The Apostle We Love To Hate

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s new book, St. Paul: The Apostle We Love to Hate, which was part of my wedding anniversary gift from my husband. (What can I say: 25 years of marriage means he knows me well. Accompanying the book were several goat cheeses.)

This is Armstrong’s second book at Paul. Her first, The First Christian, relied heavily on Acts. In this book, she relies mainly on Paul’s letters. (Throughout the book, she points out differences between Luke’s and Paul’s accounts of the same events.) Acknowledging that there is much we will never learn about Paul, she suggests that “his letters bring him to live and are an extraordinary record of the passions that drove this man to change the world.”

I had a hard time putting this book down once I picked it up. Despite its brevity – it is only 125 pages – I found much here that enriched my appreciation of Paul and his letters. Let me share here just a few comments that I hope will entice you to read the book yourselves.

First, Armstrong does a good job of giving the context of Paul’s various letters. In doing so she reminds us that Paul was speaking to particular audiences in response to specific issues. His letters were never intended to lay down doctrine or guidelines for all Christians for all times. (And in this, I think she effectively combats claims that Paul is misogynist.)

Second, although I had already been aware of the view that certain letters historically attributable to Paul – such as Colossians and Ephesians – were not written by Paul, Armstrong has a helpful discussion of how those letters, in fact, misrepresent Paul’s teaching.

Third, the book does an effective job of creating a cohesive picture of Paul’s theology, a theology premised on the centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the belief that if people “imitated Jesus’s kenosis in their daly behavior…they would experience a spiritual resurrection that brought with it a new freedom.”

Armstrong’s conclusion about Paul is that

Paul has been blamed for ideas that he never preached, and some of his best insights about the spiritual life have been ignored by the churches. His passionate identification with the poor is unheeded by those Christians who preach the Prosperity Gospel. His determination to eradicate the ethnic and cultural prejudices that divide us from one another, his rejection of all forms of “boasting” based on a spurious sense of privilege and superiority, and his visceral distrust of a self-indulgent spirituality that turns faith into an ego trip have not become part of the Christian mindset….Above all, we need to take seriously Paul’s insight that no virtue was valid unless it was imbued with a love that was not a luxurious emotion in the heart but must be expressed daily and practically in self-emptying concern for others.

There have been times I’ve heard words of Paul’s (and, as an aside) Armstrong reminds us that Paul’s letters were meant to be read aloud to people) and wondered what to do with them. This book encourages me to want to spend more time with his letters, aided by the context the book provides.

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