27 September 2012

Lost and found

Most of the time I'm reading two or three books simultaneously, usually at least one nonfiction book and at least one fiction book for escapism. The fiction books get inhaled quickly, while I slog dutifully through the nonfiction books. (The current Relentless Pursuit of Excellence is in a special category, as I'll explain one of these times.) But two of my recent nonfiction choices were as impossible to put down as a typical thriller.

The first one, chronologically, is not my focus for today, so I'll just recommend it in passing -- Lost and Found in Russia by Susan Richards--and turn to the one that I'm most eager to tell you about at the moment: Quaker scholar Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Or, as I might rename it, given Paul's rather poor reputation among many Christian intellectuals, Lost and Found in Christianity.

I vaguely knew what I was getting into in picking up Ruden's book. I'd enjoyed the interview that John Wilson conducted with the author for Books and Culture. I knew that she wanted us to do justice to the much-maligned St. Paul by understanding the radical break he was opening--prophetically, spiritually, politically, even linguistically--in the cultural bondages of his day by preaching with the good news of a God of grace made accessible through Jesus. And Judy read the book before I did and vouched for it.

But nothing had prepared me for the sheer power of her presentation. She minces no words as she draws upon classical scholarship in portraying the brutality of that bondage for men, women, young boys, non-Romans, sex workers, slaves, and all those forced to serve civil religion. Against that background, Paul's most misunderstood strictures take on a whole new meaning. Not that Ruden ascribes a sanctity to Paul that he might not himself claim--she points out where his bad temper and runaway tongue might have gotten in the way of his larger passion for freedom in Christ. And conservative scholars might not appreciate her ready acceptance of the majority opinions concerning the Pauline letters that Paul supposedly didn't write. (Both Quakers and Eastern Orthodox people have cherished Ephesians, for example, which finds itself on the "not Paul" list.)

But those issues fade into second place when compared with the sacred drama of Paul's message breaking through. In Christ, he asserts over and over again, we find a whole new basis for human dignity, equality, freedom, and salvation, absolutely available to all with an utter and final rejection of social status. It is that complete lack of continuity with the conventional wisdom of Paul's time that tells Ruden and her readers that something fresh, something Godly, is happening and that Paul, despite his limitations, became a channel to take this proclamation and form a church around it.

At times I felt my Christian faith was being profoundly refreshed as I read. I was sitting in the Moscow Metro last Sunday, on my way to meeting, when I arrived at these paragraphs:
Paul did make a huge change on the status of women and in marriage, but not the one we ascribe to him. By bringing the question of happiness into it, he let loose not only that hope and possibility, but with it all of the complexity that ancient customs had tamped down. People now had to figure out relationships between the sexes: whether to have relationships at all, whether they bring too much pain and trouble, whether something else would be more fulfilling, how to balance relationships with the spiritual life, and how to love each other selflessly rather than take each other for granted as providers and breeders. It's lucky that Christians counted on divine help, because they were going to need it.

Say that a fictional woman in Greek or Roman literature--Cydippe, for example
--were a Christian, and her fate were not marshaled along by gods representing nature and state authority. Acontius is in love with her, ties notes to little gifts and throws them through her window, talks to her parents, who like him but are not going to pressure her. She is drawn to him in turn, but she is attached to praying in the ekklesia. She sees her mother kept at home by the younger children, while her father can go to any meetings he likes. Her parents struggle to be friends. They care for each other, but different things interest them.

She asks God what she should do, and he does not answer except to say that he loves her enough to have handed his son to murderers for her sake. She is really going to have to make this decision, and she will never be able to blame anyone else for it. Nothing is made up about her life, nothing is written: no fate, no dynasty, no adventures she must produce heroes for but cannot come along on. She has life more abundantly than women before her have ever had it, the shock of it, the glaring light of it. This is what God gave her: all hers, and eternal.
I sat there on the subway bench, just reeling from a fresh experience of the shock I first felt at my conversion back in 1974. I had been set free from betrayal, doubt, mistrust, and seething anger; what would I now do with this freedom?

Update, February 2020: Peter Enns and Jared Bias interview Sarah Ruden on episode 116 of their podcast, The Bible for Normal People. (Direct link to episode.)

In a post I wrote about six years ago, I wondered a little about the function of Christian books. After all, apparently it was possible for many generations of believers to be Christian without ever having read such worthies as Teresa of Avila or Thomas Kelly. What lesson do I now draw from the fact that, for centuries, Christian leaders have used Paul in the service of their own priorities rather than to shape a life of freedom and equality in Christ? Evidently the Bible has no magical power to require the most life-giving interpretations or prevent its own misuse. Maybe this is one way to state the lesson for Christian leaders in drawing upon biblical authority: beware of any institutional agenda we bring to biblical interpretation. Let the Bible express and serve the promises of God, not the political priorities of humans.

Now she's "The Very Worst Pastor's Wife." (Don't miss the comments.)

Kathy Escobar interviews Jo Hilder on "What it's like ... to have cancer."

"...The Britishisation of American English." Send in your own examples. (I did.)

"Want to change academic publishing? Just say no." (Thanks to Sean Guillory.) Here in Russia, I keep getting asked to write academic articles for "virtual conferences." The lure? "We won't ask you to pay us to publish your article." Just imagine--in the business world, people actually pay me to write!

"The end of 'Liberty'." (Radio Liberty, that is.)

Lindsay Ell:


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Very helpful book review, friend! I think I’m going to want to read it myself!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating review. I have just begun work on chapter 9 of Friends, God, and the Bible -- on Quaker Bible Scholars (beginning with J. Rendel Harris) -- and am wondering if this is someone I should add to my study! I have ordered the book, so that I can decide for myself! Thank you for the clue --


Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Marshall. And Vail--I'm delighted to get your progress report on your book.

Ashley W said...

Great timing, Johan! I just got the book on Paul from the library last week and I have been dragging my feet a little on reading it. I am glad to hear that you enjoyed it so much and now I'm looking forward to it!