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Reclaiming Paul

September 25, 2008

My reading for this Fall’s Emergent Theological Conversation began last week with the arrival of three brand new books. I always look forward to these gatherings, partly because they are so anti-conference, partly because it’s a perfect excuse to see some good friends, and partly because it hearkens back to school with required readings and the expectation that participants are prepared and ready to engage in some good thinking. So it’s a pleasure to get my head into a topic and to turn some fresh pages (most of my other reading is of used books that come via my old faithful AbeBooks). Plus, I’m loving the delicious ambiguity of the phrase, ‘Reclaiming Paul‘.

Michael Gorman is one of the featured conversants for this event, and his Reading Paul is fresh and timely. A handy primer on Paul, it is a surprisingly engaging introduction to the thought and life and worldview of this leader of the first-century church. Gorman is especially prescient as he presents Paul as a religious zealot and violent terrorist who is emulating his heroes from the Hebrew Bible, most notably Elijah and Phinehas. Of course, much (some?) of that changed after Paul’s conversion, but it is helpful to see his tendency toward polemics, dogmatics, and isolating language in this light.

I’ve often thought of Paul as a theologian, but Gorman and others are helping me to see him as a social entrepreneur, gathering groups of people into multi-cultural communities. Too, Gorman is helping me to see that Paul is also doing peace work– as a former openly violent persecutor, he is in his later years working for nonviolence and harmony (in his own argumentative way). So Paul’s work is not theology as much as spiritual formation and community organization. It is, in Gorman’s terms, not ‘theological’, but a ‘theo-political’ message (which is not ‘politics’ as we often know it, but rather public common life– the ‘body politic’).

Gorman also strikes gold as he writes about the cross/atonement, which are often seen as personal and private. Yet for Paul, the cross is quite the opposite: it is comprehensive, broad in scope and inexhaustible. The cross is the ‘source’ and ‘shape’ of life in God, and is in fact a revelation of who God is (apparently foolish, surprisingly weak, and silly with sacrificial love). Too, Gorman offers a helpful reminder that the cross was not a religious symbol or piece of shiny jewelry, but a sign of Roman power and subjugation. The very mention of ‘the cross’ in anything approaching a positive light was a finger in the face of the Empire.

Hitting his stride as he dives into the timeless debate between ‘faith’ and ‘works’, Gorman critiques ‘cheap grace’ (or what he calls ‘cheap justification’), noting that faith is something more than basic trust or doctrinal ascent– it includes fidelity and loyalty. That justification is paired with participation. So faith in God is personal, but not private or individual. As in Ephesians 2:8-10, we find salvation by grace, but for good works. So there is for the Christian a necessary obedience to the teachings of Jesus along with a pursuit of his example. Or, as he cites Bonhoeffer, “the word of cheap grace has been the ruin of more Christians than any commandment of works”.

Perhaps the best feature of Gorman’s book is that he– like Paul– is eminently human. In one place, he raises his pen against some undefined group of people whose sexual expression he finds suspect, but in another place (when talking about some of the inherent tensions present in the ideas of grace and earning) he admits, “the waters here are a bit murky”. Anyone who (like Paul himself) is bold enough to speak his mind but humble enough to check his words is someone who I want to meet, and someone whose thinking I want to experience. I can’t wait.

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