Earlier this week I posted a 30-day plan for how to read the letters of Paul in chronological order. Several thousand visits and a ton of Facebook comments later, you’ve let me know you’re ready for the challenge!
Starting July 1st, I challenge you to read with me the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. I’ll be posting a daily response here on the Westar blog and sharing responses from others as well.
Why these 7 letters? The so-called undisputed letters are the ones that most biblical studies scholars agree were written by Paul. They remain our best bet for understanding Paul, and they represent the earliest written evidence we have from the Jesus movement.
How to Participate in 30 Days of Paul
- Choose your favorite translation of Paul.
I vote for this one, which inspired the 30-day challenge.
- Starting July 1st, read the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days:
1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans
- Write, draw, or record a response daily or weekly—on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like.
- Tag your response with #30daysofPaul to share it with others.
I’ll be following the reading plan I shared earlier this week, which is in rough chronological order based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. You’re welcome to simply follow along or try another reading plan and compare notes. Here’s a PDF version for easy downloading and printing.
Why Read Paul?
I’m currently reading How to Read the Bible by Harvey Cox, one of two outstanding guest lecturers we have lined up for the Fall 2015 national meeting in Atlanta. It’s absolutely the perfect lead-up to this challenge. Cox urges us as readers not to aim to be big-O Objective—that is, completely neutral to the point of turning a blind eye to our personal stakes in reading the Bible. Rather, we should ask ourselves what our little-o objective is in reading this particular text.
To paraphrase him slightly, we need to have a sense not merely of what we’re reading about but of what we’re reading for.
So why read Paul? What’s your objective? When I first read Cox’s advice, it occurred to me that my objective even after many years away the evangelical-conservative world of my childhood has often been to read “to prove the Bible still matters” or “to find a better/more legitimate reading than the evangelical one,” or some variant of the two. That’s not really how I want to read Paul’s letters this time through. What other options are there? Here are a few I’ve brainstormed, to which you no doubt could add more:
- What was Paul’s ethic? What sort of person is Paul calling for me to be? What does it mean to, as he says, love “extravagantly”?
- Does Paul shed light on any modern moral issues? Was Paul a friend to women or not? Did Paul condone slavery? Does it matter?
- How would I resolve the moral problems Paul faces with individual communities? If I could pick up a pen and write a letter to Paul, how would I answer him?
- How might we revise his ethics for today?
- Respond to Paul not with argument but intuitively through poetry, fiction, drawing.
- Laugh! Answer Paul with humor!
- Put on Paul’s persona and pen a letter inspired by him to another community, real or imagined. Maybe it will help us empathize with the writers who actually did this in the earliest centuries of the Jesus movement.
- Try reading a passage aloud, putting the weight on different words or using different emotions.
- Put on the persona of someone who disagreed with Paul.
- How was I taught to read and understand Paul? Is that the Paul I’m finding here?
- Who were Paul’s interlocutors? Can we reconstruct the people on the other side of the letter—agents of the empire, other Jesus followers whose mission was different, the communities themselves, the diverse factions within the communities?
- What sort of place was Thessalonika, Corinth, Rome, in this time period? How did one travel in the Roman Empire? How did assemblies gather, and what did they do when they were together?
- How do Paul’s own words compare with what others claimed about him elsewhere, especially in the book of Acts and the Acts of Paul and Thecla? How did writers outside the Bible interpret Paul? Can I see the roots of those interpretations in these early materials?
- What sort of relationship did Paul have with God? What sort of language did he use to describe God?
- What did Paul mean when he described communities as “belonging to Jesus”?
- How does reading Paul with the backdrop of Israel and Israel’s God affect my picture of his spiritual situation?
- How do Paul’s words feed into my own spiritual longings and situation? Do I have a calling as Paul so strongly felt he did?
- Must a calling be so all-encompassing as Paul experienced it? Is there ever an occasion when I would declare a particular message “good news” and feel it must be shared with others? Is “evangelizing” in this way always wrong?
- How do Paul’s diverse, complicated relationships with his communities awaken my own longings and fears in the relationships in my life?
By the way, maybe you already know this, but I want to emphasize that it’s okay to disagree with Paul. You don’t have to take him as an authority; he was human like you and me, and he no doubt made mistakes.
As I re-read this list, I find that there remains a rich conversation to be had around these ancient letters. Over the next couple weeks I’ll share more inspiration from Harvey Cox to get us all in the right frame of mind. So be sure to pick up your copy of Paul’s letters in the meantime and grab a couple friends to join you for extra motivation. July 1st is just around the corner!
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.