Walter Wangerin, Jr. is a prolific religious author: thirty books for young and old– both fiction and non-fiction—essays, articles, and commentaries. Educated as a Lutheran Pastor, he was the well known radio voice of Lutheran Vespers for many years. He holds a professorial chair at Valparaiso University.
Three of his novels are Biblical fiction—well known stories from Scripture retold by a master storyteller. He is not shy in his choice of subjects: The Book of God; Paul, a novel; and Jesus, a novel. The second of the three, Paul, a novel, was published in 2001, and is the account of Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.
As a consummate storyteller, Wangerin evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of the first century Roman Empire. Paul and his supporting cast are lifted from the pages of the New Testament to become short and tall, bold and shy, bald or hairy. Wangerin’s novel humanizes Christian icons.
Yet, for all the picture-painting performed by Wangerin, the characterization is thin. While we may visualize the characters, I’m not sure that we come to know their inner conflicts, motivations, fears and desires. There is little depth beyond three dimensions. Perhaps Wangerin’s shifting use of first person point of view contributes to flatness of character. He has chosen to write, not in the voice of Paul, but from the perspective of no less than nine supporting characters as narrators. We see Paul through their eyes, which do not penetrate far beneath the skin. Wangerin’s method attempts to create a composite view of Paul the apostle, but the effect of multiple narrators, each taking their turn before moving offstage only to return again and again, is often bumpy.
Paul the apostle encountered Prisca and Aquila, her husband, in Corinth, and they continued on with him to Ephesus as important members of his growing entourage. Already followers of the Christ from Rome, where they had come under the scrutiny of the Emperor, the husband and wife team of tentmakers had been exiled to Corinth. Prisca is one the major narrators in Wangerin’s novel.
A second is James, the brother of Jesus, who ascended to leadership of the Jerusalem based followers of Jesus after the crucifixion. Wangerin’s instincts are solid in assigning an important role to James in his novel, but he misses the opportunity to probe conflict in the early church. Like the book of Acts, which Wangerin follows without challenge, the novel glosses over the evidence of harsh disagreement between James and Paul the apostle, between the Jewish Jesus movement in Jerusalem and Paul’s Gentile mission. Not that Wangerin avoids it, but it is conflict without rancor or consequence. He drops delicious hints that beg for more.
A third recurring narrator is Seneca, the Roman philosopher and dramatist who served as tutor and advisor to Nero when he became a teenaged Emperor. Seneca’s purpose as narrator is to provide setting in the first century Roman Empire.
Barnabas was Paul the apostle’s compatriot for many years in Antioch and companion on an early missionary journey through the island of Cyprus and the province of Phrygia on the Anatolian mainland (modern day Turkey). He is the fourth recurring narrator.
The fifth is Timothy, the son of a Roman soldier and a Jewish mother, who joined Paul’s missionary band in his home city of Lystra and remained a primary aide de camp and secretary thereafter.
The sixth is Luke, the author of the gospel by the same name and also of Acts. Wangerin accepts the traditional view that he was a travel companion of Paul the apostle. Wangerin’s Lucan voice emulates that of the gospel.
The final recurring narrator is Titus, the uncircumcised Gentile who accompanied Paul the apostle and Barnabas to Jerusalem for a face to face meeting with the “pillars” to resolve the issue of Torah observance and especially circumcision. He later joined Paul in Ephesus.
Two other lesser characters make one time appearances as narrator for a total of nine.
Paul also appears as narrator in several chapters–not as speaker but as writer. In these chapters, Wangerin paraphrases Paul’s Corinthian and Galatian correspondence.
In the end, that is an apt summary of the novel as a whole: a paraphrase of the traditional, Biblical narrative about Paul the apostle. An elaborate and aesthetic paraphrase to be sure, but a paraphrase nevertheless. And that is clearly Wangerin’s choice, for there is ample evidence throughout that he has done his research well, and he would be aware of the scholarly consensus that the book of Acts is unreliable as history; yet, he chose not to go there.
For those who prefer, or at least are content, to hear again the traditional stories but gussied up by a master storyteller, experienced and adept at his craft, this novel will be much appreciated. For others who prefer a more nuanced interpretation of Paul the apostle and his primary role in Christian origins, the novel may not probe much deeper than an adult Sunday School class.