As a pastor I encourage people to read their Bible every day. I encourage people to use Bible reading notes or other helpful pointers to understanding God's word. I encourage people to come to the Bible expecting God to speak to them. But there's a problem with this. Christians, keen to hear God speak, will often approach the Bible as a promise box, a set of wise sayings prepared by God in advance to bless an individual believer each time they open the book.
But the Bible isn't like that. It's not meant to be a book of tiny blessings each designed to encourage a reader who dips in, like a Christian version of the daily horoscope. The Bible is a complex book written by many different people across many centuries, a mixture of genres, a sometimes confusing blend of history, story, poetry, prophesy and letters. And while I haven't any doubt that the Bible is God's Word, the question of how it is God's Word is an important one.
"How to Like Paul Again" is a helpful book by Conrad Gempf, a lecturer in the New Testament at the London School of Theology. Its most useful contribution to the way we read the Bible is to drive home again and again that we can only understand the Bible properly if we understand its original context. When we read the Bible, Gempf says, we must always start with "what did it mean to its first readers?" before we ask "what does it mean to me?".
In one helpful passage Gempf says that he used to read the Bible in a "flat" way, seeing every part of the Bible as "Bible", a single thing with one message, but then he came to the realisation that as well as being divinely inspired, different parts of the Bible were also written in different historical contexts and have to be approached differently.
This book is about Paul's letters and how we should read them. Gempf takes three letters: Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philemon, and shows how we can only understand them properly when we understand the people Paul is writing to and the time and place they are living in. He urges us to read these letters as letters, as part of a correspondence within a wider context. This he does with exemplary scholarship and helpful insight without ever becoming dry and academic in his approach.
However, Gempf's style of writing is one of the key factors in whether you'll like this book or not. He writes as an exuberant, witty American, the kind of person you'd expect to slap you warmly on the back and call you "dude". This approach means the book never drags and never takes itself too seriously. On the other hand, the style can grate sometimes.
And I just don't get the book's title and main premise. The conceit running through the book is that you don't like the Apostle Paul – he's too authoritarian and bullying and pharisaic – but this book will convince you to like him again. I was just not convinced by that, and like Gempf's writing style, this whole argument started to annoy me.
But in case this reviewer starts to sound as grumpy and unlikeable as some people consider Paul to be, allow me to conclude by saying that this is an excellent starting point for the study of Paul for a Christian disciple who wants to understand the Bible for what it is. It will open the door for many readers to a new way of reading scripture, of understanding Paul properly, and of being blessed by the riches of God's word.
Wayne Clarke is minister of New North Road Baptist Church, Huddersfield
A response from the author of "How to Like Paul Again", Conrad Gempf:
Conrad — the author of the book — here. Thank you, Reverend Clarke, for the kind words as well as the more challenging ones along the way. I am guilty as charged of two things you mentioned as well as as a third that other readers have 'called me' on.
First, I desperately wanted to avoid the book sounding dry and academic and I'm glad to hear that came across and was successful. But when I strip back that layer of my identity, well, underneath is an American (even though I've lived in the UK for about 30 years). And I confess that there are people I do slap on the back and times I do say "dude," although with a healthy measure of irony.
Second, the book is not aimed at pastors and life-long Christians who have always loved Paul, but I'm really glad that folks like that can still find good in it. In our day there are a lot of people who at least think that they dislike Paul and the book has been successful in denting that dislike in some, but sadly not all, cases.
Third, some of these people have found it disappointing that the book does not directly address questions of gender roles and homosexuality. This isn't one that bothered you, but it's another fair criticism of the book. Again, though, it's a deliberate choice I made: I really want people to see and like Paul in his own, first century, setting — to see his motives and values and understand why they should listen to him. There are plenty of other books that will use his writings in an attempt to support all sorts of positions on all sorts of questions. I'm hoping that my little book will help people decide whether Paul has been used well or badly.
Thanks again for your considered review and thanks for bearing with me despite the annoying facets of my writing personality!
Blessings in your ministry,