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How to Like Paul Again

The Apostle You Never Knew

by Conrad Gempf

What is your opinion of the Apostle Paul? When you read his letters to the newly formed Christian churches in the Roman Empire do you find him a bit abrasive? Stern? Rigid? It was interesting to note that when telling folks that I was reading a book called How To Like Paul Again by Conrad Gempf my friends immediately understood that I was referring to the Apostle Paul, and a few asked if Gempf’s book was effective in changing my mind about the Apostle. I wasn’t brave enough to admit that I already like Paul – quite a bit, actually. Still, my friends’ questions, and my reluctance to identify myself as a fan, provided clear evidence that Paul’s popularity ratings are not exactly stellar. Maybe that’s because, as the second half of the title of Gempf’s book suggests, we really don’t know the Apostle Paul. I think if you read this fast-moving, quick-witted and lovingly researched book you might experience your own Damascus moment in regard to Paul.

Gempf, Director of Research and Lecturer in New Testament at London School of Theology, has written a delightfully engaging book about Paul. In How To Like Paul Again (Authentic Media, 2013), Gempf helps us to re-imagine the person of Paul by: 1.Connecting the dots of Paul’s backstory so that we can see the uniquely prepared and incredibly gifted person God called to reach Jews and Gentiles in the early years of the church; 2. Explaining the epistolary form of scripture that is Paul’s contribution to the canon, and describing why reading these letters with a “flat view” of scripture is a mistake; 3. Pointing out that Paul has qualities that make him eminently likeable, including the fact that he was a good listener.

To help us redraw our image of Paul, Gempf touches on some intriguing features about Saul’s (Paul’s) young life, such as the suggestion that he was likely just a teenager when we first read about him in Acts holding the cloaks of those stoning Stephen, and that he was on the fast track to becoming a prominent leader among the Pharisees in Jerusalem at that time. Also, that Saul was born a Roman citizen, which was not common among the Jews, but was a much desired honor and benefit sought after by many non-Romans. Gempf also explains why and when Saul decided to use his Roman name, Paul.

With our idea of the young Saul enhanced a bit, Gempf goes on to present three of Paul’s works: the epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and Philemon. Deftly, Gempf provides the reader with a surprising vantage point for understanding these texts by reminding us that these scriptures are indeed letters, with all the peculiarities that letters intrinsically contain.

Describing himself as a selfish, or “flat-view” reader of scripture for much of his life, Gempf encourages the practice of “three-dimensional” reading of the text. To read the Bible in 3-D, Gempf says, one has to read with an eye to the background of the text. “When we become aware of the situation behind the letters, we more easily see what it was that Paul himself was saying and doing.” We should also be asking questions that we think the people to whom the letter is addressed might ask, that is, “If I were one of the Galatians, what was I supposed to learn from the text?” And finally, the epistle should be read with a nod to texture, which refers to the way the content is presented. “For instance, when you sort the post,” writes Gempf, “you know to read a letter differently when it’s got a little window in the envelope with the address visible in there than when the envelope is handwritten and addressed to you.” These are some guidelines to understanding what is involved in reading a passage in 3-D. Reading in 3-D will significantly expand one’s understanding of the text, and of Paul, says Gempf.

Gempf does a masterful job of walking the reader through the epistles of Galatians and First Corinthians, explaining the behind-the-scenes situation in each letter and comparing and contrasting the challenges the churches faced. What we find as a result of reading the text in 3-D are illustrations of Paul’s deep love and concern for the people and his devotion to them “because of his knowledge of the community and his relationship with them.” Gempf also shows Paul’s skill in dealing with churches whose problems were almost the opposite of each other: the Galatians were leaning toward embracing strict Jewish laws and the Corinthians were interpreting the guidelines for their gatherings so loosely that the Lord’s Supper was becoming a chaotic mess. Gempf states his affection for Paul started to develop after reading these letters and seeing that he handled the situations so well. “Hearing the brilliance of Paul’s letter as a reply really put me on the path to liking him better. He is so good at what he does!”

Gempf continues, “Paul is a genius. He used to be a Pharisee, as rigid as anything. Now he learnt this flexibility and self-denial from Jesus and with that flexibility comes strength. He is able to write letters that express these things. And more than that, he’s able to embody them in himself. Learning about this from his letters made me like him so much more than I ever did before.

“He’s not off in some ivory tower preaching about love; he’s often writing from prison, living out that love through his letters. He is far from a self-important authoritarian. Even to a community where some groups are claiming him as their guru he places himself far behind his rivals, as one untimely born. That’s so good.”

Toward the end of the book Gempf lists eight reasons for liking Paul. All of them are very compelling, but I will give you here the reason that Gempf found to be the most surprising:

“This is one of the biggest ones for me and perhaps the biggest surprise when I realized it was the case: Paul is an even better listener than he is a writer. Paul really and truly listened to the communities to which he wrote. To a striking degree his letters are more about the community to whom he is writing and their ideas and terms than they are about his own. When I think of my own writing and teaching, I am put to shame. Paul astounds me.”

If you are one who doesn’t care for the Apostle Paul, or have simply heard so many negative things about Paul that you think you dislike him, read How To Like Paul Again. Conrad Gempf will introduce you to an astoundingly gifted person whose great love for Jesus and regard for his church is the driving force of his life.

A particular delight of this book is the way in which Gempf shares knowledge of his subject. His expertise is obvious, but his teaching style is companionable and inclusive. Because of that, and because the book is designed for it, it is easy to imagine this book being used as a basis for a small group study. There are questions at the end of each short chapter, and Gempf has also given suggestions for reading schedules suitable for groups with formats for meeting from four through seven weeks.