Here is a guest review by Province editorial pages editor/columnist Gordon Clark of a book about the apostle Paul, who, in many ways, created Christianity after the death of Jesus. The book is written by one of my former world religion professors at the University of B.C., Charles P. Anderson.
The book is St. Paul for the Perplexed, Making Sense of the Man: his life, his letters, his story (430 pages). In a way this review marks last week’s Pentecost, during which many Christians celebrate the visit of the holy spirit upon Jesus’ apostles. “Chuck” Anderson, who is now an avid fly-fisher in the B.C. Interior, has had a lifelong fascination with Paul and his passionate commitment to love.
Anderson was one of several warm and deep people who taught me and a few others about world religions at UBC. Other faculty at the time included Islamic studies professor Hannah Kassis, who died last month (see my obituary). Another prof. was Joseph Richardson, who apparently taught UBC’s first course on Asian thought. Two of my Buddhist studies professors were Matsuo Soga and Alan Sponberg (who only gave me a B+ on my essay on the intersection of process philosophy and Buddhist thought. But I think I’m over that now).
Here is Gordon Clark’s trenchant and cautiously uplifting review:
St. Paul for the Perplexed, Making Sense of the Man: his life, his letters, his story, by Charles P. Anderson
It is commonly argued that without St. Paul, Christianity would not exist, certainly as it is known and practised today. If considered in a certain way, it can even be said that Apostle Paul — Saul of Tarsus — is more important than Jesus Christ himself to the synthesis of the ideas, stories and moral principles that became Christianity, the religion with the greatest impact on world history, certainly to Western Civilization.
While the life, death and message of Jesus, who Christians believe was God adopting human form on earth, are at the heart of Christianity, all of that could easily have died with him on the cross and passed unnoticed into the dust of the past without Paul’s devoted work in sharing Christ’s story and teachings with the world.
His meeting with the resurrected Christ on the famous road to Damascus, and his personal transformation from an oppressor of the early Christians to their most devoted supporter and evangelist, is frequently offered as the best evidence of Christ’s return from death — the most significant event in world history to Christians, who consider it proof of Christ’s divinity and, therefore, why his message should be followed.
Paul’s controversial life and at time confusing writings have been poured over for centuries by scholars, and there can be no exaggeration in saying that thousands of books have been dedicated to explaining his significance. Adding to that scholarship is a readable new book — St. Paul for the Perplexed — by Dr. Charles Anderson, an associate professor emeritus of theology at the University of B.C.
So why write yet another book about Paul?
Anderson says “the seven undisputed letters by Paul” in the New Testament — Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon — and the Acts of the Apostles “provide a wealth of primary personal sources seldom equalled in the ancient world.” Yet his writing — letters to Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean and by their nature one-sided conversations — have left many readers confused over the centuries — perplexed, as he notes in his book’s title.
While at once a saint, Anderson notes in his introduction, Paul has also been falsely accused of “uncritically accepting some of his society’s worst practises such as slavery, oppressive government, and male dominance . . . .”
The purpose of the book is to defend Paul, who Anderson greatly admires, and present what the professor says is the apostle’s “all-consuming goal” through his life and writings — to spread Christ’s radical commandment to love others, a message that should resonate as much today as ever.
Anderson argues — by taking the reader on a guided tour of the apostle’s writings — that Paul, transformed by his personal experience of Christ and his teachings, believed that the new interpretation of ancient Jewish religious thinking offered the world a path to “the good life.” His mission became helping to build communities to support that shared goal of imitating Christ’s example, to heal the world.
In a note on his book, Anderson discusses the “dark forces” of our times, including extremism, divisiveness, corruption, xenophobia, racism, greed, and the mistreatment of women or attacks on the LGBT community. He finds in Paul’s writings a response to these unfortunately lingering darknesses within the human experience.
“Love is a sturdy foundation for a community,” he writes near the end of his book. “To build a world on it is perhaps an impossible dream. Achievable or not, that was Paul’s vision. Who has a better one?”
Readers of Anderson’s compelling book may find themselves reaching the same conclusion.
– Gordon Clark