I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos [in George MacDonald’s Phantastes]. I do now. It was Holiness. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Chapter XI).
For some years I have told people that there is one author in particular whose sandals I feel myself utterly unworthy to untie. That author is Walter Wangerin. If I could trade my entire past and future literary output for the ability to say that I’d written The Book of the Dun Cow, I’d… well, I’d be strongly tempted. If any work of expressly Christian fiction written in my lifetime is likely to endure, I think it will be that marvelous book. Not only for its outstanding literary quality, but for the Holiness Lewis found in MacDonald and I find in Wangerin.
Still, I haven’t been a big reader of Wangerin’s books. That was partly because I thought he’d gone over the top with his sequel, The Book of Sorrows, a book almost unendurable for me from an emotional point of view. Also he’s a pastor in good standing in the Very Large Lutheran Church Body Which Shall Remain Nameless, and I have to assume that means we have major theological disagreements, particularly in terms of our views of Scripture.
But if Paul is typical of the stuff Wangerin’s been putting out all these years, I’ve got some catching up to do. I can quibble with some of his dramatic choices, but taken all in all this is a fine, spiritually nourishing work of fiction, one that I heartily recommend to all readers.
The book is largely a retelling of the material we are given in the Book of Acts in the Bible. The story of Paul’s life is told from multiple viewpoints—people who knew Paul like Barnabas and Prisca and James the Apostle and Timothy (one exception is the philosopher Seneca, Nero’s tutor, who keeps us posted on events in Rome). Each chapter presents the story from a different point of view, friendly or hostile to Paul. Each narrator is well-defined and believable as a character. Wangerin makes use of historical research to flesh out Scripture’s spare accounts, helping stories and passages we’ve known all our lives take on new vividness.
I can hardly think of a better commentary on Acts and the Epistles than this, as a gift for a new Bible reader.
I wouldn’t have handled some of the material the way Wangerin does. He alters the scriptural account in small ways. For instance, as he tells it here, Barnabas’ break-up with Paul was not a result of a fight over giving John Mark another chance to accompany them, but over the dispute about eating with Gentiles. Dramatically, though, it works better this way, and we all know that it’s possible for two witnesses to remember different causes. Wangerin is also bold enough to add small paragraphs to biblical passages, as if restoring lost sections. I don’t think I’d have the nerve (or the temerity) to add to Scripture that way.
Wangerin also invents some unrecorded incidents (though not many), and one in particular (concerning a prison escape) struck me as kind of far-fetched.
But overall I enjoyed the novel very much, and it improved my comprehension of the New Testament (and I speak as one who’s read the New Testament many times).
I encourage you to read Paul. Drink in the Holiness. Wangerin’s health is bad. We may not have many more books from him.