Tag Archives: Fiction

Why did Paul persecute the early church?

When I wrote my historical novel about Paul the apostle (A Wretched Man),  I wrestled with some thorny historical questions, including this one.  Last month, I was asked to read and review Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist I once again encountered the question, and I found Ehrman’s answer to be less than convincing.

First, some background.  Paul twice mentioned his role as persecutor but without any details.  As with much of his writing, Paul assumed his listeners already knew the story so he didn’t elaborate.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians,

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 1 Cor 15:9 (NRSV)

In the most autobiographical of his writings, Paul speaks to the Galatians,

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. Gal 1:13 (NRSV)

In neither instance, does Paul offer a clue as to what he did, exactly, or why he did it.

the-stoning-of-stephen-by-rembrandt-1625Of course, the Acts of the Apostles goes into much greater detail: Jerusalem persecution, stoning of Stephen, sent to Damascus by the High Priest to arrest the followers of Jesus, etc.

The common assumption is that Paul persecuted the early followers of Jesus because they claimed he was the long-expected messiah.  Does that really make sense? Why would such a claim have been offensive to Paul or the Hebrew populace? While that may have been the reason why the Romans and their puppets, the High Priest and his crowd, feared Jesus and caused his execution, that hardly explains why Paul and the populace would have persecuted his followers after his death.

Ehrman initially agrees,

There was nothing blasphemous about calling a Jewish teacher the messiah. That happened on and off throughout the history of Judaism, and it still happens in our day. In itself, the claim that someone is the messiah is not blasphemous or, necessarily, problematic (though it may strike outsiders—and usually does—as a bit crazed).

This statement strikes me as eminently reasonable and debunks the traditional assumption that the early church was persecuted because they claimed Jesus had been the messiah. There has to be more to it.

Ehrman’s response is that the claim that Jesus was the crucified messiah is what greatly offended Paul and the others, because no strain of traditional Jewish messianic expectations suggested a crucified messiah.  While that may well be true, I fail to see the offense.  Here is where I part with Ehrman.  If anything, such a claim would only make its proponents sound even crazier but hardly blasphemous to the point of widespread persecution and arrest.

Back to Stephen.

What did Stephen do or say that caused his arrest and execution?  Why did they “stir up the people against him”?  Because he spoke “blasphemous words against God and Moses,” “against this holy place and the law,” and because he said that Jesus would “destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed down.”

No where was there any complaint that he claimed Jesus was the messiah, crucified or not.  The charges against him were that he denied the basic tenets of Hebrew religion … adherence to the law of Moses and temple sacrifice.  In Stephen’s long speech to the Sanhedrin, he concluded,

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears … You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

There could be no greater offense than to question circumcision and failure to keep the law.  Stephen challenged the basic Hebrew self-understanding and thus their standing before God.  To a devout Pharisee, zealous for the law, as Paul claimed to be, this was the crux of the matter.  This would also tie in closely with Paul’s Damascus road experience, in which his life took a 180 degree turn away from zealotry for the law to his law-free gospel message.  Furthermore, it also ties in with the ongoing conflict between Paul and the “mother church” back in Jerusalem over the requirements of circumcision and dietary niceties.

That’s my answer, Professor Ehrman’s opinion notwithstanding, and that was also the answer I proposed in the Wretched Man novel.

A Wretched Man Movie?

About six weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood screenwriter who expressed interest in adapting A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle into a screenplayFollowing discussions and negotiations, we have today reached agreement.  The screenwriter, who has been in the movie industry for nearly a decade, shares my vision and passion.  In his first email to me, the screenwriter commented:

I am fascinated by the story and believe that it could make a really intriguing film—something independent, honest, touching … a film that takes these Biblical giants and makes them accessible, human, and endearing.  What I like about your take on the story is that when Paul is wounded—it actually seemed to hurt.  I think a movie like that would speak to many.

Whether A Wretched Man reaches the silver screen or not remains a long shot.  After a screenplay is completed, the screenwriter must then persuade a producer or other monied interests to invest in a film, but I am convinced that the screenwriter has the appropriate experience, expertise, and contacts to give it a good shot.

Indulge me in a bit of fantasy.  For those of you who have read the book, what actor should play the role of Paulos?  Shall I, a la Hitchcock, play a cameo role?  Perhaps the character of Eli the sage?  Or Jubilees, the phantom seer?

Chasing After Wind

No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death; there is no discharge from the battle … all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

Ecclesiastes 8:8 & 1:14

In the hubbub of news about the capture/kill of Bin Laden, the professional soldiers/sailors that carried out the mission have justifiably received a heap of attention.  The “tip of the tip” of the spear is one characterization I have heard.  “Seal 6” is apparently the name of this elite group of ultra-efficient military men.  Other terms that have been bandied about in the general conversation about the elites of the combat soldier include Navy Seals, Army Rangers, Special Ops, Special Forces, and more.

This is where the news gets personal, for I was an Army Ranger in Vietnam forty years ago.  Coincidentally, I have recently been working diligently to write short stories based upon my Vietnam experience, so those days and months so long ago have revisited my memory.  Read more …

Bold, dark and intense

Regular followers of this blog know that the frequency of posts was slowing and has now virtually ground to a halt.  I hope none suspect that my passion for “progressive, religious themes” has diminished nor my advocacy for LGBTQ interests in the church and especially the ELCA. 

I claim busyness and business as my defense. 

I have recently been extremely productive, albeit in different venues.  My time has been consumed in unequal measure by a) the continued promotion of my published novel, b) the new project of writing a sequel to the earlier novel, c) finally penning a series of short stories based upon my Vietnam experience,  and d) preliminary efforts at a non-fiction piece more closely related to my LGBTQ writing advocacy.  With no less than three writing projects underway, there has been scarce time for the fourth estate, which is this blog.  For those who deem this blog to have been an important voice, I apologize for the current silence.

For now, blog posts will be infrequent, self-aggrandizing, and promotional.  Today, for instance, I announce the first literary review of the serialization of my Vietnam experience.  Reviewer Sheila Deeth introduced her review of the first installment (Eleven Bravo) with these generous words:

With pitch-perfect dialog and stunning descriptions and commentary, he brings a time not too long gone to life and clears the way for a series of literary vignettes to come–short, but bold, dark and intense, so read it with a 5-star coffee.

And she concludes:

The writing is confident and clear, hauntingly honest, brutally true. The story completes a young man’s transformation and leaves the reader eager for the next installment.

For more background and the full text of her review, click here.

Series of Vietnam short stories to be published

Obie with over-underI was discharged from Army active duty on Christmas eve, 1970, and I enrolled for winter term at Dartmouth College less than two weeks later.  I had spent 2+ years at Dartmouth before the military, so when I returned as a junior, I already had a circle of friends.

I also had Super 8 movies from Vietnam.  I had purchased a Super 8 camera from the An Khe PX and filmed about ten rolls (3+ minutes each) and sent them home without developing.  By the time I was back at Dartmouth, the films had been developed and spliced together to form one movie of about 30 minutes.  In those days, “cut and paste” was literally how you edited film.

One Saturday evening while hanging out at my favorite fraternity, I mentioned the movie, and we decided to watch it in a private room upstairs.  As curious passersby poked their heads in, we ended up watching the movie three times that night as word spread and more and more folks came to see.  This college crowd was genuinely anxious to know more.  The movie and my stories kept the swelling crowd spellbound, and at the end someone said, “You ought to write a book”.

Forty years later, I am finally taking that advice.  I have started to write stories based upon my Vietnam experiences, stories that are based on fact but which are embellished to make for good reading.  A year ago, I published a novel (A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle), and through that experience, I hope I have developed some of the writer’s craft (scene & setting, plot, character development, tension, etc.), and I have applied the techniques of storytelling to my Vietnam stories.  Thus, I call them “autobiographical fiction”.

Since most of the stories relate to my role as a “LRRP” (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol), the series will be entitled LRRP Rangers Vietnam.  A “lurp” was the Vietnam equivalent of a cavalry scout; instead of mustangs, we rode helicopters to remote and unfriendly territory.  These stories will be published as eBook short stories, one at a time in serial form.  The first two are now published.  Be forewarned, the language is realistic and thus more than a little salty.

Eleven Bravo, the opening short story in the series, refers to the Army’s 11B designation for the combat infantryman.  After an brief scene in Tiger Village of Fort Polk, Louisiana (the primary training center for Vietnam-bound infantry), the story opens as a young soldier arrives in Vietnam while Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, and the story concludes nearly a month later as soldiers celebrate to the music of Jimi Hendrix at the same time the rock star is performing live at Woodstock.  Read more …

The second short story in the series is entitled Here Comes Charlie.  The soldier has now departed Alpha Company and volunteered for recon duty as a LRRP.  Themes of self-preservation and moral ambiguities, introduced in the first installment, are advanced as North Vietnamese soldiers unwittingly file toward four lurps hiding in the tall grass.  Read more …

The eBooks will be available in all formats at your favorite online eBook bookstore.

FYI, the movie was transferred to video tape years ago through the cumbersome process of using a video camera to record the movie from a screen.  Later, the videotape was converted to a DVD and now has been converted to online video formats and may be viewed on YouTube and here.

The Road to Damascus

Tuesday, January 25th marks the conversion of Paul, according to the Revised Common Lectionary. 

Wikipedia suggests a “Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religion that differs from the convert’s previous religion.”  In this sense, the term “conversion” is actually an anachronism disliked by scholars because at the time of Paul’s Damascus road experience, neither he nor any others of the fledgling Jesus movement anticipated or intended a new religion.  Perhaps “transformation” is a better choice.

Paul on the Road to Damascus by Richard SerrinWhat happened that day on the road to Damascus?  In Paul’s own writings, the only reference to Damascus is the following understated account from his letter to the Galatians:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.   Galatians 1:15-17 (NRSV)

By the time the author of Acts told the story, a generation or more later, dramatic flourishes had been added:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.            Acts 9:3-7

Paul conversion by RubensApparently forgetting what he had written earlier, the second telling of the story by the author of Acts reversed the seeing and hearing.  In the first passage, the companions of Paul heard the voice but saw nothing; in the second, they saw but did not hear.

While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’         Acts 22:6-10

Finally, the third version contained within Acts significantly expands the conversation between Paul and the voice: 

when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’    Acts 26:13-18

current copyIf you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that my novel about Paul, entitled A Wretched Man, was published around ten months ago.  How should I depict the scene on the Damascus road?  How could I describe an event that is believable to my readers yet account for the profundity of Paul’s experience?  As I wrestled with my choices, I also wondered, to what extent was Paul’s experience of the presence of the divine, his theophany, different from the times in my life when I felt God’s touch?  Or, from a more intellectual perspective, I wondered about the famous 19th century book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which a late 20th century reviewer lauded for its “penetration into the hearts of people.” 

In my novel, I foreshadowed the Damascus experience in a scene with Paul’s fictional mentor, Eli the sage.

“The Prophet Ezekiel describes the God who is indescribable. How do we see the God that is beyond sight? How do we know the God who is beyond knowing? The absolute holiness of God is greater than a mere human can bear and more than we can comprehend. These are words beyond words with meaning beyond meaning.”

“I understand,” said Paulos.

Eli scowled. “Do not be overconfident, my young friend. Self-doubt is the blossom of wisdom. When Moses faced God in the burning bush, he asked, What is your name? We must all pursue the same question,” Eli said, and then his voice dropped to a whisper, “but we err if we believe we have the answer.”

The oil lamp flared and briefly chased the shadows, but then the flame died, leaving the room dark except for the shaft of light that fell across the scroll in Paulos’ hands.

“As soon as we name the one whose name is unknown, we create the one who created us,” Eli said. “Ezekiel the prophet painted colorful pictures that point to the truth, but they are untrue.”

Paulos squinted into the nearly blind eyes of the old man. Had the fuzziness that coated his eyes reached his mind? Paulos began to doubt his mentor who spoke in silly riddles. He tugged on his nose and his gaze returned to the written words. His finger traced the scribed marks with care not to touch the holy scroll. He read aloud, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”

The wizened old man rhythmically tapped his willow cane on the tile floor. First, he offered a promise. “One day you will see the glory of the Lord.”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And then, he issued a challenge, “What words will you speak when you tell the tale? What picture will you paint?”

Tap. Tap. Tap.

And finally, he uttered a warning, “But retain your humility and self-doubt. Do not pretend to answer Moses’ question or paint truer pictures than Ezekiel. Do not commit idolatry.”

In the end, how did I write the Damascus scene?

The law is a ass

Mr. Bumble Mr. Bumble of Oliver Twist is one of Charles Dickens many quirky characters.  Bumble is a meek little soul, dominated by an overbearing wife.  But, when the magistrate informs him that he is legally responsible for her actions, that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” the brow-beaten Bumble replies,

If the law supposes that … the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.

Dicken’s insight has lately been pricking at my thoughts regarding the recent spate of teen suicides, focusing our attention on bullying and teen angst over sexual identity.  We have repeated former ELCA presiding Bishop Herb Chilstrom’s challenging question here several times already, but here it is again:

What will you say to your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and others in your churches when they tell you they are homosexual?

“What would Jesus do?” is ‘90s speak for discerning God’s will.  Torah, as broadly understood, is the divine will revealed for the benefit of humankind.  More narrowly construed, Torah is law.  Jesus repeatedly castigated the religious authorities for allowing the letter of the law to interfere with its spirit.  To some, myself included, it is painfully obvious that many who would speak for Christendom offer the letter rather than the spirit, offer Torah as law rather than revelation, offer hurt instead of healing.  My post earlier today contained such an example in the words of the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who pontificated that in spite of the evidence of teen struggles over sexuality … “The church cannot change its understanding of the sinfulness of homosexual acts unless it willfully disobeys the Scripture and rejects the authority of the Bible to reveal the truth about sin and sinfulness”.

Does this Christian leader really believe it is the will of God that our gay youth should be brutalized in body and spirit even to the point of suicide?  For the sake of upholding the authority of Scripture?  Here the voice of Dickens sounds like a clarion, “if the law supposes that … the law is a ass”.  Is it time to step away just a bit, as Bumble implores, from high minded talk of word alone and allow the eye of the law to be “opened by experience—by experience.”  The experience of our gay youth is begging to be seen.

Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf: ELCA private colleges

Gustavus logo On Saturday, I was at Gustavus Adolphus College in nearby St Peter, Minnesota signing copies of my book, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle as a guest of Bookmark, the campus bookstore.  A lot of folks asked if I was a Gusty grad, so I told my story numerous times about how I was all set to attend Gustavus, coming from my Swedish, Lutheran background, but at the last minute I decided to head east to Dartmouth.  Still, I had family and friends who did attend Gustavus, so I spent some time on campus decades ago.  Once, I hitchhiked from the MSP airport to St. Peter, an alien concept to today’s students.

I bumped into a few acquaintances, and had one person tell me he followed this blog as a “lurker” but never a commenter.  Another introduced himself as “pretty fundamentalist” and asked if my book would offend him.  I said it probably would since the plot line was based on conflict in the early church and characterized Paul and others from the Bible as real humans with passions and personal agendas, but he decided to take a chance and purchased a copy.

St Olaf logo Next Saturday, I will be the guest of the St Olaf campus bookstore right here in Northfield.  These two campuses and the students remind me of what great assets our numerous, private liberal arts colleges are to the ELCA.  By the way, St Olaf defeated Gustavus on the football field 19-14 Saturday.

At ten this morning (Monday, September 27th, CDT), I will be a guest for an hour on Coffee with an author, an internet based radio show.  So, if you don’t have anything better to do, tune in by clicking here.  I’m not quite sure how this all works, but you may have a chance to join the discussion.  Even if you don’t join in this morning, I believe the radio interview will remain online for later listening.

I’ve started a new blog

Spirit of a Liberal will continue; however, I have started a new blog that pertains solely to my novel, writing and publishing issues, and other literary matters.  Last week, I moved a lot of my prior posts about the novel and reviews of other books from Spirit of a Liberal to the new blog.  Apologies to those who received a “tweet” every time I moved a post.

The new blog is entitled The Author’s Blog … from the author of A Wretched Man novel, and may be seen here.  Please continue to follow Spirit of a Liberal and add The Author’s Blog to the blogs you follow.