Paul: A Novel, by Walter Wangerin Jr.

The uneasy genre of biblical fiction often includes what Flannery O’Connor called the “shoddy religious novel,” filled with shallow characters and plot structures as clichéd and melodramatic as 1950s biblical films. The authors of these books are often squeamish about ambiguity and are primarily interested in dramatizing portions of scripture in a 20th-century idiom suitable for commercial television. Walter Wangerin Jr. defies the stereotype and redeems the genre.

Any writer of biblical fiction must become involved in the tricky activity of biblical interpretation. Wangerin’s approach allows the kind of imaginative play with the text that is necessary for any real artist retelling scriptural story. For example, Wangerin recounts Paul’s blinding on the road to Damascus from the point of view of the skeptic, Jude, thereby creating a tension between belief and unbelief which expands rather than restricts the story. Paul’s newly found freedom from the Torah finds specific expression in the marketplace as he savors a slice of roast pig, much to the amazement of Barnabas, who relates other ecstasies associated with the freedom of the gospel. Timothy’s knowledge of Greek and Roman myth allows Wangerin to develop ideas about the power of story—two of his longtime interests. Most impressive is the way Wangerin draws on current biblical scholarship and his own imaginative engagement with the text while always remaining grounded in the scriptural texts themselves.

The book is divided into 98 chapters, told from the viewpoint of various characters, including Prisca, Barnabas, James, Luke, Jude, Rhoda, Titus, Timothy and Paul himself. The voice of Seneca, the Roman philosopher, statesman and author, provides the historical context of Nero’s court. The power of this narrative technique lies in the cumulative effect of the juxtaposition, contrast and repetition of so many points of view.