CAVEAT: I am producing a show in the same venue that is technically in competition with this one for an additional performance (though I do not view mine as a serious contender).
ADDITIONAL CAVEAT: As I am producing a similarly-themed show, I have been cross-promoting with him. (Well, perhaps not. I left his show this afternoon with the realization that he included no mention of mine in either his programme or curtain speech, so I guess I’ve been giving him free publicity. This is actually a considerable relief, as it removes some of my potentially conflicted feelings about the fact that I really disliked his show.)
SHOW TITLE: Apostle on the Edge: The Life, Loves, and Letters of St. Paul
PRODUCER: Area Rug Productions
HAILING FROM: Northfield, Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: The most revered and reviled apostle of Christ thinks he’s gotten a bad rap as a sexist, antisemitic, pro-slavery, homophobic kill-joy. And he has the last hour of his life to prove it to you.
Well, let’s lead with the obvious background here: I’m a Christian, and one with both a profound dislike, and rejection, of St. Paul. Most of the modern churches that I find egregious lean heavily on his writing, and he’s become something of a controversial figure in modern Christianity. That makes this premise compelling.
His take on St. Paul is – unexpected, and deliberately so. He stutters, he stammers. He wrings his hands, apologizes constantly. He is a nebbish. This is a bold choice. However, the characteristics of Paul’s that I find admirable and compelling are his intensity, his passion, his conviction. This interpretation robs him of those.
(I mean, the notion that he would be shocked at the notion of carrying of a weapon? The man was actively, and dangerously, persecuting followers of Christ before his conversion. Even the most conservative interpretations view him as no milquetoast.)
Here are some quotes of Paul’s:
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
“Judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered? Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering.”
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.”
My thought is that in any interpretation of Paul, you should be able to stand in front of an audience and utter these sentences, while having them make internal sense in your performance. That would not be the case here.
So what’s the reasoning? All of Paul’s passages of compassion and beauty – ones that resonate with a modern audience – are presented as right on. Those that violate our modern sensibility (most notably, his homophobia)? Scribal error! And believe me, I recognize that scribal error is a real, recurring issue in working with early texts – witness Bart Ehrman’s entire body of work – but it is really, really intellectually fucking dishonest to attribute only what you personally dislike to it.
(For that matter, the claim that Paul simply didn’t comprehend homosexuality? He was an educated man, who spent much of his adult life operating in the Roman Empire. No, not everything he encountered would have been child rape, and yes, he would have been fully cognizant of what a mature homosexual relationship was. He knew. He condemned it anyway. To stand on a stage in his person and have him endorse loving homosexual relationships? It’s a beautiful idea, but a profoundly dishonest one. The man was a product of his place and time. It’s an insult to him to imply otherwise.)
This storyteller and I both dislike Paul. I view my dislike as intellectually honest. But his contempt for the ideas of the Biblical writer is so deep, that he doesn’t just dislike them – this hour is a focused, determined attempt to erase them from existence, and to replace their progenitor with a man who never existed – for whom there is simply no textual basis, beyond the wishful thinking of a 21st-century progressive. Trying to excise the aspects of Paul’s ideology that make him uncomfortable is bad enough, but what this production accomplishes is worse – it actively undermines his moments of genuine theological poetry and power.
This is a finely acted production. The script is nothing less than an act of theological, historical, intellectual, and creative cowardice.
Which is why I think that everybody should see it. It is bold, and it adopts a bold stance. I found it repugnant, but its repugnance forced me to adopt an ideological position, and I believe that to be one of the primary goals of a work of art. (Though, yes, I really, really dislike Paul, and resent this production for maneuvering me into a position in which I have to defend him.) You should see it.
Just please, please, please, I beg of you: actually read the Epistles first.
Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!