Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: PAUL AMONG THE PEOPLE: THE APOSTLE REINTERPRETED AND REIMAGINED IN HIS OWN TIME by Sarah Ruden (Pantheon Books, 2010)

This is a work of true intellectual honesty -- and, I'm sorry to say, probably could not be written in the setting of the modern academy. Ruden, a classical scholar who has translated Vergil and Aristophanes among others, here takes on St. Paul, the Apostle most responsible for turning Jesus' message into what we know as "Christianity." Paul has long been in bad odor among numerous progressive types for a raft of supposed sins, including homophobia, misogyny, and a willingness to kowtow to authority. As Ruden demonstrates here, however, these critics have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope all along. In the context of the society in which he lived, Paul's exhortations were radical, not reactionary, in their aim of creating a more inclusive, supportive society. Ruden shows this by the simple device of contrasting Paul's writings with those of contemporary Roman authors and their Greek predecessors, in order to repaint, to as full an extent as possible, the background against which Paul was operating as he wrote his letters to nascent Christian communities. This idea is so obvious in hindsight that it's surprising that it had never been tried before. In Chapter 1, Ruden explains why: classical scholarship and early Church scholarship run on parallel academic tracks. As an unaffiliated scholar (see the interview here), Ruden was able to "think outside the box" and combine the two fields in a unique and eminently accessible way.

Unfortunately, there's a more serious reason as to why Ruden's short, pithy book would have been a "non-starter" behind the ivied walls. She has an annoying habit of following the evidence wherever it leads, regardless of the expected destination marked out by the PC police. Her chapters on homosexuality and slavery are good examples of this tendency. As Ruden relates in skin-crawling detail, the "gay idyll" of Greco-Roman society was in reality a nightmare of routine -- indeed, sanctioned and celebrated -- sexual abuse, a world in which parents felt obliged to assign slaves to watch over their sons on their way to school lest the boys be abducted. It's no wonder that Paul had harsh words for homosexual practices of this type. Likewise, in his letter to Philemon, Paul did not command Philemon to free the runaway slave Onesimus (as some modern commentators have claimed), nor did he "defend" the institution of slavery (as some antebellum American divines claimed). Rather, the letter points distinctly toward the future in its insistence that Onesimus, regardless of his current status, should be treated as a "brother." Once such a concession is made, slavery is doomed.

Ruden enlivens her work with funny and unexpected references to such pop-culture touchstones as James Bond and suburban sitcoms without losing sight of the essentially serious nature of her work. For those interested in ancient history and/or the story of Christianity, I can't imagine a more accessible, enjoyable work.

3 comments:

GeoX said...

WHOA WHOA WHOA--as a committed leftist, let me just take this opportunity to clarify that I don't care in the slightest what St. Paul may or may not have believed. I only care that certain self-professed Christians today use him to justify their own homophobia. Pretty sure most of my cohort feels the same way. I quite agree that ancient definitions of sexuality have no meaningful relation to modern ones, but I think it's a bit much to posit that it's the LEFT that is most in need of this lesson.

Chris Barat said...

GeoX,

Actually, Ruden DID present "both sides of the story," as it were, when discussing the homosexuality issue. She claimed that BOTH the Westboro Baptist types and the folks who claim that Paul wasn't REALLY attacking gays (one of whom she quotes at length) got Paul's view of the situation wrong. He was more interested in justice for victims of predatory sexual activity than anything else. I wish now that I had made that clearer, as I tried to when I discussed the issue of slavery as it related to the letter of Philemon.

What I liked about Ruden's book is that she did not try to turn Paul into something he wasn't -- either an irrelevant, bigoted killjoy for the "presentist Left" or a dauntless defender (or even FOUNDER) of "traditional morality" for the "fundamentalist Right." She tried to recover who he WAS through the medium of comparison with contemporary writers. If you are a committed Christian, as I am, then it matters very much what Paul believed, and it is a great service to have his work placed in such perspective.

Chris

GeoX said...

Fair enough. Sounds like an interesting take on a problematic figure.