Paul versus religion
Jesus meant everything to Paul, says the theologian Tom Wright, but religion meant nothing
I was having a drink with a friend when the waiter stopped for a chat. ‘What takes you to London?’ he asked. My friend explained: ‘Tom here has written a book about St Paul, and they’re having a launch party.’ The waiter paused and chose his words carefully. ‘Ah,’ he said to my friend, ‘I’ve never been able to get on with religion.’
All sorts of questions came into my head, but my friend picked up the conversation for a moment and then the waiter went about his business. I was left thinking: Religion? What’s that got to do with it? Why did you just change the subject?
I know what he meant. ‘St Paul’ – the very word ‘saint’ kicks the ball off the park of ‘ordinary life’ and into the long grass of superstitious mumbo jumbo. The waiter seemed intelligent. He had no doubt been told years before that ‘science’ had ‘disproved’ Genesis, the Bible, Christianity, God, and ‘all that kind of thing’. He probably associated ‘religion’ with a restrictive and perhaps hypocritical moralism. If he knew anything about St Paul, I suspect he associated him with most of the above.
Now of course Paul was used to being laughed at. ‘A new “Lord of the World”, and a crucified Jew at that? Who are you kidding? Oh, and he was raised from the dead, you say? Well (a knowing wink to a friend) that must have been very nice for him…’ The Gospel was indeed ‘foolishness to the Greeks’. But inside the foolishness there was a power. Sometimes people got healed. People who came to mock often stayed to pray. When Paul talked about Jesus, especially about his crucifixion, a warmth came into the room. He described that in terms of the one God pouring out his love into people’s hearts, like someone pouring out wine from a jug into waiting tumblers…
Tom NT Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and the author of Paul: A biography (SPCK, 2018)
This is an extract from an article that was published in the April 2018 edition of Reform