Apostle on the Edge: A Response

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

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.

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.

…I’d like to add a few more thoughts here, if I may.

First of all, I view these kinds of arguments as being central to the work that I find compelling, and they are certainly ones that I seem to repeatedly find myself getting sucked into Fringe after Fringe. The fact is, James and I have read the same source texts, and both walked away with a very clear sense of who Paul is, and our visions are completely incompatible. For all of the research and scholarship that we both do, we’re both working from an extremely limited data set. He did what an artist is supposed to do: he chose a direction, developed a vision, and presented it to an audience.

We could take turns going through each other’s arguments point-by-point – but in my experience, that quickly gets bogged down in the kind of minutiae that most readers have little patience for. I’m going to pick one that I think is creatively interesting:

“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 the thing is, he’s completely right! I am conflating that argument, and it’s not one that he explicitly makes in the show. (Also with the caveat that this is a show that I saw once, some weeks ago, in the middle of a tour in which I’ve sat through dozens.) I do think I remember this point well enough to have some meaningful reflection on it, however.

He does not draw an explicit parallel between the scribal error that he claims for Paul’s attitudes regarding women, and Paul’s attitudes regarding sexuality. However, when they are placed in such close proximity in an artistic work, it encourages an audience to draw that parallel.

And let me be clear here. I don’t mean to imply that James sat down and in any way attempted to create that parallel. I think that he sat down and attempted to create a sincere and apologetic work regarding a personage that he viewed as unjustly maligned.

The challenge of balancing art and scholarship has been one of the central conflicts of my career. I am painfully, agonizingly well-acquainted with the notion that navigating between assertion and implication in this kind of hybridized form is akin to navigating between the Symplegades. It is a serious, dire, and in my opinion moral peril that we have all committed to struggle with until we day we retire or expire.

When I’m touring a show, I adapt most of my reading to the topic that I’m working with – primarily to help keep me in that headspace, but also to make sure that I don’t sound like a complete fucking idiot in the various interviews that I inevitably end up doing on these tours. I’d like to take a moment to contrast three authors I’ve been reading in the past week.

I’ll pick the first because I referenced him in my review – Bart Ehrman. His approach is to say, “This is a hugely divisive issue. Here’s the data. Here’s the various interpretations. Here’s why I’ve chosen this particular one.”

The second I picked up because a critic referenced them in a review of my show – Reza Aslan’s Zealot. Here’s a quote that I find particularly noteworthy:

“Rather than burden the reader with the centuries-long debate about the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, I have constructed my narrative upon what I believe to be the most accurate and reasonable argument, based on my two decades of scholarly research into the New Testament and early Christian history. For those interested in the debate, I have exhaustively detailed my research and, whenever possible, provided the arguments of those who disagree with my interpretation in the lengthy notes section at the end of the book.”

…which, okay. I get the desire to construct a coherent, self-contained narrative, but in a subject this contentious I find this approach troubling – how many readers are actually going to research contesting arguments?

It is still, however, a significant step up from Howard Bloom’s comment in The Book of J (“J” being the theoretical author of a significant strand of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers):

“…my primary surmise is that J was a woman…since I am aware that my vision of J will be condemned as a fancy or a fiction, I will begin by pointing out that all our accounts of the Bible are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies, and generally serve rather tendentious purposes.”

…I find this vile. His primary defense is that nobody knows anything for certain, therefore all theories are equally spurious.

I would rank Apostle on the Edge as being roughly equivalent to Aslan’s approach, rather than Bloom’s: his goal is to construct a cogent narrative, and leave further exploration to outside research.

If I find this approach troubling in a scholarly text, I find it exponentially more troubling in a creative work – and his audience reviews suggest that most of his audience are not viewing his performance as a supplementary text, but rather their introduction to Paul and his writings.

That said, Reza Aslan had appearances on both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and Harold Bloom is an academic superstar. They’re more accessible to a general public precisely because they both present an uncomplicated narrative.

One more tangent. On one stretch of my tour this year, my wife pointed out that, haha, look, our route takes us close to Kentucky – wouldn’t it be funny if we visited the Creation Museum? To which my response was Now that you’ve said that, we absolutely have to do it.

Predictably, I found it to be a monument to cognitive dissonance. One of the recurring images was that nearly every plaque contrasted “Man’s explanation” with “God’s explanation” – “Man’s explanation” was complicated, showing many factors interacting in complex ways, and “God’s explanation” was straightforward, a single arrow from cause to effect. And it presented this to me as though I would find the simpler explanation more satisfying!

The point is, it’s supposed to be confusing. We’re supposed to wrestle with it. My resistance to authors like Reza Aslan and James Hanson is their desire to streamline complex people and stories into simpler, more digestible forms.

How do you construct compelling theatre out of that? I have no earthly idea, and if I did, I would be significantly more successful than I am. James’ reception suggests that most audiences find his approach satisfying. I can’t share that sentiment. The complex and thoughtful arguments that he lays out in his response to my review simply don’t (for the most part) appear in his text, and audiences aren’t going to interface with that text on that level.

Embedding a detailed scholarly and theological discussion into the show would no doubt bog it down beyond rescue. These are not easy problems to solve. But attempting to solve them is exactly the challenge that we both chose to undertake in working with this body of material.


3 Responses to “Apostle on the Edge: A Response”

  1. Charlie Says:

    wow. now, THAT’s a theatrical conversation. i’m off the continent this year, so i couldn’t see MN Fringe, but, golly, now i wish i’d sailed back. i’m a huge fan of streamlining complicated ideas, playing fast and loose with facts, and even misdirection onstage. it sounds like all of this happened, but to a mistaken effect. Herman Melville famously wrote, “Sometimes you need a lot of sea-room to tell the truth in.” and i think that may be exactly where the disconnect is. when we, as performers, lie to you we have to lie to say truth. it’s such a house of mirrors. and many of us get it wrong. i read your review, his response, your riposte and i think, wow, something really big happened here.

  2. philliplow Says:

    I know, right? This is exactly why this is one of the shows I was aggressively plugging to everyone throughout the Festival — sure, I hated it, but it’s unquestionably one of the most provocative shows in the Fringe. Much more provocative, I think, than even his fans were prepared to acknowledge. I really hope it gets a remount — I’ve encouraged him to link to this conversation if it does.

  3. James Hanson Says:

    Thanks for your response, Phillip; now that I’ve read more of your stuff, I’m starting to acclimate myself to your style of interaction, and I feel a bit less put off by your attacks on my integrity – though I still maintain that the goals of constructive dialogue would be better served without impugning the other’s motivations and character. I see what’s at stake in this for you, and I understand your position. You express eloquently the dilemma faced by those of us who attempt to combine complex scholarly arguments with quality artistic endeavors. I do think I should have provided a brief statement about the nature of the work in the program; I assume that most audience members are intelligent enough to recognize that they’re experiencing an *interpretation* of Paul, but that should be more clearly expressed. I did find it interesting that one reviewer dismissed the whole thing as legitimate theater, and saw it more as a lecture in disguise; in a backhanded way, that suggests some recognition of the scholarly debates that underlie it!

    But I don’t see that we have a choice, if we want to engage in this enterprise, other than to attempt to render a coherent vision of a historical figure. And it takes courage to do so, I would submit (again, the cowardice charge is just a flame, not an argument) – because to do so is to open oneself to the kind of lambasting you gave my piece. The alternative – which has many exemplars – is to write four volumes that take into account every perspective and possible interpretation; there’s a reason most of these end up on the shelf, looking impressive but rarely engaged except by other professional scholars. And you seem to imply that, because much of the audience found the piece appealing on some level, it’s therefore suspect. What I’m trying to do is understand and present Paul as a *character* who had a vision for what he wanted to accomplish, and faced both internal and external obstacles to attaining his goals – that’s the task of any historical or artistic rendering. Based on my research, that is best achieved by using the undisputed letters as the principal source, and, while I recognize there are other interpretive options, every decision I made was carefully thought out and defensible. Of course, the part that entails Paul’s “reaction” to his legacy is speculative, but again, the decisions I made in that regard are fully defensible. What the audience received, in other words, is hardly an idiosyncratic, wish-fulfilling Paul, but one that reflects a major stream of contemporary interpretation of the apostle packaged in dramatic form. And I would stand by it as a legitimate introduction to Paul.

    At this point, I can’t say the same for your perspective; the first thing you say in your review is that you despise Paul because some forms of Christianity that you find objectionable use his writings heavily. That’s no argument, but an admission of bias, and begs the question of the adequacy of their interpretation of Paul – as well as your own. And you say here that you don’t want to engage my response to you in a point-by-point way, which is your prerogative, of course; but without doing so, you give no basis for the dialogue in which you say you’d like to engage. In other words, you’ve given no grounds for your utter disdain for my piece other than rhetorical flourishes.

    So my questions for you would be: On what basis do you reject the idea that Paul’s “bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor 10:10)? What is your evidence that Paul would have certainly known “mature homosexual relationships?” And given that Paul was able to discern the Spirit’s work among “unclean” Gentiles, and reinterpret God’s intentions in light of that experience through his reading of Israel’s scripture, is it so unthinkable that, knowing we know now, he would be able to see the same thing in loving same-sex relationships? How do you think Paul would have reacted to learning that history would continue for more than 2000 years beyond his death, and to discovering that, during that time, Christianity would develop such a rabid anti-semitism, based in no small part on his writings? That women would be oppressed and silenced in church and society – again, based on writings attributed to him? And, if the love God showed humanity and creation in Christ’s death on the cross, a love which is to be the central mark of community in Christ, is not a central theme in Paul, how do you account for its presence in every letter he wrote? Granted that my piece in no way can claim to account for all of Paul’s statements, what, specifically, would you adduce to support your claim that I have left out most, if not all of the parts of Paul that would make him less palatable to modern sensibilities? (That should be the easiest question, but I’m interested in what you would point to.)

    It would also be helpful to know on what you base your own Christianity – who is Jesus for you? And in what ways does Paul misinterpret him?

    Finally, if you wish to do any reading on Paul, I’d recommend the following: “What Paul Meant,” by Gary Wills; “Paul Among the People,” by Sarah Ruden; “Rabbi Paul,” by Bruce Chilton; “The First Paul,” by Marcus Borg and John Crossan; “Liberating Paul,” by Neil Elliott.

    Respectfully, Jim

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