Augustine and Martin Luther and various church figures over centuries. This I knew — and it is criticism that has been leveled at Armstrong herself. Mediation, of course, is impossible to avoid in human communication; we all make meaning out of what we take in, and are influenced by others’ frames and agendas. I’ll leave arguments about where Armstrong falls in the continuum of New Testament scholarship to others, but for me, this book was helpful. It reminded me that much of what we know about the first century Jesus Movement is uncertain, even that which we accept as gospel.

But this book also reminded me that the people who carried Jesus’ story to others then, and those who do now, are participants in a faith tradition that doesn’t need absolute historical facts and details. Exactly what Jesus did when and where and with whom isn’t really important, nor is what Paul said about it, nor how Martin Luther or others interpreted or misinterpreted what Paul said. What is important is that the transformative message of this strange, mysterious life, the life of a man at once a Galilean peasant and the Son of God, has endured down the ages in part because an imperfect man named Paul was called to make it his life’s work to tell people about it. Armstrong helps clarify that, and I recommend this book to anyone struggling to understand Paul a little bit more.

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