"Paul: The Mind of the Apostle" by A. N. Wilson

Rick Ritchie
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Mar/Apr 1998

We should begin by acknowledging that this review is not a typical review. Instead, it uses one book, A. N. Wilson's Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (New York: Norton, 1997), as a point of entry into an entire class of atheistic literature. Treating such literature as a class, especially in an issue of MR devoted to the challenges of apologetics, is helpful because reading atheistic literature can be corrosive of faith even when a good, hard answer is at hand to counter unbelief at every point. Why? Because a skeptical stance can be picked up over time even when each skeptical argument is found wanting. I wish to question an overall direction of emphasis more than particular factual points. I question not primarily our author's theories, but his stance. While hard apologetics are definitely necessary, there is a place for soft apologetics as well. In reviewing this book, I aim to analyze Wilson's apparently well-educated and civilized but actually almost cultic skepticism.

Re-creating the Past

To invent and write the biographies of new Jesuses is a well-known publishing ploy. This tactic has been around for so long that it was recognized as old in the 1950s. One of the most famous Jesus makeovers was done by theologian Rudolf Bultmann, the man who "demythologized the gospels." But if a heresy is successfully defeated, or dies from lack of interest, it can easily confront the public as an exciting new teaching years later. During the past decade, a generation has risen which has never heard of the old attempts at reinventing Jesus. The early undertakings had the advantage of scholarship. The ideas promoted were speculative, but those who espoused them were very well educated scholars, knowledgeable in their field. Today, it is more common for such tries to be made by amateurs. An author with no background can rehash an old theory with less evidence than was given the first time around and be hailed as a courageous trailblazer whose scholarship may topple the foundations of Christianity.

A new twist comes with the publication of Wilson's book about the origins of Christianity. A. N. Wilson, who allegedly lost his faith while writing a biography of C. S. Lewis, of all things, is a learned author whose book is worth the time regardless of what the reader makes of his conclusions. Ordinarily, it is the less informed on the subject who make the great leaps, but in this case we have a man who comes to unusual conclusions in spite of great learning. In some ways, this book reveals more about the mind of an apostate than, as the title suggests, about the mind of an apostle.

The aspect of this book that makes it such an enjoyable adventure is that the persons being reinvented are, for the most part, not Jesus. When it is characters other than Jesus who are being reinvented, pious readers will find themselves far more willing to take the imaginative ride. They will not accept the conclusions, but the act of re-imagining Saint Paul seems less perverse than re-imagining Jesus, even when we know we are only playing an intellectual game.

Nero's my Hero

The first character Wilson discusses is the Roman tyrant Nero. His attempts to rehabilitate Nero are bizarre, to say the least. I have little question concerning his historical information. What I question is Wilson's stance toward his subject. Having rejected Christianity, he seems to want not only to debunk any traditional Christian understanding of the early years, but also to invite us to speculate in an anti-Christian direction where the evidence is by his own admission thin. One good example is where he treats Nero's claim that the Christians began the fire of Rome.

While it would be ridiculous to believe Nero's own propaganda, and difficult to find any Christian motive for destroying the houses of thousands of poor people, it would seem equally rash to dismiss the idea that the Christians were innocently responsible…. Who knows? An accidental fire might well have started in the hutment of some early Christian zealot baking bread or sizzling kebabs. The rumour passes from mouth to mouth. "It was in that Greek's shop, the fire started-or in that Cilician's-or that Jew's." (1)

What evidence does Wilson have for such a conjecture? Only the word of a totalitarian dictator. If recent history is any indication of the truth-value of unsubstantiated claims by totalitarian dictators, this is bad reasoning.

I use this example to show Wilson's stance toward his subject. Now, why is such a stance necessary? This is where the question of religion's meaning gets sticky, for I think that Wilson learned these ways of thinking from religious environments. They are the worst elements of religion, and the sad thing is, they are often the last elements that people leave behind them when they reject a religion. These ways of thinking ought to be jettisoned and the faith retained. Wilson is throwing the baby out of the bathwater, and retaining the dirty bathwater.

The so-called "dirty bathwater" is a cultic attitude toward outsiders, where your every thought about an individual is determined by how he relates to your group or with what group he is affiliated. This "in-group" mentality is a burden which many are happy to abandon, but old habits are difficult to break. You can leave your cult only to carry the same narrow cultic attitude into your newly discovered free-thinkers' paradise.

When I read much of early Christian literature, I know that I am reading of a world in which I would not feel comfortable as a Christian. I don't mean that I would be afraid of the persecuting authorities. I would be afraid of most of my fellow believers. They were so strange! Yet as much as these people puzzle me, I am uncomfortable when I read Wilson painting them all as zealots. The emperor is presented as a multifaceted character who on the one hand murdered most of his family, yet on the other was a good administrator, and had loved Homer in his youth. But we are not allowed to imagine a sane Christian in the early years. What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it implies that the only authentic Christian is a crackpot Christian. If you don't want to be a crackpot, don't be a Christian. This conclusion seems a bit cultic.

It is one thing to question the objective truth claims of another faith. While it may not endear you to the group whose faith you question, it is not inherently hostile. It is another thing to speak of a kind of collective insanity endemic to a group. I know of many faiths whose belief systems I find to be psychotic (that is, disconnected from reality to the extent truly believed). Yet I do not suspect most of the individual members to be psychotic. They are members for a variety of reasons. As a Christian I think it is dangerous to their souls to remain members, but I do not see their membership to be a sure sign of a deep personality flaw.

A couple of years ago I read a book arguing a case against Christianity. The author had just recently left a large fundamentalist church and become an atheist. This writer claimed that after becoming a freethinker himself, he could now relate only to freethinkers. (He also spoke of the benefits of modern civilization which the religious will miss. I wondered whether this meant that my pharmacist would refuse to sell me a new ointment because I was a Christian.) Over time, I have concluded that this is probably not a usual freethinker's stance toward the religious. It is the old closed-fundamentalist-fortress-stance-against-outsiders turned into a new closed-freethinker-fortress-stance-against-outsiders. Atheism is hardly a cult, but in an ex-fundamentalist's hands, it might well be turned into one.

I do not know if Wilson became an atheist when he left Christianity, or retained some type of generic theism. I only wish that he had been able to shed the cultic mentality when he had shed Christianity. It may not have done his soul any good, but it would have made him a more congenial writer.

I make all of these comments with an awareness that in another sense, Wilson is an even-handed writer-in fact, he has about the most even-handed bibliography of any writer I have ever read. I know of no other author who will quote from both Rudolf Bultmann and F. F. Bruce, considering them both trustworthy authorities. My guess is that he learned of Bruce during his Christian days and saw how careful the scholarship was. Then, when he began to doubt Christianity, Bultmann's arguments became plausible to him. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to read an account of Christianity woven from such differing materials. I would like to see more work written with this bibliographical breadth. I hope, however, that it does not require apostasy from evangelical Christianity to bring it about.

St. Paul, Traveler and Roman Traitor

Wilson's imaginative re-creation of the life and significance of Paul is the core of the book, and worth the effort of slogging through thickets of bigotry and speculation. The following paragraph is an example of the gems which make the book worthy of reading:

The fact that the Gentile world adopted Christianity is owing almost solely to one man: Paul of Tarsus. Without Paul, it is highly unlikely that Christianity would ever have broken away from Judaism. Only a moment's reflexion tells us what a different world it would have been. The whole Jewish inheritance, which is woven inseparably into the Christian religion, would never have been available to the Gentile imagination. The stories which, until our generation, were told to almost every child in the Western world, would have been the exclusive preserve of the Jews: Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, Daniel in the Lion's Den. The concept of moral law as a divinely-given set of precepts, spoken by the Almighty to Moses on Sinai, underpinned, at least until the eighteenth century, the ethical, political, and social fabric of Western statecraft. God himself is, for Western Man, the God of Israel. If metaphysicians for the first two millennia after Christ have drawn on non-Jewish traditions-above all on those of Plato and Aristotle-for talking about God, it is nonetheless to the Hebraic tradition, of a God who created the world of matter and who is involved with his creation, that Western philosophers have always returned. And this is the inheritance which Paul opened up to the Gentile world. (2)

While believers will disagree with Wilson's assumption that Christianity was an ingenious invention of St. Paul and not the invention of God himself, this paragraph yet underscores St. Paul's importance to world history. While Christianity is not St. Paul's invention, it remains true that without him there would probably not have been a Gentile Christendom as we know it. We can imagine God inspiring someone else to carry out the same mission, but if we simply look at world history as we know it minus St. Paul, we see glaring omissions. No conversion of Constantine, no Crusades, no Christianization of Europe, no Protestant Reformation, no Pilgrim migration to the New World. The world becomes unimaginable. Would another religion or philosophy have swept from the Mediterranean to Western and Northern Europe, or would Norse mythology have become the Mediterranean rage? Or would something new have been introduced in the vacuum? We will never know.

In addition to the historian's awareness of the contingency of history, Wilson has the novelist's concrete imagination allowing him to see alternative histories. For the sake of writing quality, I wish more historians had tried their hands at writing novels. But there are dangers. Such a background does seem to foster a taste for speculation. After all, an alternative history makes interesting reading in its own right even apart from any factual grounds.

The problems with such speculation are evident in Wilson's work. He does not treat the facts as an historian. He uses them as ingredients for a novel. His book is not a novel, but his presentation of the world he finds in the facts is a novelist's world. This is not the same as an historian's world, even in those places where he has the facts right. The irony is that Wilson regards the Gospels, which we take to be histories, as theological novels. There is a saying that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think in this case, to a novelist, every literary work appears to be a novel, and every fact appears to be a potential ingredient for a novel.

Despite the dangers, I still wish other historians had the concrete imaginative abilities of A. N. Wilson. These gifts make for better reading, and also allow the reader to build an imaginative arena in which to examine the facts. There is a small class of analytical people who can debunk shoddy historical theories using the laws of evidence. But imagination can be used by a greater number of people to detect flimsy historical cases. The cab driver, with a streetwise common sense, and a little imagination, can think up an alternative way of explaining the given historical data that a tightly rule-bound nineteenth-century German historian might miss in his wooden application of the laws of evidence. Imagination has its own inherent dangers with which we are all familiar. There will always be those who cannot distinguish what they have imagined from what they have experienced. Yet in addition to being the refuge of the flighty mind, the imagination can also be the tool of the skeptic. It allows the debunking of an enshrined academic theory whose only support has been that nobody could imagine things otherwise.

How to Read the Literature of Unbelief

Most Christians seem to fall into one of two categories. The first group shuns the writings of unbelievers. They feel that if they take up their works and read, they might lose the faith they cherish. The second group reads broadly and assumes that there is no danger. Perhaps they never change their beliefs no matter what they read. I would advocate a third approach.

The third approach is cautious engagement. This is a stance not only to books, but to movies and music as well. I believe there is no perspective that is categorically off limits. I know, however, that there may be a limit to how much I can process in a given time. Unbelief consists not just in particular arguments, but in an overall skeptical frame of mind. As noted earlier, this frame of mind can be learned even when the arguments are found wanting. I need to beware of spending too much time exercising my mind in skeptical tracks. If I found the arguments of unbelief ultimately convincing, it would be another story. But so long as Christianity is compelling, I must take the scriptural view of humanity seriously and realize that I am not an impartial reader. The Old Adam within me is ready and willing to remain in a skeptical frame of mind until I draw my last breath. I need to realize that my faith may need some rejuvenation after reading an unbeliever, even if his arguments were all visibly faulty.

The two classes of readers I mentioned will interpret these observations in two different ways. The first group will think I am risking the loss of my salvation, and see no benefit to be gained from putting myself in jeopardy. The second group will wonder at my caution. Will truth not be best served if all positions are allowed a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas? I have answers to both groups.

To the first, I think that there is something to be gained by knowing the unbelieving mind. To be sure, we all have the Old Adam in us, so a general skepticism takes no effort to learn. But which of us really knows what the world looks like through pagan eyes? We never will know what makes their worldview plausible or attractive unless we learn to think their thoughts after them.

The apologetic task requires more than just finding flaws in the arguments of unbelief. One of the non-Christian positions I have worked hardest to understand is Ayn Rand's Objectivism. I developed my apologetic not by ransacking her books for errors to throw at her followers, but by identifying deeply with the position and then arguing myself back out of it. After doing so, I could see why some Christian responses to her work were so unconvincing. They would find real flaws in the position, but not damning flaws. They did not strike at the center of what makes the position compelling; they were not the sort of flaws that would lead a follower to abandon a position.

It is much like the non-Christian who tries to overthrow Christianity by coming up with an alleged contradiction somewhere in the Bible. I don't know of any Christians who believe the Bible because they read it from cover to cover and could reconcile everything. Most who could offer an account of their faith would say they believe because of the case for the Resurrection of Christ, or because the Christian worldview as a whole accounts for our moral experience. Given this, we accept the authority of Scripture because it is God's word and God cannot lie. This does not mean we know how to reconcile everything. But given the nature of our faith, an alleged contradiction points to a shortcoming in us, not the text. A non-Christian who cannot see how Christianity coheres for a Christian will always argue on the wrong grounds. So does a Christian who cannot see the non-Christian position from the inside.

To the second group, I say this. My belief that there is a danger involved in reading unbelief is no abstract theory; it is a conviction based upon experience. I have, for the sake of becoming a better apologist, allowed myself to identify so deeply with positions opposed to Christianity that I have found myself for weeks thinking more like an agnostic than a Christian. What has put me there is not an argument, but a process of identification. The same is true for my return to thinking like a Christian. It is usually the imaginative writings of C. S. Lewis that bring my mind back to its home.

But after my journey into the far countries, my travel knowledge serves me in good stead. I have had it reported that after talking to an unbeliever with a group of Christians around, the unbeliever said that I was the only one of the group that could really get inside his head. I take this as a great compliment. Mind you, I was defending Christianity. What makes our defense more effective is that the unbeliever can see that we know what it is like to see things the way he sees them. This makes it more plausible that he may come to see things the way we see them.

I would recommend Wilson's book as a primer on the skeptical mind. Some of his habits of mind (his method of finding alternative ways of imagining events) are worth adopting. Others, such as his closed mentality towards those with whom he disagrees, can be seen as unattractive traits which if we have, we might wish to drop so as not to come across as he does. But let the Christian reader take notice. Only read the work if you are willing to do the difficult work of rejuvenating your Christian habits of mind, should the work take you out of them. This is not intellectual dishonesty; it is firmness of conviction. We are Christians because Christianity is true. We would not wish to believe if it were not. But when we believe something, we must stick to it through those times when it does not seem true for a while. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, one cannot be a good Christian, or even a good atheist, unless one holds onto one's convictions with some obstinacy. As an atheist and later as a Christian, Lewis found that there were days when the other position seemed to appear more true. But if he had flip-flopped every time the case looked different, he would have been neither atheist nor Christian. He would simply have been a flake. The by-product of such a discipline is that, though we may have periods where we feel like we are going to "go under," the long-range result is a growing conviction that the ship of faith will not capsize.

1 [ Back ] A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (New York: Norton, 1997), 4.
2 [ Back ] Wilson, 14.
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Rick Ritchie
Rick Ritchie is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He blogs at www.1517legacy. com.
Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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