Book Plunge: Paul Behaving Badly

What do I think of Randy Richards’s and Brandon O’Brien’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Paul can be a very polarizing figure today. Some Christians have the idea that Jesus is really awesome (And they’re right), but we don’t know about that Paul guy. He wasn’t even one of the original twelve. He didn’t meet Jesus in person. Why should we listen to him? Some skeptics will claim that it was Paul who really invented Christianity and took the good message of Jesus and turned Him into a deity and lost sight of His message.

For those of us who do like Paul, we do have to admit there can be difficulties. As the authors ask “Was Paul a jerk?” Sometimes, it looks like he was. They bring this up in a number of areas. First, the general question of if he was a jerk. Then they ask if he was a killjoy, a racist, a supporter of slavery, a chauvinist, a homophobe, a hypocrite, and finally a twister of Scripture.

Each chapter starts with the charges against Paul and they do bring forward an excellent case. You can look at the claims and if you are not familiar with the debates it is easy to ask “How is Paul going to get out of this one?” The authors also grant that Paul is not one behaving according to 21st century Western standards, but he was still just as much behaving badly to his own culture as he was just as radical to them. Paul is kind of in an in-between spot sometimes. Many times he’ll push the envelope further and leave it to us to keep pushing it. The question is are we going to do that.

Many of these questions need to be addressed for the sake of many people you will encounter who raise these objections. (Why didn’t Paul just demand the¬†immediate release of slaves?) I enjoyed particularly the chapter on Paul being a killjoy. O’Brien gives his story in this one on how anything wasn’t to be done because we are to abstain from the appearance of evil so let’s make sure we all go see only G-rated movies and are teetotallers. (While I personally abstain from alcoholic beverages, I don’t condemn those who drink and control their alcohol.)

Some insights I thought were interesting and added perspective. Why did Paul seem to take contradictory stances on meat offered to idols? Why did he have Timothy circumcised when Timothy was from the area of Galatia and Paul had made it clear that if you let yourself be circumcised, then you are denying the Gospel. (If you want the answers to those questions, you know what you need to do.)

I would have liked to have seen a little bit more on the honor and shame aspect of the culture of the time. There is some touching on this, such as talk also about the client/patron system, but a quick refresher would have been good for those who don’t know it. Of course, I definitely recommend that anyone pick up their excellent book¬†Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes.

This book is a great blessing that we need today. Paul, like I said, is one of the most controversial figures even among Christians. To deal with his critics and to help those who would like to support him, you need to read this book.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

What are my thoughts on this book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Everywhere you go, people are the same. Right? Oh there are some basic differences of course, but if you cut any of us, we bleed. Mankind really hasn’t changed that much in all the years we’ve been around. When we read Aristotle or Cicero or Moses, we are reading someone was pretty similar to us and had the exact same struggles we do. We can regularly see it in their own writings can’t we?

Or, maybe we don’t. We just think we do.

Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes (MSWWE from now on) is a book that helps to expose us to the fact that people are not like us. The authors, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien, show numerous examples of the way our culture misreads the Bible based on our Western presuppositions and that people in other cultures are quite different. This can be shown to be the case in Biblical times, but also in modern times as Richards has several examples in his book from his missionary service in Indonesia.

For instance, if you had an affair, would you feel guilty? Here in the West, you would. In Indonesia, there would be no guilt until everyone else said you did something wrong. What time does that church event start? Here, you could say “Mid-day” and most people would be there at Noon. There, you’d say “Mid-day” and most people would show up when it started to get hot. If you say “All people serving in the church must be eighteen”, here it’d be a strict rule. Over there, there would be exceptions.

Much of this seems foreign to our experience, and for good reason. It is. One of the greatest signs of this is our intense individualism where we think everything has to be about us. There is even a chapter in the book on how people take a passage like Jeremiah 29:11 and make it to be about God having a personal plan for them. Somehow, all those Israelites that died during the attack of Nebuchadnezzar missed that.

The authors also bring out important realities of the system that was around then and is still around in most countries today, such as the honor/shame system and the patron/client system. Consider the story of David and Bathsheba. That is a story we all learn something from, but when it is read through the lens of honor and shame, all of a sudden several new facets of the story show up that the Western reader would not notice.

What does this mean? It means that there’s further reason to drop this nonsense idea that so many have that all we need is to just have the Bible. Now of course, the Bible contains all that is necessary for faith and practice, but if you want to know all that it contains, you will have to study it well, and for many people, that is anathema, and is in fact part of the individualism that we have today. If God wants ME to get something out of the Bible, He will make it plain to ME.

When speaking about the patron/client model then, we actually make it seem like the problem is that God isn’t doing what He’s supposed to be doing. If an atheist wishes to discuss the problem of divine hiddenness, it’s always that God is hiding Himself, instead of realizing that maybe God has revealed Himself and we are the ones hiding from Him. Skeptics today make the most outlandish claims about what they think God is required to do, such as a cross on the moon or everyone having the same dream at the same time, not aware that all of these are actions that would require further explanation through the social context of each culture.

The ideas that could be embraced if we would but study are monumental. How much different will you approach a text like Romans 8:28 if you realize that God is your patron working all things for good. Now I do have a small disagreement with the authors. I do think God does work all things for individual good. The caveat I would add is that some of that might not happen until in what I call, the after-death. Many people will die with suffering on them that I think God will redeem in eternity. I do agree with their collectivist approach and would contend that all those God will work the good for are Israel. The true Israel is really Jesus Christ and all who are “in Him” are in Israel. (I would even contend at this point that Romans could be about identifying who Israel is.)

I am not really including quotes on this because I find quotes to be inadequate for this one. There are such large pieces of thought that you need the whole context to see them all. I think the reader not familiar with the social context will learn something from every chapter, and I think many of us who already are will have our insights greatly expanded by reading this book.

The authors also do not resolve many of the difficulties. They present the scenario and they leave it to you and I to work out the difficulties in our own reading of Scripture and try to learn to read with new eyes. The authors also give points to ponder at the end to show how we can avoid doing what we’ve been doing. What questions can we start bringing to the text that will help us understand it?

Also, the authors do present points of application for us to consider, which can also make this book an excellent choice for small groups at churches. (All churches could be greatly benefited by having a small group that is based around this book.) The authors don’t want to make this just a detached scholarly work, but they want it to be one that will engage us and force us to come to the text and see if we have been projecting our own culture on to it.

Many works in this field have been extremely scholarly, and I applaud those, but I am thankful now that when someone asks me one book I can recommend on the topic, I will not have to hesitate. MSWWE is on the top of the list!

In Christ,
Nick Peters