A few days ago I tweeted (Yes, I tweet. I like to think that they come out sounding like a Yellow Warbler, but I fear they more often resemble the Peregrine.) that a couple new books arrived in the mail and I was excited to get started.
The reason I’ve launched into these is because I’m finding that, though I’ve spent virtually my entire (short) life reading the Bible and absorbing it in various forms, Paul still frustrates me. I find it too easy and of little help to read him in a traditional evangelical/fundamentalist manner. I suspect Paul is richer than I know, but I don’t know enough to know just how rich, which makes my reading suspect.
So I first picked up N.T. Wright’s Paul in Fresh Perspective. The book was derived from the Hulsean Lectures Wright gave at Cambridge in 2003-04. It is brief and, so far, reads like Dr. Wright’s lectures – spritely, whimsical, and gushing with information. The text is short, laying out the foundations of what will surely be an exhaustive study of Paul in part four of his series, Christian Origins and the Question of God. Just two chapters in, here’s what I’m picking up, to my delight.
Wright thinks of Paul and other first century Jews as thinking of themselves as actors in a divine drama that has begun with the creation of the universe and has been unfolding right through history. It’s not that Paul and his associates would have expressed their worldview in this way, but the point is to emphasize the overarching narrative that Jews of all sorts thought themselves to be embedded.
The main point about narratives in the second-Temple Jewish world, and in that of Paul, is not simply that people liked telling stories as illustrations of, or scriptural proofs for, this or that experience or doctrine, but rather that second-Temple Jews believed themselves to be actors within a real-life narrative. … The main function of their stories was to remind them of earlier and (they hoped) characteristic moments within the single, larger story which stretched from the creation of the world and the call of Abraham right forwards to their own day, and (they hoped) into the future (11, italics original).
How refreshing it is, though not necessarily simple, to view Paul and his writings in terms of The Story, rather than as various sorts of systematic theology term papers. The notion that Paul viewed history as Yahweh acting in the world, specifically through Israel, to restore and redeem all of creation enables the reader, to some degree, to place herself in Paul’s world and read his work in a new light.
So now to read Paul, for me, is think of his letters as explanations of the how, why, who, and so what of his present day in this divine historical drama. And this is a drama that Paul believed had recently taken a remarkable and earth-shaking new turn. The life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus of Nazareth changed everything. To Paul, it is as if the decisive act IV had just closed on the history of the world, and he was figuring out how he, his contemporaries, and the rest of the world ought to play out the dawning act V.
And I’m thinking this is a helpful way to think of my own life in my own day. For those of us who claim faith Christ, we must believe that our God has been up to something since the foundations of the world. The Bible lays out a portion of that agenda and the shape of its action. We most certainly see the fulcrum of history as the first resurrection, that everything has changed since. Act V is still under way. How do I play my part?