Paul in the 21st century
By Kristin Berkey-Abbott
On Jan. 25, the church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul. Take a minute to imagine how the world would be different if we had had no Saul of Tarsus. There would have been no Saul persecuting the Christians, no Saul to have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, no Paul who was such a singular force in bringing Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
Early Christianity would have had some traction even had there been no Paul. Those disciples and apostles had a fire born of their experiences to be sure. But it was Paul and his compatriots who brought Christianity to populations apart from the early Jews. Without Paul, Christianity might have withered on the tiny Palestinian vine, since the other disciples and apostles didn't have the same fervor for converting people outside the immediate geographical area.
Would someone else have come along? Probably. The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways. But Paul was a fascinating choice, a man with extensive training, a man who could speak to multiple populations.
Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies. I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems. I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior. It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your emails and centuries later used them as directions for ordering a Christian life and a Christian church. You would likely wish for the chance to revise them and restructure them.
For those of us who have found Paul troubling in terms of his ideas about women, about married people, about slaves, I'd recommend Classics scholar Sarah Ruden's “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time” (Pantheon 2010). She gives a window into the ancient world which I had never really peered through before. Her depiction of sexual relations of all sorts makes me shudder, and more than that, makes me so glad to be alive today. The Roman Empire really was a rape culture in all sorts of ways. Viewed through this lens, Paul's ideas on relationships seem radically forward-looking.
When I was younger, I took issue with the subject matter of Paul’s letters, but it's helped to have some scholarly insight. Many of the letters of Paul that I see as most damaging, most supportive of the status quo of empire and patriarchy — we now think that most of those letters weren't written by Paul. Paul's writing was much more egalitarian. There's a school of thought that medieval writers revised some of them to make them less egalitarian. It would be interesting to learn Greek, to see for myself what has been done.
But my life right now doesn't lend itself to learning Greek. I'll rest secure in the knowledge that the Paul that my 19-year-old self hated is not the real Paul. The real Paul is quite amazing. To think about what he accomplished just makes me tired and makes me feel a bit inadequate, truth to tell.
Again, it’s good to remember that we all don’t have to have the energy of Paul. In fact, that energy can be damaging, as we see in the life of Saul before he became Paul.
Today might be a good day to meditate on Road to Damascus experiences. Have you ever had that kind of experience, where your life was turned around with a flash of light? I'm not sure I really have. I've felt God revealed in much smaller movements, those still, small voices in the night.
Today might be a good day to ponder where we need that light of revelation or what small voice whispers to us. Today might be a good day to pray that God would show us where we need a revolution, a rotation, a change in our way of thinking and acting. Do we need to be struck blind so that we can see again?
Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.