Growing Up With(out) Paul
Dn Jason Ketz
I suffered from an uncommon ailment in my childhood.
I grew up in a large OCA parish in the upper Midwest, which had a robust Church School program for the parish youth. From Pre-K all the way through 11th grade, each grade level met separately for instruction every week through the school year. Our curriculum covered all of the expected subjects: sacraments, liturgy, church history, doctrine, etc. In fifth grade, we studied the Bible. It was also in fifth grade that I contracted this malady of mine. But several years passed before I ever had any symptoms. By then, I realized that many of my classmates were also ill.
After our 5th grade “intro to the Bible” course, we moved on to other topics. There was more to being Orthodox than just reading the bible, right?! More precisely, there was an expectation (unrealized in my own life, and in the lives of most of my classmates) that the scriptures were read at home. In addition, we attended Divine Liturgy regularly, so in Church we were receiving a weekly dose of epistles, gospels and all the other scriptural snippets that comprised the liturgy, with a sermon to emphasize the texts we were hearing. On the premise that our scriptural education came from elsewhere, our Church School program made no concerted effort to return to the scriptures for further study.
This lack of scriptural review was the cause of my childhood illness. It was not a disease, but a deficiency that ailed the youth of our community. But it was very hard to recognize. On the surface, we were average Christians, with a basic and comfortable – if unimpressive – knowledge of scripture. We had successfully heard the Gospel stories as they were read each Sunday, and while they were all jumbled in our heads in lectionary format, large tracts of the Gospels had been imprinted in our minds.
But we knew almost nothing of the Apostle Paul!
We had grown up without any instructive or critical discussions on the epistles, and because of this, we were spiritually and intellectually anemic. We were like the British sailors of old, suffering quietly from Scurvy of our faith. Indeed, to stretch the metaphor, the weekly doses of Paul’s epistles heard in the Liturgy were little more than limes and lemons for us to chew, providing just the bare minimum vitamin content to keep our teeth in our mouths until we reached harbor. Thanks to the very genuine and in many ways very effective efforts of our community, our rich understanding of Orthodox beliefs traditions and practices provided us with all the navigational equipment one would need to navigate the treacherous waters of life with our rich understanding of Christian beliefs. But for all that preparation, we were malnourished and half-starved!
I became keenly aware of this curious condition of mine in college. Beyond the myriad encounters with Christians of different creeds, I first noticed felt my ignorance – and my hunger! – when a professor in a Philosophy course asked us to read 1 Corinthians one week, and be prepared to discuss Paul’s philosophy, as it compared to what we had read of Aristotle and Plato.
It was an eye-opening experience for me to read an epistle in its entirety, and then think critically on what the letter was actually saying. I remember reading 1 Corinthians in one sitting for the first time ever in my life. I then spent the remainder of the week trying to figure out how I had missed so much of Paul, even though I had been hearing his epistles on a weekly basis. But alongside this frustration with my past came a very refreshing revelation, for it was in college that I first saw the depth and complexity of the epistles. So many of the intricacies of Paul’s writings (so many ‘mysteries’ from my church school years) were suddenly laid bare and dissected in discussion in a secular classroom. But to my surprise, rather than damage and disgrace this sacred text, my professor’s lecture and the discussion that followed actually redeemed it. If Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians was any indication, Christianity was not merely some peasant religion of a bygone era. St Paul was a genius, and his faith and his writings endure and have forever changed our world. For nineteen hundred years, the world has had to contend with Paul. It has been unable to silence the Apostle, or to explain him away, or excuse him, or to ignore him, or even to provide an adequate set of ‘cliff notes’ for his letters. It may be a divine joke that the various synopses of Paul’s letters are longer than the letters themselves!
That college philosophy course was my first true encounter with the Apostle’s writings, and it piqued my curiosity of how we treat Paul’s writings in our Church. As I observed more closely how we handle Paul liturgically and socially in our communities, I started to notice things. For instance, I began to notice that the manner in which the Epistles are read in liturgy (by this, I mean the lectionary) makes the letters almost inaccessible to a person unfamiliar with Paul. The letters are divided into pericopes, very few of which can be understood in isolation. This is no surprise. I could no more hope to make sense out of the middle paragraph of an email (or the middle characters of a tweet) than I could grasp completely what is going on in Romans or even First Timothy when hearing a single excerpt. The Gospels, with narrative structure and embedded parables, lend themselves better to such division. But the epistles…not so much. And so the point must be emphasized: the epistle readings do not comprise a catechism. And in a liturgical setting, they simply could not. Providing scriptural knowledge to the uninformed is a burden that neither the liturgy nor the lectionary can bear. Too much is assumed in our Liturgy and in our lectionaries to provide a comprehensive catechesis. The first assumption is that we are not hearing these words for the first time. Neither the Church nor Scripture seems to address people who have never before heard the message.
I also began to notice how little attention Paul’s works are given when people have the opportunity to comment on his writings. Writers and theologians flock to Paul in droves, but our priests, in my experience, seldom speak (helpfully) on Paul’s writings. I say this not as an insult to the preachers I know and have learned from – many have routinely given brilliant sermons. So I suspect that thosewho remain silent are shrewdly and carefully avoiding the same trap that ensnares commentators. That is, don’t complicate a simple message. To be sure, Paul’s message is not a simple one, but it can be needlessly and even dangerously over-complicated when fumbled.
Paul’s writings are especially challenging for those who wish to learn (or teach), because their complexity exists on two levels. It goes without saying that they dense writings, and letters, too, which makes them only one half of a dialogue. In addition to this, Paul’s works have picked up immense amounts of historical baggage. For instance, Paul’s writings about the Law and the Jews and Justification by Faith is not merely a debate in Paul’s own day. These debates were used so extensively in early Protestant writings that now the debate between Paul and the Circumcision Party is hard to separate from the debate between Lutherans and Catholics. A more innocuous example is our tendency to project a modern (or at least Byzantine) idea of the Church backward into the epistles. Whatever the assembly in Corinth looked like, it was not an OCA parish, nor the Hagia Sophia! Time and again, history has shown that it is very tough for Christians to set aside our own presuppositions, and actually hear the message that Paul preaches.
But if we can successfully peel back the layers of history, and get back to the text on it’s own terms, then what is Paul’s message? I assure you, it’s a simple one. I have heard it distilled into modern parlance, and I have confirmed it myself (just to be sure), and I remember that moment that I received this message as clearly as I recall my Classic Literature course in my freshman year of college: it was simply revelatory. It’s as if all the tumblers fell into place, and a locked door swung open.
Paul’s message is, quite literally, the Gospel.
Before the four Gospels, there was the good news, and Paul preached it! Anybody who has heard this before is liable to take it for granted, to dismiss as a tautology what I consider a revelation. That Paul preached the gospel cannot be overstated, especially to an audience with a rich liturgical tradition that makes frequent, ritualized use of the Gospels, and in so doing makes an obvious display that sets these four special texts above and apart from Paul’s letters. So one can can appreciate – or at least imagine – the paradigm shift required of me to consider that there was a gospel message that was the infrastructure behind the writings of Paul and the evangelists! It was an absolute abandonment of what I thought a Gospel was, and what background knowledge I believed was required in order to believe in Christ.
It is tempting to understand the progression of our faith along historical lines. This is our default perspective, this historical model constructed from the Gospels and Acts. We read the Gospels, and we encounter Jesus, who was born, lived, died, rose from the dead, ascended, etc. Then followed the descent of the Holy Spirit, mass conversions, preaching, and suddenly, quite late, this fellow Saul was knocked off his horse, encountered Christ, and after some years of careful reflection adopted this rather strange and unexpected belief that non-Jews were to be included in the salvation promised to God’s chosen people through the Law and the prophets.
That’s how the historical timeline is constructed, but our encounter - the logical progression of our faith – works in reverse. We encounter Christ through [the preaching of] the writings of the New Testament, of which Paul’s works were the first. Moreover, the Gospels are indisputably intended for non-Jewish (Gentile) audiences, which means that Paul’s crazy idea – that we Gentiles could be included in the salvation promised to the Jews – was accepted when the Gospels (as we know them) were written. To overlay this logical progression with our liturgical and sacramental life, we also understand ourselves to have received the Holy Spirit (through Baptism) sequentially before participating in the ritualized mystical supper and sacrifice of Thanksgiving (Eucharist), which reveals and commemorates the death and resurrection of Christ. Our very initiation proceeds in the reverse order of the Gospel timeline. A belief that Jesus is Lord is our point of entry into the New Testament. To be true to Paul’s teachings, this belief is itself based entirely on a faith in the Lord God of Israel, and only after we have committed to these beliefs (or at least suspended our disbelief), are we able to hear and make sense of these wonderful stories in the Gospel texts. But our belief in God and a belief that Jesus is the Christ - the Anointed One – also has very real consequences.
So it is no surprise, then, that Paul, having already preached the gospel, had a great many questions to answer and issues to address with his audiences. Strikingly, none of the communities he addressed seemed overly concerned with biographical questions of Jesus. Paul does not have long vignettes about virgin birth, John the Baptist, healings and exorcisms in and around Galilee. Perhaps this is because these stories already existed and were accepted in Paul’s church communities, but all the same, there is no evidence that this was a source of confusion or contention in the earliest Christian communities. Instead, Paul was ceaselessly addressing the consequences of this gospel he was preaching. And he also felt compelled to work out an answer to how Jesus and his followers are to relate (spiritually and socially) to Jewish beliefs, with which there was not yet any clear break. Indeed, this gospel that Paul preached is much more profound than just a biography of a Jewish carpenter that happens to have a sensational ending. To experience this depth and beauty, we simply have to hear Paul’s message, again and again.
Paul, in his epistles, has provided us a sublime articulation of our faith. His theology is often dense, the questions he is answering may not seem relevant at first glance, and some of his ideas cut against the grain of popular social beliefs, but we would do well to embrace him rather than avoid him. Because Paul’s beliefs are indispensable to our faith. They are a part of our traditions, our teachings, and are the very fabric of our liturgical prayers. And, while we may not read and discuss his epistles as a regular practice, his teachings and writings are the very foundation of the Church we know and love. His words – like the words of the evangelists – are the cornerstone of our faith.
I jest that I grew up without Paul, and hence suffered this strange scriptural anemia, this biblical scurvy, from which I am still recovering. But really, it was more of a deafness: Paul’s writings were there all along, if I had only had the sense to hear them.