I know, I know, I'm at it again. I've decided the Paul novel idea is not going to work... again. At the same time, there are too many basic intros to Paul already. Good grief, Michael Bird has just put out two of them!
So here's my thought. Might I do a more reflective version for my own (potential) niche market of Wesleyans? If any of you at Wesleyan Publishing House chance on here, I'm working up a proposal and maybe a couple sample chapters... :-) (By the way, first word back from the publisher I sent Generous Ecclesiology to was positive).
My working title is Life Reflections on Paul's Letters. The idea is to casually walk through Paul's life and letters reflecting on our contemporary situation but at the same time reading them in a more informed way than a lot of what is out there.
I've been working off and on with the first chapter, which is meant to be background on Paul. Here's a half an hour's worth of the chapter, starting now.
(about a page)...
Paul was also born in a particular time and place. He was born a Jew. To most of us who are Christians today, his Jewishness is not a big deal. We neither think his Jewishness made him particularly special nor do we think it was an obstacle he needed to overcome.
Thankfully, most of us do not have the old biases Christians often had against Jews throughout the centuries, especially before the Holocaust. While many Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler, still more acquiesced or even supported his war on the Jews. The way Christians like Martin Luther had portrayed Judaism no doubt played a role in this strange situation, where many Christians talked themselves into thinking it was right or even more godly to persecute or even eliminate the Jews.
The views of many Christians during the civil rights battles of the 1960's and 70's was not entirely dissimilar. Many Christians somehow talked themselves into thinking it was somehow righteous to make sure that African-Americans stayed in "their place" or that they deserved to be penalized for breaking the law by not getting to the back of the bus. This same mindset justified Apartheid in South Africa. And some Christians today might think they were doing God's bidding by beating up or killing someone who was gay.
People try to use the Bible's words in all kinds of ways. But Jesus, Paul, James, John--the New Testament as a whole is rarely more unified on any topic as it is on this one. The central ethic of Christianity, the fundamental rule from which its ethic flows, is to love God and to love your neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22; Rom. 13; Gal. 3; James 2; 1 John 4). Jesus clearly included your enemies in the category of neighbors (Luke 10; Matt. 5), leaving no one we might be justified in acting unlovingly toward. The bottom line is this: no one who acts unlovingly toward anyone has God's support, no matter how many supposed Bible verses he or she might try to produce. This is the mother of all Christian absolutes, to which God makes no exceptions.
Luther's picture of Judaism, one that still prevails in many popular Christian circles, is that of a religion in which people thought they could deserve God's reward because of how good they were. In Luther's mind and the mind of many scholars up to the mid-twentieth century, Judaism taught you could in effect earn a ticket to heaven by enough good deeds or good "works." In one version of Paul's life, he struggled so much with his inability to be good, to be "righteous," that he finally came to the conclusion that a person can only be accepted by God and be "justified" on the basis of faith--by trusting in what Jesus had done on the cross. In this storyline, Paul finally came to believe in "justification by faith alone" and not "by works."
This version of the story is partly true, but it is only a half truth. We will have to wait for a later chapter to get a more accurate picture. Suffice it to say here that it is more untrue than true to say that Jews of the time thought they could strictly earn God's approval simply because of how good they were. It is also probably false to think that Paul felt like a miserable moral failure before he believed in Jesus. And most importantly at this point, Paul did not likely see himself as changing religions when he became a follower of Jesus.
When Paul talks about those Jews who have not believed that Jesus is the messiah, he still speaks of them as "natural branches" (Rom. 11). Yes, we find the seeds of Christian faith as something distinct from Jewish faith in Paul's writings. But it would be Gentile believers generations after Paul who would really develop such possibilities. We have every reason to believe that the earliest Christian Jews--and I phrase it this way intentionally--saw themselves as nothing but the most authentic form of Israel, in full continuity with the Jewish Scriptures (which would only later be called the "Old" Testament) and the Israel of its pages (or scrolls, to be more accurate)...