I was privileged to be given a review copy of Steve Chalke’s latest book, from his latest publisher, SPCK. I’ve been a fascinated reader of Steve’s ever since I was a student – when the ripples of The Lost Message of Jesus were being felt – and find myself oscillating between gratitude for his occasionally prophetic challenge and infuriating mode of communication. I’ve previously reviewed one of his books, Being Human, for the now sadly defunct Third Way magazine, and wrote my first (and only) open letter about that book. At the start of that review, I wrote:
“Chalke needs little introduction. A prophetic voice in and around the church for many years, his various challenges to evangelicalism have made him a newsworthy figure. His latest book is no exception. Exploring no less a topic than what it is to be human is an admirable and important task. Recent Evangelical Ministry Assembly conferences, Roman Catholic encyclicals and the vibrancy of of academic discussion of theological anthropology demand a popularisation, an engagement, a mass-market version. This, unfortunately, is not exactly what Chalke provides“
That was 2015, now we find ourselves in the unfolding story of 2019, and I would now tweak those words, noting Steve’s various departures from evangelicalism, among other shifts. The Lost Message of Paul, though, is a brand new book, with some serious reading behind it (Steve is clearly fascinated by Paul!) and attempts the very valuable task of providing a popularisation of the complex academic discussion about Paul, and the New Perspective(s) that are something of a bogeyman in some churches, and of which many readers may be entirely unaware. The back of the book invites the reader in;
“We have misunderstood Paul, badly.
We have read his words through our own set of assumptions. We need to begin with Paul’s world view, to see things the way he saw them“.
Hold these words firmly – because we need to try and understand whether Chalke does this, or, as I suggest, he doesn’t. It is of course eminently possible that I have misunderstood Steve Chalke, badly, and read his words through my own set of assumptions. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether they read The Lost Message of Paul, and I would welcome a more in-depth conversation about it than this blog book review can provide.
Buckle up, this is going to be a long review.
The problems begin at the very first sentence of the first chapter, as Steve writes “I want to start a conversation about Paul the Apostle“, Whilst I’m glad to see this, I’m genuinely puzzled as to why he doesn’t write ‘join’, ‘continue’ or ‘share what I think about’ rather than the word ‘start’. The issues that Steve attempts to engage with in The Lost Message of Paul have been live in academic theology for decades (if not longer!) and helpfully popularised in a number of books. Two that come to mind from Pauline scholars would be Conrad Gempf’s How To Like Paul Again, or E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien’s Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a racist, chauvinist jerk? I could also point towards two books I think are less helpful, but both exist: Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People and Karen Armstrong’s St. Paul: The Misunderstood Apostle, as two books that shed a different angle on Paul, distilling some scholarship for a popular readership. Tom Wright’s recent blockbuster Paul: A Biography would also be worth mentioning, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. This problem of either unawareness of what’s out there, or a deliberate emphasis on Steve’s own work, runs throughout the whole book.
Whilst I’m trying to write this review charitably, it is very hard not to see an arrogance in some of what Steve writes here. In one particularly entertaining example, after suggesting problems raised by Augstine/Luther/Calvin/medieval Catholicism/protestantism, we read “Thirty plus years ago I founded a charity called Oasis…“. The comparison is clear, but what comes next is disarming in its honesty:
“From this I’ve learned that sometimes it is best to pull the whole thing down and start again. But I’ve also learned another lesson: it is far quicker to deconstruct than to build. The bulldozing bit is easy – it’s the reconstruction that takes the time, planning, skill and care. What’s more, you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater… So, although you don’t want to repeat the same old mistakes, you do want to benefit from hard lessons won as well as from good new methods and research.“
I think the simplest way I can put it is that Steve, in this book, is attempting to pull the whole thing down and start again, but that what he succeeds in pulling down is a straw man of his own creation, rather than something real. Sadly, in doing so, the book makes some genuinely strange leaps of logic, and manages to miss a lot of the baby, to mix my metaphors. A key element of this book is an attempt (and, as I say, this is a worthwhile task!) to explain and popularise the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ that has been rumbling away in academic theology, and occasionally pokes its findings into the church. Tom Wright (who, despite writing warm words for Steve’s The Lost Message of Jesus in 2004 is strangely absent from the cover of this book, though Steve does try to quote him regularly) gave a lecture in 2016 that offers a much shorter and clearer overview of some of these issue. Read that here.
Another key problem with The Lost Message of Paul is the way that Steve seems, in my reading at least, to quite merrily ignore his own advice. Despite repeatedly reminding us of the importance of understanding Paul in his own context, and letting Paul speak in his own words, I found myself regularly being frustrated by the way that Steve flattened Paul’s words or story in favour of something that just happens to agree with Steve’s perspective on things. For example, Paul is described as “an energy-packed, creative, innovative, strategic negotiator, global thinker and thought leader“. My personal opinion is that Paul the Apostle probably wasn’t quite like that, as the aforementioned Richard and O’Brien note so helpfully he was probably quite a difficult person to get on with. I can’t help but feel that in this and other descriptions the reader is meant to see Paul and Steve as not being so different after all. Consider Paul’s own words in the letter to the Romans: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” – this undeniably gifted man of God describes himself as a servant, for the sake of God, and goes on to exult Jesus more than himself. It is one thing to say we have misunderstood Paul, but quite another to say something about Paul that doesn’t mesh with his own self-understanding!
Steve’s usage of sources and engagement with scholarship is quite interesting. There are some relatively large holes – particularly in engagement with Wright’s recent work, let alone the rather important work of John Barclay, for example! One place he is quite helpful, however, is in challenging us to read our Bibles more carefully. Steve rightly notes that Paul’s letters are ‘occasional’, and it is important to take the type of text seriously when engaging with the Bible. But we need to be careful not to prioritise the fact of occasionality (probably not a word!) over the even more important fact of the unity of Scripture, particularly within the Pauline corpus. Steve writes “Paul says different things to different churches in different situations at different times. So, to decontextualize a specific point that he makes to a particular church and then to try to turn it into a universal principle – applicable at all times, in all places, to all people – is to make a dangerous error, no matter how many preachers endorse it.” This seems sensible, but cannot be entirely true. One of the shocking things about Paul is his substantial and doggedly dogmatic insistence on a number of things – not least that Jesus is the only way to God, that Christians are distinctive in the way they should live, and so on. Whilst there are occasions in the writing of Paul where we have to do some hard work to understand what it means for us today, that doesn’t mean we can use the occasional nature of Paul’s writing to ignore things we don’t like. For a classic example, Paul’s view on sex is remarkably consistent with both the Old Testament and Jesus, and remarkably challenging to the culture of Paul’s day and our present culture. Tom Wright is, again, very helpful on this.
On some other big questions and hot potatoes The Lost Message of Paul is rather muddled. On universalism and the reality of hell, it seemed to me that Steve manages to ignore Jesus, let alone Paul, which is quite an achievement. Again, Wright is rather misrepresented, and it appears that Steve simply isn’t aware of some of Wright’s own writing in this area! on universalism, it seems to me that Steve is misrepresenting both Paul and the wider biblical tradition when he writes “He has come to believe that what God has already done for the Jewish people he has now, through Christ, done for the whole world. Jesus the Jewish ‘Messiah’ has become ‘Lord’ of whole world. The badge is no longer circumcision, but it is not faith either, it is simply this – being human.” As ever, the line between truth and falsehood is very thin – to say that Jesus is Lord of All is very different from saying that ‘being human’ means we are ‘counted in’. Frustratingly, Steve ignores his own point about the occasional nature of the letters of Paul to make a universal claim. Ironically, in a book that rails repeatedly against misunderstandings of Paul and simplistic depictions of works-vs-faith, etc, even Steve’s description of the Kingdom of God seems to me to fall foul of that error: “But, if we are going to use long terms, I much prefer the phrase ‘collaborative eschatology’ coined by Dominic Crossan. ‘It is not that we are waiting for God, it is that God is waiting for us,’ he writes. Rather than waiting for God to do it, our task is to collaborate with God.” Writing as someone who is part of a church movement defined by the Kingdom of God, and committed to the beautiful truth of the ‘now and not yet-ness’ of the Kingdom, this is frustrating to read. It seems to butcher Jesus’ words about joining in with what the Father is doing, as well as the glorious gospel of grace which frees us from a drive to ‘do’, and instead persuades us to join in with what God is doing. Waiting is the wrong word, I think. God invites us into the Kingdom, not because he is waiting for us like a weaker partner, but because there is a party coming, we are all invited, and God loves to have us along for the ride.
I could go on, but I’ve just passed 1800 words. As you can probably tell, I can’t recommend this book. Steve seems to be surprisingly unaware of a number of books and positions on Paul, as well as unwilling to take his own advice in reading and interpreting Paul. Of this almost 300 page book, some of it is helpful (some reminders on hermeneutics, and an acknowledgement that Paul and Scripture have been abused in the past and present), but it is like trying to pick only Minstrels out of a pack of Revels (an english chocolate that is, quite literally, a mixed bag). In fact, I’d go further: I think Steve should ask SPCK, his current publisher, for the rest of Tom Wright’s back catalogue, as well as dig into Paula Gooder, John Barclay, etc. It should be revealing that for a book purporting to open up a conversation about Paul, it simultaneously isn’t endorsed by any Pauline/New Testament scholars, and in my limited knowledge doesn’t engage with some of the key voices in the relevant discussion. For interested readers, New Testament scholar Michael Bird has a really helpful list of some of the best recent books on Paul! If you’d like to read something about Paul, then I’d recommend the following (links to my reviews, where appropriate):
- Conrad Gempf, How To Like Paul Again
- E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Paul Behaving Badly
- Alistair Begg: Pray Big
- Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered
- Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, Paul: A Biography, For All the Saints
Technical (as well as the ones Bird recommend!)
- Susan Eastman, Paul and the Person
- Rodney Reeves, Spirituality According to Paul
- various, 5 Views on Justification
- Graham Tomlin, Luther’s Gospel
- Stephen Burnhope, Atonement and the New Perspective