Thursday, 3 January 2013

Book recommendation – The Madness of St Paul

Christmas means holidays, and holidays means a chance to catch up on reading. I took a few hours to work through Richard Dormandy’s The Madness of St Paul, a refreshing and realistic perspective on Paul’s state of mind, particularly when he writes 2 Corinthians, a roller-coaster of a letter where the Apostle’s language implies nervous exhaustion and a suspicion, verging on paranoia, about the way he’s been treated by the church in Corinth. As Dormandy points out, most of us revere Paul to such an extent that we usually give him the benefit of the doubt when reading sections where he seems defensive or sarcastic. We may even credit him with deliberately adopting a rhetorical strategy which he has chosen to be the most appropriate for the audience to which he is writing.

But what if the reality was further away from that ideal? What if Paul was driven in part by his own vanity, and his need to be taken with the utmost seriousness by everyone around him? What if part of the problem was on his side, an insistence on always being in charge, even in churches which he’d planted some years previously and moved on from?

Dormandy’s book isn’t one which has caused me to completely revise my opinion of Paul, but it has caused me to look at 2 Corinthians in a fresh light. And it also raises important questions about how we regard the authors of the Bible. There are probably books waiting to be written called The Madness of Jeremiah or The Madness of Elijah – does the fact that we regard Scripture as ‘inspired’ mean that we think it’s invalid to question the behaviour of any of its authors? And isn’t there another danger in putting characters like Paul on a pedestal? We assume that the only appropriate ‘biblical’ behaviour is to be in a permanent state of mind that consists of being ‘content with whatever I have.’ But the reality is that even the person who wrote those very words had his moments when there was a gap between belief and experience. 

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