Thursday, May 29, 2014

Throwing Paul Under the Bus

There they were, the dad and his daughters, picnicking before an outdoor concert.  They were just a yard behind me to my left.  We were waiting together for the show to start, and as I sipped my refreshing pilsner and soaked up the late-day sun, I did some good old-fashioned eavesdropping.

Daughter One was tall and dark clad, sitting in front of Dad and Daughter Two.  Daughter Two was a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties.  She was wearing a funky little hat and modest but graceful clothing, a pageboy bob framing her face.  Dad was in his fifties, trim and tan, with a Ron Burgundy mustache that was just a tiny bit too large for his pleasantly impish face, a face that could be seen echoed in his daughter.

 Dad was talking to Daughter Two about Jesus.

And Lord have mercy, was she not enjoying it.  She was enduring it, being polite, trying not to say anything encouraging.  It was one of those conversations that will be recounted later to Daughter One, I suspect, although describing it as a conversation isn't particularly accurate.

It was a monologue delivered at slightly more volume than was entirely necessary, the sort of thing that Dad had cobbled together at whatever church Dad was attending.  "How to Talk To Your Liberal Daughter Back from College about Jesus," or so I'm sure the pamphlet goes.

So he talked, talked about how radical Jesus was, how unusual he was for his day, that sort of thing.  It wasn't bad stuff, not really, but it wasn't a conversation she wanted to be having.  "Sure, Dad."  "Well, I don't know."  "Uh huh."

There was no asking, or any real back and forth.

Then, Dad started in about Paul.  How Paul had completely ruined Christianity, how he'd taken the radical things Jesus had done and messed them all up.  Jesus never said most of the things Paul said, intoned Dad, with Dadly Authority.  Paul really said some stupid things about women, Dad said, with Dadly Certainty.  Paul came later than the Gospels, said Dad with utter Dadly Confidence, and turned the Jesus of the Gospels from a revolutionary thing into something completely different.

Oh Lord, was it hard not to jump in.  Were I Russian, or Israeli, I'd have insinuated myself in a heartbeat.  And despite my near-pathological introversion, I almost did.  But as I watched them, drawn to theological conversation like a moth to a flame, Daughter Two saw me and met my eyes. She gave me a sheepish little smile.  "Sorry you have to hear this," it said.  I gave her a shrugging grin back.  "I feel you," it said, and she registered it.

I wasn't going to wade in, because it would have made her more uncomfortable.  "Now Dad's Getting Into It With A Strange Pastor."  Yeah, that'd help her a whole bunch.

It was still tempting, not just because Dad was factually wrong, though he was.  Wherever Dad goes to church, they clearly don't teach about the dating of Paul's letters and how the Gospels were written.

But because Paul deserves none of that rap.  None of it.

Oh, he gets that a whole bunch, as folks try to adapt the New Testament to our egalitarian culture.  It's a familiar critique, one I heard a whole bunch in the progressive church in which I grew up.  But it's just not right.

The more you get into historical critical study of the Bible, the more obvious that becomes.  Paul himself--not the followers who wrote in his name, but Paul himself--was certainly not Jesus.  But the heart of what Paul taught in the seven letters we can attribute to him with integrity harmonizes beautifully with the Jesus we hear in the Gospels.  If you really get into the scholarship--the serious, objective, critical scholarship--the Paul that emerges is a remarkable person.  Perfect?  No.

An Apostle bearing the same sacred and transforming message that Jesus himself bore, one that shattered cultural expectations, class lines, and gender roles?  Yes.

You just can't throw that guy under the bus.