St Paul 2016

I don’t imagine that Jane Austen ever thought that one day there would be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called ‘ Mrs Darcy versus the aliens.’ But there is- as one reviewer put it’ ‘ it is much funnier than the original and has a lot more aliens.’

Jane Austen’s popularity is such that fictional films are made about her life, all sorts of sequels are written- such as the one above, but also by detective and mainstream writers- and even self help books have appeared drawing on the wisdom of her novels.

I recently read an academic book about her which compared the way her books are now treated to the way the Bible used to be.

That is an interesting thought, particularly if you think, for a moment, about the characteristics of this contemporary reverence.

It sometimes takes the form of a nostalgic wish to live in a world, mistakenly believed to be hers, which is ordered, parochial and safe. The dirt, the dangers of disease, the foul characters seemingly fair, and the truly evil manifestation which is Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park, all carefully excised.

Or more commonly her work is taken to be about romance, featuring Mr Darcy ,of course, as the dark and brooding hero.

When one of her persistent themes was the folly of a sensational view of the world, which is mocked most severely in Northanger Abbey, but gently teased in every other.

To her the gothic and the romantic were types of delusion; which is why when it comes to marriage sympathy, compatible social status, and freedom from delusion are so lauded by her.

The love between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy only flourished once the pride and prejudice withered, and they could see each other clearly.

Not quite getting Jane Austen is thus one of the main drivers in appreciating her.

Which I would argue is a good way to come at that seemingly totally different literary figure, St Paul.

Those who we conveniently call conservative Christians look to him for inspiration when they protest at a world where conventional sexual norms are being over-turned. His disapproval is taken to mirror God’s.

But those often labelled liberals also look to him when they seek inspiration for the over-turning of conventional social distinctions. Innovation is an initiative launched by God, and St Paul agrees- so there.

In his letter to the Galatians he writes of the sort of things that will exclude a believer from the kingdom of God- most are nothing at all to do with sex,- such things as strife, in-fighting, jealousy, anger, quarrels are included- but top of his list is fornication, impurity and licentiousness.

But then, 2 chapters earlier he wrote these clarion words, which have inspired all sorts of changes and new ways of thinking in the church.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer Jew, or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

But of course there are not 2 St Paul’s. Neither is he just being muddle headed- a conservative one minute and a liberal the next.

Just like with Jane Austen- to appreciate him is to not quite get him.

About a decade ago the acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin, who had a track record of rescuing the reputation of neglected women, such as Dickens’ mistress Nelly Ternan,

managed to produce a life of Jane Austen, which almost entirely ignored her intellectual and religious hinterland.

But we know that Austen had access to the well- stocked library of her clerical father, and from hints and references in her letters and novels, that she was steeped in the best Anglican thought of her day- philosophers such as Earl of Shaftesbury, John Locke and Bishop Berkeley and her great favourite Samuel Johnson.  That was her world- her context- she thought and breathed it.

And Claire Tomalin hardly engaged with it at all. She doesn’t seem to be able to tune into the right frequency.

Which I think echoes the problems we have today with St Paul. We Christians are likely to cherry pick his words to suit what we already believe on other grounds, and people who are tone deaf to faith just tend to gravitate towards all the things he wrote which are inimical to the modern point of view and ignore everything else.

Maybe the comparison to Jane Austen is helpful here again?

Although the purpose of each writer was totally different- I do think it would be hard to claim that St Paul was in any way seeking to amuse anybody- both were storytellers.

Austen wrote entertaining fictions for publication from her home in Hampshire, whereas St Paul, travelled the world founding new and encouraging already established Christian communities, argued in market-places, endured ship-wreck and imprisonment, and poured forth his thoughts and advice in letters.

But he was still a storyteller.

The Gospel- in the form that he delivered it- was much more complex than is sometimes thought. Too often, as I said, he has been seen as a marvellous sound- bite and doctrine generator.

‘ But the greatest of these is love.’ 

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.’

We hold that a person is justified by faith.

Just 3 of a host of phrases which have brought comfort and controversy to millions.

But St Paul had a much bigger over-arching story to tell. It was part autobiographical because it was shaped by what had directly happened to him- by the journey he had taken.

It was historical because it drew on the prompts of God’s grace found in the lives of such as Moses and Abraham.

It was cosmological because it addressed again and again God’s purpose in creation. The night sky and the unfolding of the future were seen to communicate meaning.

Christ was the focus of everything- his love and sacrifice.

And St Paul was trying to tell this multi-layered story, from within, and into a diverse variety of contexts.

This man, who was Jewish, and thoroughly immersed in the culture of his first language, Greek, was also Roman citizen. In all he did and wrote we can see him trying to come to grips with the fresh experience of God that he had received.

I think that is vital point- he was not just passing that story on, but was in the story himself and well aware of that.

He might be convinced that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God.’

But he didn’t expect the road forward to be painless and smooth. And others would be sure to have their say.

I find this helpful when I am tempted -which is very often- to despair and agonise about the state of the church today.

Because we are part of an unfolding story too, our own and God’s.

There are bound to be conflicts and failures of understanding along the way- as there always have been.

If understanding St Paul is difficult- the man who has been called the second founder of Christianity- and a fellow member of our own church such as Jane Austen, who lived barely 2 centuries in the past can be so baffling- no wonder we have so much trouble with our contemporaries.

Perhaps some more of St Paul’s words will bring us some comfort and perspective, as they have many times before to people in much worse circumstances than ours. The story is still not ended. Romans 8.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation awaits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God .

If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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