Ch.9 Paul: Appealing or Appalling?

Marcus Borg differentiates between natural literalism, where the Bible is read literally without effort, and conscious literalism, where the reader has become aware of the problems posed by a literal reading but insists on it nonetheless. I want to use Borg’s terminology not so much to judge either approach as right or wrong but rather as developmental way stations toward a more satisfying interpretation of Scripture. Borg’s chapter 9, Reading Paul Again, reminded me that there is a learning curve in understanding Paul’s writings.

Looking back, my appreciation of Paul progressed from initially finding him appealing then recognizing some appalling aspects in his message. Eventually I returned to acknowledging him as an appealing exemplar of faith.

My introduction to Paul was during the first flush of conversion. I read the Bible with the enthusiasm and naiveté of a convert. I desired to reconstruct my life upon the Bible, to be reparented by it. I leafed through Scripture as an open-eyed child, and it all started with Paul. He helped me recognize that I was entering a new life. I was a new creature, positioned upon an alternative path in my relationship with God.

So, I wolfed down all the Pauline epistles in large portions, gaining an overall perspective but not recognizing that the books attributed to Paul had significant differences among them. The details sped past me, and I tended to conflate the historical and the contemporary horizons. I pretended that the epistles were written to me and they could be easily understood.

This freshness was replaced as my faith's understanding matured. I started noticing the complexity of Paul’s writing, especially the foreignness of his treatment on the law and grace, his apocalyptic expectation that seemed to be dashed as he aged, and his seemingly conservative perception of church-state relations. Navigating these issues involved textual comparison and historical criticism. Approaching the epistles consciously, I concluded that each letter had its own setting, different from mine. Familiarization with Paul’s culture enabled me to wade through some of the more complex issues.

I was still a fan of Paul’s, still a follower. I assumed he wrote all of the Pauline epistles. I engaged in interpretative gymnastics, trying to harmonize Paul’s conversion accounts as recorded in Acts and Galatians. Focusing on a word-by-word reading of Paul, however, contributed to the onset of disaffection from him. Paul’s teachings, taken literally, across all the letters, seemed to be misogynist, homophobic, pro-slavery, hierarchal and conservative.

I retreated from my Pauline infatuation to a renewed appreciation for the historical Jesus whose teaching in the Gospels emphasized quite a different message from Paul’s. Ironically, reading Paul literally and consciously lead me to more and more critical perspectives. I felt forced to reconcile the apparent contradictions and ambiguities, so I opted more and more for a rational perspective. This movement from one way of interpreting to another resulted in a keener understanding, to be sure, but it saddened me. I no longer read Paul as Scripture but merely as a composite of ancient texts. They were interesting but they did not provide a word to live by. I had a reverse conversion; unlike Paul’s, the fruit of my change wrought no spiritual change for the better.

I rediscovered Paul’s appeal when I began to read the Bible as Scripture. Like Marcus Borg, my new interpretation combined the historical and the experiential mystical element. To appreciate Paul again I storified his letters, reading them in the context of Paul’s spiritual experience, his communion with the Risen Christ, and his recurrent emphasis on the themes that Borg mentions: Jesus is Lord; In Christ; Justification by Grace; and Christ Crucified.

Reading Paul anew involves an appreciation for the importance of the living presence of Christ within community, a community that gradually becomes re-socialized as an alternative to contemporary culture, its dominating ideals and structures. Ultimately the appeal of Paul is manifest in the type of communities that form in light of his teaching and message.

Paul says to the communities he founded and to us as well that: “…you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3 ESV).