Tomorrow, the Christian Church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, pictured above in Caravaggio’s exquisite painting. A special day in the life of the Christian Church. A special day for each one of us: believers or not.
This day is one imbued with mystery and grace for me: a former hater of Paul, his writings, and the entire Church.
The following section is excerpted from the author’s notes of my latest novel about the early life of St. Paul:
Throughout the writing of this book, my decision to imagine the early life of St. Paul has seemed alternatively foolish and wise, arrogant and humbling … and a panoply of other feelings as paradoxical as Paul himself. Of one thing I am sure, however. After a year of immersing myself in the life of the young man called Saul, I am convinced that he is a man for our times. I undertook this book for many reasons, but primarily because I came to see Saul as a man who had no interest in sidestepping the meaning of things, or in appeasing hurt feelings or bruised consciences. Saul was interested in just one thing: truth.
Whether it was the truth about the God he chased for the first part of his life or the God he died for, or about himself, Saul permitted no margin of error. Saul lacked any tolerance for artifice or mitigation. And, upon learning the depths of his early arrogance and transgression, he spent the rest of his life risking it for the Christ he had persecuted. As I said … he is a man for our times.My Name is Saul
Like most of the books I have written-all of the novels– My Name is Saul was not my idea. Writers often speak about an outside source for their inspiration. There is a strangeness intrinsic to the process of the creation of characters: they emerge from the ether to assume a life of their own. Even unbelievers attest to a mystical element in the creative work of writing fiction.
Upon completing I, Claudia, I was stunned to ‘hear’ that my next book would be about St. Paul…that ginormous Apostle of the Apostles. But this isn’t the book I planned…how can I of all people write about this colossus?
Then, abruptly, I understood.
I got it.
Saul of Tarsus was a man of certainty: certain when entirely, wholly wrong. I know precisely what that kind of wrongful certainty tastes like:
“Wives, submit to your husband as to Christ.”
At the sound of the Pastor’s words to my friend Tim and his new bride, something awful was unleashed in me. I began to opine loudly about the misogynism of Christianity, about the patent hypocrisy of Christians… Never stopping to consider the believers who stood by. Or to realize that my hostility to all things and people religious, signaled a grave disorder in me. One emanating, of course, from fear. What if all these people are right and I’ve been wrong, all these years?
Like all of God’s gifts to us, this writing of My Name is Saul was both joy and penance. When I began the work, I was troubled to learn how little was known about his early life. But after reading a number of books about the “apostle of the apostles”, the silence of scholars about his early years transformed to opportunity. And the blanks began to fill themselves in.
Saul’s consent to the stoning of Stephen: the first martyr was pivotal to his story. This was the act which had to have galvanized his decision to take up the persecution of followers of “The Way.”
One could readily infer that the two men had known one another. Even studied together. And so, it was Saul’s early friendship with Stephen, an early intimacy which turned to hatred upon Stephen’s revelation of his conversion-Stephen’s betrayal to all that Saul stood for, staked his life on that impelled Saul. It was this, I imagined, that had formed the “thorn in my flesh,” St. Paul writes about in Corinthians.
My relief at coming to this dire conclusion was akin to sexual release; purpose and meaning had found me, and my sense of aimlessness was dispelled. I understood what I was to do—my mission. At that moment, I knew why the Lord had taken my family. Like Joshua and King David, I would lead the tribes of Israel against these hypocrites, liars, and deceivers. It was what I was born to do. This time, no one—not even Rabban Gamaliel—would stop me from fulfilling my lifework. I did not hear Simeon’s vote to abstain when he stood to cast it.
Ignoring a voice that whispered, Do NOT do this thing! I jumped up and barked out my “Yes!”
A few minutes later, we all filed out to the courtyard where Stephen stood waiting, a serene expression still suffusing his face. I stood in the back, far away from the enormous piles of
stones that sat silently waiting to collide with flesh. The rocks began to fly toward Stephen. As one after another connected with his face and head, he started to bleed. I thought back to our mishap with the goatherder, whose correctly aimed shot had felled Simeon instantly on the road to Bethlehem.
Unlike him, Stephen stood firm for more than ten minutes, absorbing an impossible hail of rocks. Finally, one of the elders cried out, “Blasphemer,” picked up the most massive stone he could lift, and hurled it at the back of Stephen’s knees. Stephen dropped to the ground, and the air grew thick with the sickening sounds of rocks pulverizing flesh.
It will be over soon.
But suddenly, improbably, Stephen sat up, pointed at the sky, and cried out, “Look! I see heaven opening and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Lord Jesus, receive
my spirit.” My childhood friend’s last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Without giving the battered, broken body another thought, I strode over to Annas and Caiaphas, who stood quietly talking by the Chamber of the Nazarites. “You need a warrior to lead the fight against these heretics,” I declared.
Startled, Caiaphas peered at me as if trying to place me. “My name is Saul of Tarsus, sir. I studied here under Rabban Gamaliel for six years. I have returned to Jerusalem because I lost my family and business in the Cilician earthquake and now sit as a junior member of the Council. I am the man you have been looking for.”My Name is Saul
The parallels of Saul, his religious zeal, and confidence in the holy righteousness of his mission to contemporary political polemics cannot be overlooked. Righteous zeal abounds throughout our country, indeed, the world. We know what is right. Each one of us is certain.
My editor expressed her puzzlement at my decision to cite Andrew Hyatt’s splendid film, Paul the Apostle, in my list of sources. But the film which takes place in Paul’s cell with its inspired and piercing dialogue along with riveting performances by Jim Caviezel and James Faulkner was invaluable to me while writing the prison scenes in the book. The excerpt below is from a piece I wrote shortly after seeing the film, never dreaming that soon I would be drawing from the movie for my new book.
Little is ‘wonderful’ for Christians in first- century Rome. A heartbroken Luke attempts to convey the terror, anger and despair of the Roman Christians to Paul. But the older man is unwavering:
Evil can only be overcome with love.
Who can better understand the mysterious ways of this God than did the greatest hater of Christians in the Bible?
This greatest of all Pharisees who confidently murdered Christian men and women assured that he was doing the will of God?
Who indeed?Paul the Apostle Movie
Converts see things differently. Especially those of us experiencing a metaphorical fall from our horse- who knows what God will do with those without faith? He who was once my enemy is now my friend.
Saul of Tarsus- A Man for our times, pray for us all.