A few years ago, a friend gave me a little book called Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien. I loved it. So, okay, I have been to seminary, so I knew some of the things in the book, but its clear explanations of the cultural world of the Bible made it an ideal choice to recommend to people who want a better understanding of that world (especially people of a more conservative evangelical persuasion). And I even learned a few things I didn’t know before. (Hush. Don’t tell my professors.)
So I was glad to come across a new book by the same authors, Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk? It is in the same series from IVP with God Behaving Badly and Jesus Behaving Badly. (Before all my theologian friends have a Trinitarian freak-out, the “God” in the first title is meant to refer to God as described in the Old Testament, not to imply that Jesus is somehow less than God. But a failure to make that clear on the first page of this book led me to have a Trinitarian freak-out. And the same inadvertent Arianism came back a couple other times in the book. As you were.)
The basic idea of the book is to defend Paul against the charges often leveled against him by more progressive types (he was racist, sexist, supported slavery, and was just generally not a lot of fun) as well as two charges I had never heard before but that must be troubling evangelical seminarians (he was a hypocrite and he twisted Scripture by not using the modern historical-critical method.)
The book is just as engagingly written and funny as their first effort and contains a lot of useful information about first-century culture, society, and textual interpretation. It does an admirable job of painting Paul as a real person writing to real people about real issues and reminding us that we only have one side of the story (as a former archivist, I am well aware of the perils of preserving only one side of a conversation.) Also, the discussion of slavery reminded me of, and gives me a great excuse for recommending, one of my favorite novels. (Sorry for the cheesy cover. I can’t read Philemon without Patricia St. John in my head now.)However, I fear that it’s addressing an audience that actually may not exist. No matter the good humor and winsome argumentation of its authors, progressive readers are not going to accept the book’s basic presuppositions regarding how much Biblical authority Christians need to swallow. (Look no further than another blog post in this book club comparing Paul to Trump for the proof of this.) If they have swallowed only a small amount they will, I think, not buy the “trajectory hermeneutic” explanation of how the arc of the Bible bends towards liberation on some issues and not others (spoiler alert: it has to do with sex). If they have swallowed anywhere near as much as I have, they will want to take the trajectory hermeneutic all the way.
And they will be completely mystified by the last two chapters of the book, which only make sense to me as problems people might have with Paul if you are a) trying to defend Biblical inerrancy and b) committed to the historical-critical method. (First, it’s funny to read evangelical authors defending a method of interpretation that evangelicals fought tooth and nail as godless modernism 120 years ago; secondly, if anyone believes that more allegorical methods of interpretation won’t fly for modern life and preaching, stop what you’re doing and go read Jason Byassee, like, right now.) If the authors hope that the book will convince people more liberal than me that Paul is right and they are wrong, then I think they hope in vain.
That leaves the more evangelical audience. Here I think we have the opposite problem. This group will pick up the book hoping to be convinced that they can support all the positions Paul supports in the Bible without being jerks, and that the title is a rhetorical question that can be answered “no.” (Also, they will be able to use the last two chapters for something, apparently.) They will come away from the book, I think, convinced that they can do so and be backed up by competent authorities, without fully wrestling with all the pain that may involve for those around them.
Me? I think Paul was human and sometimes he screwed up. (Only one sinless human ever walked the earth, and it wasn’t him.) I also think the Bible is our only infallible guide of faith and practice. (I also believe all the other stuff at that link. And the Nicene Creed, and the maxim of Herbert Butterfield: “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be uncommitted.”) I think that leaves me with some terrible, painful paradoxes, and I’m living with them (and reading some folks who are living with them too).
So read the book: but please don’t lose the paradox.