I remember the first time I read Gerd Theissen’s The Shadow of the Galilean. It was the early 90s. The book is an outstanding achievement. Interweaving the latest in biblical scholarship with an imagination fuelled by Scripture’s heart and with an evangelical zeal to simply tell the story, Theissen helped to bring the Gospels, and their central character, to life for me. And he reinforced for me what I think I first learned via a deep immersion in the liturgical practices of my faith community – that the communication of divine truth demands the work of the very imagination it is determined to sanctify. So Jonathan Edwards: ‘Unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means’. Or, as Nicholas Lash puts it in Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God, and citing John Henry Newman first up:
‘It is not reason that is against us, but imagination.’ … The ways in which we ‘see’ the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we ‘see’ what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live, and work, and play; by how we handle – through drama, art and song – the things that give us pain and bring us joy. What does the world look like? What do we look like? What does God look like? It is not easy to think Christian thoughts in a culture whose imagination, whose ways of ‘seeing’ the world and everything there is to see, are increasingly unschooled by Christianity and, to a considerable and deepening extent, quite hostile to it.
In such a situation, continuing to hold the Gospel’s truth makes much more serious and dangerous demands than mere lip-service paid to undigested information. Unless we make that truth our own through thought, and pain, and argument – through prayer and study and an unflinching quest for understanding – it will be chipped away, reshaped, eroded, by the power of an imagining fed by other springs, tuned to quite different stories. And this unceasing, strenuous, vulnerable attempt to make some Christian sense of things, not just in what we say, but through the ways in which we ‘see’ the world, is what is known as doing theology.
This is precisely why I welcomed reading Obie Holmen’s A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. Holmen seeks to do with the Apostle to the Gentiles something like what Theissen did with Jesus ‘the Apostle and High Priest of our confession’ (Heb 3.1) – situate Paul in his geographical, social, historical and psychological landscape, and gift us with a creative way of hearing afresh the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament.
According to Holmen, prior to his fire-side conversion-encounter with Yeshua (Jesus), ‘Paulos (Paul), the defender of orthodoxy, had acquired a proud identity and a status; self-righteousness became the dressing for his wounds, masking his inner torment’ (p. 75). Indeed, ‘the wretched man wandered the streets of Tarsos, lost and alone, accursed and condemned’ (p. 54). Thereafter, Holmen paints Paulos as one who is seeking to carve out the implications – for Torah, for Jewish privilege, for our understanding of God, etc. – of this radical encounter with Yeshua. The entire story takes place, markedly, against Paul’s own conflict – the ‘inner torment’ – between his inherited (and then reconstituted) theology and his homosexuality, the latter manifest in his relationship with Gentile friend Arsenios. Augustine once suggested, to the shock of some of his fellow bishops, that St Paul may have been ‘greatly tainted by sexual desires’. In his portrait of the gay Apostle Paul, Holmen exploits this suggestion beyond what the old bishop of Hippo may have had in mind, and some readers may well lay the book down because of such. But such action would, in my view, represent a premature judgement.
A Wretched Man is no The Shadow of the Galilean, to be sure, but Holmen is a gifted writer, and his well-researched yarn is certain to encourage readers to read the Bible in a new light, with a deepened awareness of the groundedness of its message, with a new appreciation of the real humanity of its figures, and – I suspect most importantly for the author – a renewed wonderment of the magic of divine grace.
An annotated name index would help the reader. The book has a dedicated website here.