Rods, stones and cash registers: a Pauline soundtrack

I  find it baffling when people make enormous sweeping statements or brash claims with no foundation, no historical insight, and no supporting evidence. And this so often happens when celebrity and religion collide.

For some peculiar reason, interviewers seem to regularly ask actors, singers, artists and authors about their views on religion, even if their work or life includes no demonstrable connection to or interest in religion. And the answer typically tends to follow a standard formula:

I admire Jesus but…

Fill in the blank.

Usual suspects for the second half of the sentence typically include:

  •  I don’t like the church
  • … It’s his followers I can’t stand
  • … I really dislike Paul

Though I suspect a more honest end to the sentence might often be:

  • I don’t actually know what he said!

I always wonder how informed the so-called ‘admiration’ for Jesus really is, and whether it extends beyond his undeniably good character and care for the poor to include his teachings on subjects such as money, politics, violence, ethics, sin and the suchlike? If I interviewed a wealthy non-religious-Jesus-admiring celebrity and then took them to a passage like Mark 10 – the conversation with the Rich Young Ruler – I wonder if the ‘admiration’ might turn out to be a little less comprehensive than previously implied?

We may rightly quibble with the logic of C.S. Lewis’ Trilemma from Mere Christianity, but I agree with at least this part of his conclusion:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher… Let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

Maybe I’m being cynical, but I often feel the ‘admiration’ for Jesus is an attempt to buy permission to then slate everyone who has come after. A caveat that allows the speaker to be critical without appearing entirely bigoted in the process. A theological equivalent of prefacing an insult with “No offence, but…” as if that somehow gets you off the hook for whatever rudeness you’re about to spew forth.

And of course, if you say ‘I admire Jesus...’ it gives the impression you have done your homework; you’ve read the gospels, you know what you’re talking about. This in turn suggests you may well also have good reasons for whatever comes after the ‘but…

As is often not the case.

So as an example, I recently read an interview with world-renowned historian/theologian (!!) Rupert Everett, which included the following comment:

Rupert Everett has long since rejected the religion of his parents, but has “great admiration” for the story of Jesus.

St Paul, he says, should be tried at the Hague. What about his road-to-Damascus moment, I counter? “The blinding flash for St Paul was the ker-ching of the cash register. He knew he was able to really make something of this person.” (The Telegraph, 30 June 2014)

Now of course the version that got printed in The Telegraph was an edited transcript of a far larger conversation. And I’d like to give Mr Everett the benefit of the doubt and assume that his perfectly backed up reasoning is languishing on the interviewer’s cutting-room floor!

How I wish we could see it in full. I would love to read his excellent reasons for ignoring Paul’s accounts; the warts-and-all descriptions of his prior life, his conversion, and the hardships he faced since; or those of Luke in the book of Acts? Why should we take them seriously? They’re biased of course, since they’re not written by an impartial party! (And I suspect he also has a great reason for why I should consider his own memoir to be an accurate portrayal of his life and character?)

I guess Everett’s well aware of the writings of the early church fathers, some of whom knew Paul personally and also lost their lives for following in the same path? Surely he’s well-versed in the most up-to-date Pauline scholarship and taken it all into account as he’s formed his view of the money-grabbing apostle?

And I suppose he must have good reasons for why Jesus’ disciples Peter, John et al. – who knew Jesus better than anyone – never denounced the self-serving ministry of Paul as they did the ministries of other false-teachers, and why Peter in fact called him a ‘beloved brother’ in his second letter? I only wish space had allowed to interviewer to include Everett’s insights into where Paul’s amassed wealth might have gone? Or how he found the inner strength to endure prison and ultimately death for following something he didn’t really believe?

And I suppose there must be a really good answer for why ‘admiring Jesus’ by opting not to follow him is a better path than putting that admiration into action by giving up a promising career as a Rabbi to trek around the ancient world facing scorn, hardship and suffering?

“I admire Jesus… so no offence, but…” 

Yes, Paul should have been tried at the Hague, for actions prior to his conversion. The persecution, the murder, the crimes against humanity. But…

No, I don’t think he was a money-grabbing fiend. Or if he was, he was rather bad at it.

Creating an unfounded caricature of Paul is a cheap shot and a fashionably snappy answer to an interviewer’s question, but it makes a mockery of history. In fact I suspect Paul’s account in 2 Corinthians 11 is far closer to the mark.

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)

Whips, cracks, screams and tears. That was the soundtrack that accompanied Paul’s ministry. And not a ker-ching to be found!

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