Minnesota Fringe Festival: Apostle on the Edge: The Life, Loves, and Letters of St. Paul at the Ritz Theater Studio

Apostle on the Edge

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!

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5 Responses to “Minnesota Fringe Festival: Apostle on the Edge: The Life, Loves, and Letters of St. Paul at the Ritz Theater Studio”

  1. Minnesota Fringe Festival: Ferguson, USA at the Rarig Arena | Womb with a View Says:

    […] in a small minority on this, anyone who’s read my writing for any length of time knows that the appropriation of history is one of my biggest issues as a critic, and as an artist is something that I think we desperately need more accountability […]

  2. 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival Summary | Womb with a View Says:

    […] Apostle on the Edge: The Life, Loves, and Letters of St. Paul Area 51 Breakneck Hamlet The Bunker Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole. Confessions of a Delinquent Cheerleader Craigslist: Not a Musical! Dance with the Devil Deus Ex Machina Falling Man Ferguson, USA FRANKENSTEIN Growing Into My Beard Hey Bangladesh “Mom?” A Comedy of Mourners Mrs Mortimer’s Xenophobic Travel Guide No Extra Lives: The Video Game-Themed Circus Sideshow The OzFather PARIAH, or the Outcast Reinventing the Wolf School of Rhythm A Series of Absurdities Spirit of Hope STANDING ON CEREMONY: The Gay Marriage Plays #SummthinsGonnaHappen Tales from Cafe Inferno […]

  3. James Hanson Says:

    Dear Phillip, Thank you for taking the time to give my play such a thoughtful review! First, I apologize that, as a first-time Fringer, I had little to no idea what cross-promotion involved; after seeing several programs which did so, including yours of mine, I was very embarrassed, and realized that I should have done so, too. I did link to your Facebook event from mine and encourage people to go. But again, my apologies.
    I’m of course sorry that you didn’t find my portrait of Paul compelling (to understate the matter). You’ve given me a lot to think about, but allow me to respond to some of your major points. First, the idea that Paul was, at the very least, a less-than-imposing figure is well-grounded in his letters. I completely reject, as you hopefully gleaned, the portrait of Paul in Acts, and not just as a matter of “taste.” It contains none of his theology, turns him into a heroic figure, and uses him for Luke’s own theological agenda, which includes an anti-Jewish dimension completely foreign to Paul. That, to me, is intellectual and theological dishonesty, or perhaps just ignorance. But see, for example, 2 Cor 10:10, where he quotes his critics as saying “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Or 1 Cor 2:3, where he reminds the Corinthians that he first came to them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Or Galatians 4:13, where he reminds that Galatians “that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you…and you did not scorn or despise me.” Indeed, he builds a whole theology around his physical weakness, and sees it as a reflection of the way God chose to reveal God’s self and work in the world.
    But I’m especially sorry that you saw no conviction coming through this “nebbishness.” Most others have. I certainly don’t think he was milquetoast – he was engaged in spiritual warfare, as you suggest. The question of whether his persecution of the early church involved violence is, I must counter, very much debated (the word often translated “violently” in Galatians 1, is literally “hyperbole,” which simply means vehemently, and is probably itself “hyperbole” for his rhetorical purposes). As you may be aware, Paul is depicted with a sword in Christian art because, as tradition has it, he was beheaded with one – not because he wielded one himself, for which there is no evidence. I put that there as a bit of ironic foreshadowing that only a few would get, not to emasculate him. But the portion about how the weakness and shame of the cross have given way to glory and domination – that’s both true to Paul and, I thought, delivered with conviction.
    Clearly, the premise of the play did not speak to or get through to you – I wasn’t presenting Paul in his historical context, but imagining how the historical Paul might have reacted to what happens to his ideas as the church moves from being a counter-cultural, “fringe” movement to the center and becomes the principal shaper of Western culture. There is good historical and theological reason to think he would have been horrified, and that’s how I proceeded as I developed the piece. I won’t pretend to “objectivity,” but I did not simply set out to create a politically correct Paul. Regarding women, there’s simply no question that one has to choose between a Paul who considered women his full partners in the gospel and one who required them to remain silent and have no authority over a man. You don’t seem to object to the idea of the pseudepigraphical nature of some of the writings attributed to Paul, and you’re probably aware that there are many more reasons most scholars reject Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (especially) and the Deutero-Paulines (Ephesians and Colossions) than political correctness. Without those, you basically have 1 Corinthians 11 to deal with – which you quote above. I actually do have a section directly about that passage in my longer version of the play; why Paul was so adamant about head coverings is a bit of a mystery – or just one of his hang-ups, like wearing jeans to church. But what is clear is that, while he begins arguing this on the basis of the creation of man first, woman second, he does a complete about-face and says that man is not independent from woman, nor woman from man, “for just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” In other words, he knows the patriarchal argument, but can’t bring himself to follow it through. Then see 1 Cor 7, which bears this out completely with regard to sexual relations (vv. 3-4 – unparalleled in ancient sexual mores), and the idea that women should ideally remain single to devote themselves to the lord – almost unheard of in his context and tradition. And, of course, there’s Gal 3.
    So how would someone with those views react to the way the church came to vilify and oppress women? With anger and sadness, I suggest – and the kind of feistyness that I intended to convey.
    Regarding homosexuality: First, you imply that my “defense” of Paul on this issue relies on “scribal error.” That’s hardly the case – you’re conflating it with what I said about Paul and women. And I did include the passage from Romans 1 that you mention – it was on the slide with the “God hates fags” picture. Second, you’d have a pretty tough time supporting your claim that Paul would have been aware of “mature homosexual relationships.” That’s the whole premise of that section of the play – where in the world would Paul have seen, or even heard of two adult members of the same sex romantically and/or sexually coupled? Homosexuality as a concept – that is, same-sex attraction as a natural and healthy expression of some people’s sexuality – simply didn’t exist at the time. One of Paul’s strengths, as I see him, is his ability to look at scripture and tradition in new ways based on new experiences and knowledge, and I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all that he would do so in regard to this issue. The idea that Gentiles would be included in God’s salvation without having to become Jews was every bit as controversial as the idea that God embraces homosexuals as they are (not to equate the two in substance, of course). And again, I would reiterate that I’m not simply developing what Paul thought at the time, but what he might think if he knew all that we now know. There’s simply no question that Paul was a progressive in his context, and there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be today.
    Especially with the centrality that love plays in his theology! I have a section that I had to cut that plays out Paul’s comparison with Jesus on the issue – Jesus was actually a lot more “judgmental” and exclusive than Paul in many areas – e.g., “It’s not fair to take the children’s [i.e., Israel’s] food and throw it to the dogs [i.e., the Gentiles]” (Mark 7:27); “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24); “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children [note, wife!], brothers and sisters, even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Or his cursing of Bethsaida and Corizin, his excoriation of the Pharisees (Matt 23), his praise of those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God, etc. And, of course, Jesus was no less apocalyptic than Paul (e.g., Mark 9:1).There’s a heckuva lot of cherry picking that goes on in most people’s interpretation of Jesus.
    I have enough confidence in my scholarship, my theology, and my life experiences not to take the charge of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice seriously – and I would suggest that such ad hominem remarks detract from your argument. You may be surprised to learn that I’m an agnostic – my views and my story are very similar to Bart Ehrman’s, with the addition that my rejection of a personal, loving God comes out of my very personal experience of childhood sexual abuse by a (Lutheran) pastor. For me, the only way a god is conceivable is as one who makes him/herself as vulnerable as humans, shares their suffering, and enlists us in the fight against evil. Those are Paul’s central themes, though he adds, of course, that God is one who ultimately triumphs over evil – but that takes more faith than I have.
    I would have to say that your reading of Paul is far more selective than mine – picking out passages that “offend” modern sensibility and ignoring the underlying themes that animate his conviction that God is reconciling the world through Christ out of his overwhelming love for creation, and that God desires us to live with each other in a way that reflects that love. To invoke some of the “poetry and power” that I did, in fact, display in the play – “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;” and “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God;” and “faith, hope, and love remain, and the greatest of these is love; and “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…think on these things.”
    Again, thank you for your support of my show during the Fringe, and for taking the time to respond to it in a substantive way.
    Jim Hanson

  4. James Hanson Says:

    An amendment: After reading your review again, I think I erred in ascribing much substance to it – it’s basically a polemic that reflects little awareness of Paul’s letters or contemporary scholarship on him: Paul irredeemably sucks; this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about; he’s a coward for not presenting Paul “as he really was” (that is, as you interpret him). That’s not really worthy of the response I gave, or the amount of self-betrayal (i.e., courage) it took for me to take on a point of view with which I fundamentally disagree (i.e., that there is a god who cares about what happens to us). But it was a helpful exercise, so thank you for that.

  5. Apostle on the Edge: A Response | Womb with a View Says:

    […] my particularly unhappy review of Apostle on the Edge, the author, James Hanson, took a few moments to compose a […]


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