Meeting God in Paul (Rowan Williams) -- A Review

MEETING GOD IN PAUL: Reflections for the Season of Lent. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xv + 96 pages.

The Apostle Paul is something of an enigma. His influence on the development of Christianity is profound. We look to his letters for all manner of guidance and information. He was the great missionary to the Gentile world. He established churches throughout what is Turkey, the Balkans, and Greece. His letters can be practical and deeply theological. He also has a tendency, probably because of the practical needs of the communities he established, to say things don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities. At the same time Paul says things that seem out of place in the first century. Even if he wasn’t fully aware of the consequences, he may have planted seeds that took millennia to bear fruit. There is a tendency, as well, in some quarters of the church to pit Paul against Jesus. As the title of a book by Daniel Kirk suggests: Jesus I Have Loved, but Paul? Paul is often seen as the corrupter of Jesus’ radical inclusive faith, turning into a narrow exclusive faith. The only problem with that assessment is chronology. Paul wrote his letters before the first Gospel (Mark) was ever written. So we might ask the question of whether Paul is getting raw deal?

There are many opportunities to read about Paul. N.T. Wright recently published a two volume (1700 pages) tome on Paul, which has engendered many lengthy responses. For those lacking the time and energy to tackle Wright (I’ve not read it), Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, has written a brief and thoughtful introduction to Paul’s thought.  His book is offered as a set of reflections for the season of Lent, comes in at less than one hundred pages. It is very accessible and insightful.  Williams notes that his reason for writing the book is that “Paul’s world remains a closed book for so many churchgoers—never mind the numerous others who Paul’s name and are distantly aware that he was important at the beginnings of Christianity” (p. ix). It is for them that Williams writes. He offers us a brief introduction to Paul’s social background, and key elements of Paul’s vision of God and God’s presence in the world. He takes into consideration the questions about what is “authentically” Paul and what might be later texts written in Paul’s name. He notes that he “unfashionably” assumes Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but he’s not ready to say the same about the Pastorals.  So, what we have here is a moderating vision, allowing us the freedom to decide on authorship. But what he does is receive the texts as scripture, whether Pauline or not.

The book is divided into three chapters, followed by a set of discussion questions that relate to the chapters, and then finally there is a Lenten reading guide. For each week of Lent, he suggests readings from the Pauline letters. There is also a Sunday reflection and a prayer that goes with the readings for the week.

The first chapter introduces us to Paul's social context. We learn what it means for Paul to be a Roman citizen. We learn that in the First Century, under Rome, there were essentially three kinds of people: citizens, non-citizens, and slaves. Being a citizen didn't make you rich, but it gave you certain legal rights that Paul made use of along the way. We learn what it means to be a Jew in the Roman world. And Williams gives us a sense of Paul the man. He suggests that Paul was probably of a similar age to Jesus. It appears that he wasn't very attractive, had some kind of physical ailment (possibly an eye disease that may have disfigured his face), and may have lacked some social graces. In describing Paul's social context, Williams notes that religion as we know it really didn't exist. You didn't ask someone their religion. The gods were simply part of life. You didn't want to offend them. Really only Jews seemed to understand things differently than the rest of society. Williams notes that Paul was establishing a new religion. He was espousing a new world order. That meant for Paul traditional religious practices, which were ubiquitous might not be permissible for followers of Jesus. I found this chapter really helpful. It puts Paul in context in a way that makes him human. That's good!

The second chapter offers a look at Paul's vision of universal welcome. The epigraph for the chapter is Galatians 3:28. That passage, in William's mind, captures Paul's vision. Even if Paul didn't fully understand the revolutionary nature of this vision, he set things in motion that have borne fruit over time. This verse sets out Paul's vision of welcome that is connected to his vision of freedom. He envisions a community in which slavery no longer defines a person's identity. Indeed, this freedom he envisions is one in which one no longer worries about what must be done so that God might welcome them. How we live together in community should reflect God's welcome.

The third chapter focuses on his vision of the New Creation. He begins by describing how Jesus is the image of God. He is the one who shines forth the glory of God. If Jesus is the image of God, to be in Christ is to allow that image to be in us. To be in Christ is to be part of the New Creation (2 Cor. 5:17).   He writes: "We are living in that new creation, that radically different universe: the new city with its new citizenship, where no lone is a slave or migrant deprived of dignity, where we live here and now, but at the same time in the living presence of the future" (p. 79).

The book is brief, accessible, and thoughtful. Williams wants us to appreciate Paul’s contributions to the Christian faith. He wants to bridge the gap that seems to have emerged over time between Paul and Jesus. Yes, Paul did innovate. He created a vision of who Jesus was and is and is to be. He focused on those elements that he believed to be most important for his own mission, moving into Gentile territory. He was also a product of his own time, and that needs to be acknowledged and respected. My expectation, having read this small offering, is that the reader will gain a new appreciation for Paul, in all of his humanity, but also his zeal for his faith.  Whether or not you use this during Lent, it should prove enlightening.  


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