Not ignoring Paul’s S4?

Continuing the theme, Colcannon’s “Profaning Paul” has a chapter in the middle of the book, “Redeeming Paul”, in which he criticises Jacques Ellul, Alan Badiou (largely the same book from which Pete takes his inspiration) and Ward Blanton for (perhaps) attempting to preserve Paul against criticism because they, as sociologist, philosopher and theologian, want to preserve him as a foundation for anarchism, revolutionary socialism or some other kind of evental understanding – and in both cases, I can see the difficulty in saying “we’d like to preserve this bit, but not that”. Those three postmoderns (and a significant slice of modern Paul scholarship, such as the “new perspective” to a significant extent) do that very much by discounting a lot of the text as not being authentically Paul, so the “true Paul” is still a “jolly good egg”. (It is, for what it’s worth, pretty much what Daniel Kirk does in his book, which is a narrative re-reading – he seeks to portray Paul as faithful to the message of Jesus, which is a hard sell for me, as my view is more that Paul almost completely subverted the message of Jesus by turning the religion OF Jesus into a religion ABOUT Jesus). Discounting the material is almost certainly justified in the case of all but seven of the “Pauline” epistles, and probably in at least parts of others. But there’s shit in some of the authentic ones as well. Ten chapters after 1 Cor. 13 Paul gets on his authoritarian, patriarchal high horse inĀ  11 Cor. The first is thrilling, the second, to me, negates the love he talks of in the first. Three chapters later, 1 Cor. 4 is deeply problematic as well.

Colcannon goes on to discuss Pasolini’s unfilmed “St. Paul”, which he says goes slightly further in presenting a Paul with two faces, the saint and the cleric, and then discusses Brian Blount’s condemnatory approach to Paul, in which he argues that Paul’s attitude to slavery (inter alia) is so repugnant as to render him beyond the pale. But what Colcannon wants is not to sanitise Paul, to make him the victim of DID or to demonise him. He suggests, using Giorgio Agamben’s definition, profaning Paul (i.e. taking something set aside as sacred and returning it to general use by the population). Clearly, he doesn’t think Ellul, Badiou, Blanton, Pasolini or even Blount have succeded in “profaning” Paul.

He then turns to the grandmother of Howard Thurman, Nancy Ambrose, who was born into slavery in the American south. She almost never read from or quoted Paul, except on rare occasions 1. Cor. 13, because she was too well aware of the multiple passages in Paul instructing slaves to be good and dutiful slaves and not with to change that, which she had had preached to her on many occasions by white preachers. Here, I think, lies the problem with Paul. He is just too important a figure to discount if you mention him at all – he gets to some extent sacralised immediately you mention him.

After all, without Paul there would probably be no Christianity. There would be some Jesus-followers, but they would probably either be a smallish Jewish sect (although I note that Chabad Lubavitch are strong in modern Judaism) or a fairly insignificant independent religion like the Mandaeans (who arguably are the residual followers of John the Baptist). Indeed, without Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel (who I suspect was not called John), most of Christian theology as it has typically been over 2000 years would be radically different (and much more like Jewish theology, which, to me, would not be a terrible thing!). And, looming over all of this, Paul’s letters are canon. They’re part of the scriptures which I need to take seriously in order to be part of Christianity at all, though I might be attracted by foreswearing Christianity in favour of being “Iesousian”… If you read or comment on him at all, you have to contend with the reverence he’s commonly treated with, even by Ellul and Badiou.

Although Colcannon does not directly suggest that the only real way to profane Paul is to more or less ignore him, or at the least to treat him as no more important than any non-Christian writer other than the Evangelists of the first century (you can’t include other Christian writers of the period, as they were all hugely influenced by Paul), he does imply this later in the book. This seems to me posssibly the only way to proceed, if, indeed, the objective is to profane him. After all, Colcannon thinks that Paul’s reputation subverted the atheistic Ellul and Badiou. In conscience, I spent very many years not reading Paul on exactly this basis. “My Jesus trumps your Paul” was something I frequently stated. That might be the subject of the chapter “Refusing Paul”, were it not for the fact that this deals with treating Paul AS refuse – after all, that’s what he calls himself in 1 Cor. 4:13; Colcannon fully exposes both the identity of this passage (taken with 1 Phil. 2-3) as a “humble brag”, that he is anticipating a sort of revenge fantasy in a perfected and powerful new body, and the fact that Paul goes on to exclude many members of his communities as not fit, apparently, even to be garbage.

Could Paul’s shit be composted and used, as for instance in Joseph Marchal’s book on Phillippians, in a queer rendering? Well, maybe. I confess to still having misgivings about the whole project: let’s face it, I’m at least as offended by shit as the next 21st century Western European liberal. My tendency is not, like Pasolini, to think there’s a good Paul and a bad Paul, nor is it to seek a kind of consistency in the man. I tend to think that we expect Paul to be someone with a well-developed overall position and a developed theology, whereas I see him as startlingly inconsistent. He is, after all, far more a rhetorician than a theologian (and sometimes a “sophistical rhetorician, inebrted by the exuberance of his own verbosity” as Disraeli said of Gladstone). We must not expect consistency, far less a developed theology such as Karl Barth managed to extract from Romans. Instead, we should notice that Paul said of himself “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” (1 Cor. 9:0). We were warned…

I would unhesitatingly recommend reading Colcannon to anyone who still grapples with Paul and has not consigned him to the refuse-pile or the privy. I have nothing like done justice to his content here, just gleaning the odd shiny bits from the heap of garbage he has assembled from Paul (which is no reflection on Colcannon!). Mostly, he is very readable. Sometimes (as when discussing Badiou or Blanton, who are notoriously difficult to read) he is more difficult, but still illuminates things which I didn’t glean from their works when I read them directly, for which I thank him.


One Response to “Not ignoring Paul’s S4?”

  1. Chris Says:

    There’s an interesting article here on Augustine and slavery. Augustine doesn’t come out of that quite as well even as Paul emerges from Colcannon’s analysis. But then, while I appreciate Augustine’s mystical side, I’ve really disliked his influence on the issue of sexuality which has left the Church thinking that sex is perhaps the most sinful thing around. Jesus, of course, wasn’t really bothered much about sex…

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