Thanks so much for writing. Telling me your story — your conservative Christian home, your new-found passion for social justice, and your studies in philosophy and in literature with your “pomo profs” — really help me understand your questions about truth (“Can we know something as true?”) and then your specific one: “Do we really need the apostle Paul?” I fear this letter could get too long, so I am asking your permission to deal with the second one first. (Which I’ve got, I guess, since I’m responding to it and won’t know if your permission is granted until you write back!)
Your point seemed to favor one idea: that Jesus is not only “the first one we need to go to” (which your friend advocates) but (what you think) the “only one we really need. After all,” you ask, “what else do we really need besides Jesus’ teaching?” Besides, you observe, Paul’s “so abstract and theoretical and all his stuff about justification doesn’t really make sense to any of us.”
My, you’ve really asked a big question — and by the looks of your comments it seems to me you realize the significance of a decision to “cut Paul — a la Thomas Jefferson — right out of your Bible” (I don’t know how to make diacritical marks in my e-mail so I’ll just ask you to ignore the misspelling.)
Scholars write big books on topics like this. Matt, one of the things about writing to me is that you’ll realize that I’m not going to tell you what to believe — instead, I’m hoping you will listen to me as I promise I’ll do the same with you and I hope to help you think about this important subject. But, that means that I may ask you to go to your library or spend some money at Amazon.com to read some things. All this to say I hope you can read David Wenham’s book Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity? And, after reading chp 1, I’d like you to choose either chp 2 (on kingdom) or chp 6 (on ethics). This way you’ll see how an accomplished scholar examines what Jesus says and what Paul says and how they compare — favorably and unfavorably. You can see a method at work.
You may be surprised by this, but I think it is true. I’m suprised postmodernist emerging Christians have trouble with Paul and his letters. Why? Because of their commitment to the importance of language as something that conveys truth (as story), and because of their commitment to the importance of local communities of faith framing their own story for their own setting, and because of their confidence that God “incarnates” the redemptive story in local communities of faith. If each of those points is true, and I think they are too, then what we see in Paul is just exactly what you are striving for at the Red Sea Community (I happen to like your “church’s” name).
What I’m saying — forgive me for the teacher’s habit of repeating myself — is that Paul did what you think all Christians do: he re-expressed the message of Jesus in a new way (language) so people could live it out in a new context (the local community). Instead of talking about “kingdom,” Paul talked about things like justification and church and the gifts of the Spirit. But, it was Jesus Christ’s life and death and resurrection and the Holy Spirit that Paul was trying to unleash for each of his churches as he unrolled it in a new story.
My question for you: What’s the difference between Paul and you? If you think it is necessary for you to reexpress the Jesus story, why not for Paul? (This is not a “now I’ve got you in a corner” question but instead a real one — tell me what you think and I’ll think about your answer.) Why would someone want to ignore what Paul did as they seek to do what Paul did?
My second response — and I’m sorry for this getting long — makes us Christians: I’m totally with you in believing God’s Spirit works through the community and leads that community to express the life of Christ in a local way. Once again, isn’t that what Paul claimed for the community’s scriptures? His words are “all [or “every” in the sense of “every one you choose”] Scriptures are God-breathed”? (You can look up the whole chp of 2 Timothy 3.)
Now, let’s get really fair about this: early Christians believed that the writings of the apostles were Spirit-directed expressions of God’s ways for that time and in those communities. I know you say that the Red Sea doesn’t think its writings are “inspired,” but you do believe that God’s Spirit is at work.
If you admit that Paul’s community and their writings are at least as “inspired” as yours, what about this point? Doesn’t it make sense to you that God was at work directing that early Church to “interpret” (your accurate word) Jesus for each community in a way that brought home God’s redemptive work?
This leads me to a final question, Matt: If God’s Spirit is present in those early Christian communities, and if the early Christians brought all of these “moments of inspiration” into a collection of books (the New Testament), who are we to ignore the single-most important Jesus follower in the 1st Century? Don’t you think we owe it to Paul (not to mention the others) to see how he did it? To see how he took Jesus into a new world and made him come to life for the Roman empire?
I look forward to hearing from you. Kris and I are sorry to hear about the serious disagreements and stress with your new Christian friend.