Next week, I will speak at the Northfield bookstore, Monkey See, Monkey Read with more public appearances to follow. I will read an early chapter from the novel, but first I will offer a few comments about my journey of writing, which I publish here.
The most frequent question I hear is “Why Paul? Why did you choose to write about Paul?”
Why bother with a man nearly 2000 years dead with a reputation as an anti-Semite, apologist for slavery, misogynist, and a gay-bashing homophobe? Paul was not one of Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never met the man from Nazareth. The early followers of Jesus, including his own family, probably regarded the man from Tarsus as an outsider, a usurper, a pretend Pharisee, a “Hellenist”–Hebrew by blood but Greek by language and culture: a man on the margins. For awhile, the working title of the novel was The Jewish Gentile.
But wait, was this not also the man who wrote of Christian egalitarianism, of boundary breaking inclusivity, and whose good news of a gracious God inspired Augustine in the fourth century, Luther in the sixteenth, Barth a mere century ago, and whose message of love unconditional continues to stir our hearts? “Why Paul?” Because he is a puzzling enigma, that’s part of my answer.
Jesus himself authored no writings. Nor did any of those who followed him in the Galilee or during his fateful pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It fell to Paul the outsider, who first opposed the movement, to become its reporter, memorialist, essayist, interpreter, and promoter. At one time, over half the books of the New Testament were attributed to his hand, and this is also part of my answer: “Why Paul?”–because he is the most important man, outside of Jesus of Nazareth, in Christian history. For good or ill, even the secularist must acknowledge his profound influence on western civilization’s Judeo-Christian heritage.
An enigma who shaped history. Most fiction authors must create colorful characters. This novel’s protagonist comes ready-made with knotty complications and buffeted by conflict from all sides. It has been my task to allow the complex, critical, controversial man from Tarsus to bloom before the reader’s eyes.
But, there’s more to it. There are more personal reasons for choosing Paul.
I have heard accomplished authors explain, “I write because I read.” If one relishes the imagining that is essential to entering the dream world of the novelist, it is a natural development to create one’s own captivating characters, alluring scenes and settings, an alternate reality that speaks to one’s inner truths–fictive and mythical though they may be. Thus, for many writers, the statement, “I write because I read” is an appropriate and accurate answer.
But, it is not my answer.
Mid-twentieth century American novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “The artist is religious man.” I write because I wonder. That’s my answer. I wonder about the “higher power” of the twelfth step group, and I wonder why I have spent more than half my three score years, and counting, as a clean and sober man. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” it is said, and I wonder. I wonder about the mysterious God revealed to Job in the whirlwind, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” With William James, I wonder about the nature of religious experience; what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus? I wonder about the God revealed in the words of Holy Writ. What truths are unveiled there, but also what untruths? As citizens of the twenty-first century, how are we to interpret of the writings of Paul, a man with keen insight into a gracious God, but who also condoned slavery and counseled women to be silent in church? And then there is our issue, a twenty-first century issue that roils our pews and our politics, the issue of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. How can we make sense of the harsh “clobber passages” penned by Paul?
As with all novelists, I have created a fictive world of the imagination to which I invite my readers. Trudge the dusty alleyways of Jerusalem as James, Jesus’ own brother and the leader of the Jewish Jesus movement, escorts Paul, the young upstart who claimed a vision on the road to Damascus. Pick sides a dozen years later when Paul and James debate circumcision and the traditional requirements of Torah before the assembly of apostles. Wander the ancient Roman highways with the lonely but defiant apostle to the Gentiles, looking ahead toward Rome and back over a nervous shoulder toward suspicious Jerusalem. The novel will introduce you to many whose names you know, lifted from the pages of Scripture. Sail across the Great Sea as the apostle returns after completing his missionary journeys for a final confrontation with James, his nemesis. Will the now-aged leaders, and their Jewish and Gentile followers, finally reconcile?
Because I wonder, I write. And so, as I invite you to imagine yourself into Paul’s journey, I am also inviting all to tag along on my journey too. Come, wonder with me.