September 25, 2019

Reviewer of Book on St. Paul

Saw book by Sarah Ruden that tries to rehabilitate Paul (I didn't realize he was in need of rehab). I’m always taken aback by how controversial St. Paul is among Christians. His letters seem uplifting and inspiring.

It amazes me that many think of him as grumpy and Puritanical, when his writings seem among the most upbeat and inspiring in the entire Bible. Many hate, of course, where he writes against fornication but how could they not then share the same distaste for Jesus, who said that anyone who looked lustfully at a woman had committed adultery with her? I suspect it’s the typical dodge of assuming most everything Jesus said in the gospels was attributed to him later in response to conditions in the churches at that time. Nice gig if you can get it. But it’s hard to wiggle out of Paul because everyone agrees at least 6-7 letters were written by him and there are pretty hard (and very early!) dates around them.One amazon reviewer pointed out that perhaps Paul was against homosexuality because it was deeply bred in Jewish tradition instead of his simply reacting to Roman/Greek abuses.

From a reviewer on Amazon:
In his book "Mythologies" (English translation 1972) the French semiologist Roland Barthes analyzes what he terms 'neither-nor criticism', a rhetorical game now even more prevalent than when he first essayed it back in the 1950s. This involves the critic's confession that he is able to discern how any subject's reality is more complex than simply being a matter of X as opposed to Y: the reality in question is neither X nor Y because it is, in the critic`s own perceptive gaze, a blazing matter of being Z. And the identification of Z is the result of the plucky critic's having so clearly established the respective errors and inherent biases of X and Y that he was led eventually to Z`s discovery. But, as Barthes simply observed, what fuels the neither-nor critic's activities and ultimately convinces him of his own results is the relative amount of FREEDOM he assumes for himself, namely, that he is immune to A PRIORI judgments, and that his own critical work is as much a liberation as it is a timeless explication of a given subject.

Reading this book by Sarah Ruden made me think of Barthes' essay. Her subject is the eternally controversial Paul and his reputation, deserved or not, in the modern world. And here is where the 'dichotomy-spotting' begins: wishing to steer a course between conservative and/or traditional views of Paul (X) and the often questionable results and opinions deriving from the historical-critical method (Y), Ms. Ruden in her quest for an 'original' understanding of Paul (Z) inadvertently relies on so many polarities and contrasts largely derivable from our own age that the 'original' voice of Paul she thought she had re-discovered ends up being the reflection of some currently entrenched prejudices.

Now I am not advocating any kind of relativism here; nor am I contending that there is nothing like a reasonable truth to be had about Paul or the meaning of his letters. I am as willing as the next person to say that Paul actually means what he says and in fact says what he means, but what Sarah Ruden promises and what Sarah Ruden delivers end up being two different things…

This is perhaps my most serious objection to the book`s project: that in order to make Paul more palatable, to rehabilitate him IN THE COURT OF OUR SENSIBILITIES, it becomes necessary to show that he was more like us than we ever imagined, that the reasons for his startling statements about the relative 'status' of women, homosexuality, slavery, even the nature of the divine agapê (love) itself must be revealed as having been based on the same forms of modernist pathos that so prejudicially orient not a few of our own attitudes and assumptions.

And finally, there is, for my tastes, a far too lenient (and downright anachronistic) use of expressions and ideas such as 'liberal', 'emancipation', 'oppression', 'individuality', 'self-expression', etc. in this book. This usage is problematic for many critical reasons, but it is further complicating, not because the ancients lacked any of the sensibilities that make such concepts possible and so compelling for us, but rather because our own psychologizing take on things, our own debilitating capacity for introspection and interiorization makes the ancients seem like they were inhabitants of another planet, like us in so many respects but thinking, feeling and experiencing God in ways that seem like a proverbial world apart.

Now Ms. Ruden occasionally keys in on these inherent and undeniable differences, those moments when Paul communicates to us the disconcerting proximity of God's glory--gospel 'flashpoints' I would call them--the kind that stem not from antiquated patterns of ignorance let alone our condescending attitudes toward them, but from a direct and overwhelming sense of God's presence and power: they are the expression of those timeless certainties that make for the blessed uncertainty of the faithful; in short, they are what make Paul true rather than just learnedly relevant.

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