With his new book Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity, Daniel Kirk attempts to mediate between Paul and those who view him with some degree of suspicion or distaste. This post is part of the blog tour being hosted by Baker Academic Press, and will focus on chapter 3 of the book. Click through to the blog tour hub site for other posts on the book and promotional giveaways!
Over recent months we’ve been studying Romans in the Sunday school class I teach, and there are definitely a couple of “Paul skeptics” in the group. Yet even those who tend not to like Paul’s writings have been finding the things he says in the last chapters to be ones that they can get on board with. Don’t think too highly of yourself? Don’t repay evil for evil? Not far from the teaching of Jesus at all. Perhaps one key to appreciating Paul if you are a “Paul skeptic” is to see where he goes with his theologizing, to see what the practical payoff is. And perhaps the challenge to appreciating Paul for those in that category is to make sense of why it can take Paul so many chapters to get there, why the lengthy theological introduction seems necessary to him as the foundation for the practice.
In his book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, Daniel Kirk does precisely that (among other things), and chapter 3 provides a particularly good example.
The heart of Kirk’s attempt to “redeem” Paul for those who love Jesus is what he describes as a “narrative approach.” A narrative approach to the Gospels may be familiar to many, but what might it mean to take a narrative approach to “the problem of Pauline Christianity,” given that the main evidence for Paul and his thought is in letters, not stories? Kirk’s approach might be described as more a form of narrative theology than narrative or literary criticism. It involves first looking at the life and teaching of Jesus as part of the story of Israel, placing Jesus within the broader narrative of Scripture. Kirk then seeks to place Paul’s theology and writings within the context and framework of that story, and focuses attention on Paul’s interactions with that story.
Chapter 3 is focused on “Christianity as Community.” If the proclaimer becoming the proclaimed is one of the big issues in the transition from the pre-crucifixion to the post-Easter period, the rise of the church is another. The challenges facing this movement (later to be known as Christianity) were significant as it encountered new challenges and opportunities in the inclusion of Gentiles (Paul’s role in which was significant – and so any Gentiles who are Christians really ought to work hard to appreciate Paul if they don’t already!) and in adapting to new cultural contexts and simply their growth in numbers.
Perhaps the best pull-quote in the chapter, summing up well not only the focus of this individual chapter but of Kirk’s approach as a whole, is found on p.62: “To be part of the church is to belong to a community whose identity is being molded into the shape of that people of God whose story is written on the pages of the Old Testament. And that story, in turn, is being shaped by Paul’s convictions about Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah.”
The promises to Israel found in the Jewish Scriptures were about a community and, more than that, a family. There is a disconnect between the cultures dominant in the modern English-speaking world and the cultures that shaped the Biblical texts and their expectations (a topic of contemporary relevance which Kirk addresses, mentioning modern social media technology in the process).
What Kirk does in this chapter and in the book thus far – or rather, what he points out about what Jesus and Paul did – is significant, and two key points seem to me to particularly call out to be highlighted. First, Kirk’s emphasis on the narrative framework of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching can be viewed as making Jesus strange. Those who find Paul less appealing that the Gospels in some instances are adopting a principled stance based on deep familiarity with both. But in perhaps the vast majority, it is most likely the different impression has to do with the different genres of the Gospels and epistles, and the fact that the stories of and about Jesus are much more flexible, and susceptible to a Rorschach–test approach that may find deep meaning in the parables, but it is a meaning which is unlikely to have ever crossed the mind of the historical Jesus or the Gospel authors. And so while some have simply sought to address the Jesus-Paul divide by bringing Paul closer to Jesus, Kirk also approaches the matter from the other direction, showing that the seeming ease of intelligibility of the Gospels from a modern reader’s perspective may be something of an illusion. When placed in their historical, cultural and religious context, both Jesus and Paul may seem puzzling and foreign, as indeed they should if we have understood these writings correctly.
A second point that deserves to be highlighted, even though it is made in passing, is what Paul does with Scripture and traditional stories. That Gentiles in the household of Abraham needed to be circumcised is clear and unambiguous in Genesis 17. Paul defies the plain sense of Scripture to make a way for Gentiles to join the community (p.63). In including those who had previously been excluded, Paul does something that might be considered subversive with respect to Scripture. Jesus himself is depicted as transgressing purity and other boundaries in a similar way in the Gospels. And so when we consider not only what the texts say about Jesus and Paul, but what each was doing with the stories that they inherited, we can see an important continuity, one that offers a serious challenge to contemporary Biblicism. Both Jesus and Paul offer an example that calls us to follow them in reading Scripture subversively.
Chapter 3 of Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? also directly challenges the popular way of reading the Bible individualistically, as about me, my salvation, my heart, my personal relationship to God. And in keeping with the book’s theme, Kirk shows how Jesus and Paul are united on this point against much contemporary Christianity in the English-speaking world.
This is an important book and I am not only happy to have been invited to participate in this blog tour, and to give it an enthusiastic recommendation, but also eagerly look forward to the conversations that I am sure it will continue to generate, not only during the rest of this blog tour, but much more widely.