Friday, March 7, 2014

Review of "I, Saul"

I, Saul

by Jerry B. Jenkins & James MacDonald
Worthy Publishing 2013

It bugs me when conspiracy theories about the Bible become the inspiration for super-seller novels. Take The DaVinci Code, for example, the 2003 Dan Brown thriller that reinvented Jesus and Mary Magdalene as forbidden lovers and sold in the tens of millions. 

Doesn't truth make better material? The best works of historical fiction are those that endeavor to get the history right. Nimble narrative, yes, but solid scholarship too. The Bible is packed with chronology and historical context. Build with these bricks, and there's room enough in between for the mortar of imagination. 

That's why the five seconds it took for I, Saul to download onto my Kindle felt like an hour. Here was a book with the goods: compelling plot twists, maddening mysteries, exotic locations and yet an unswerving fidelity to the letter and spirit of Scripture. The novel follows Apostle Paul's steps from star religious student to homicidal crusader to slave of Jesus Christ.  

This first in a two-part series is the work of someone highly skilled in the art of the best-selling novel. Jerry B Jenkins was the pen behind the Left Behind series in the 1990s. Although never a devotee of Left Behind myself (think I gave up after the first installment), I trust this proven track record of blending supposition with Scriptural integrity.  

I also liked the fact that Jenkins subjected his storytelling to a real authority on the life of the Apostle Paul. Jenkins vetted each page of I,Saul through megachurch pastor and reputable Bible teacher James MacDonald. MacDonald was consulted on countless areas where accuracy matters: from St. Stephen's stoning to the Street called Straight to Paul's dungeon.   

Ultimately in a novel, meticulous research must serve a story. Jenkins's tale centers on the discovery of Paul's long lost memoirs written in his own hand-- remember the parchments he specially requested in 2 Timothy? -- in modern day Rome. This priceless artifact becomes the prize in a battle between good and evil, the believers who want the message to reach mankind versus the crooked authorities who want the black-market value of Paul's memoirs to reach their pockets.

The race starts far away in Arlington, Texas, where a young seminary professor, Augie Knox, receives panicked text messages from a friend in Rome, whom he knows from leading tour groups to Biblical locations. Get to Italy quick, the messages urge, the situation is life and death. As Knox makes travel arrangements, we learn his background: estranged relationship with his father, retired professor from the same school, his engagement to a Greek heiress, and a gift for Biblical Greek.

Luckily, Knox has action hero wits to go with his scholarly credentials. When he gets to Rome, he rendezvous with his friend who explains that the first page of Paul's 2,000-year-old memoir along a mysterious sealed envelope was left for him by someone who was found shot to death. The culprits are not fully clear, but suspicions are on some corrupt cops in a special department of Rome's police force known as the Art Squad. Soon they are joined by Knox's fiancee, Sofia Trikoupis, whose father is an antiquities dealer and has friends in high places.  

Knox and company's repeated dodges of the the Art Squad are intercut with scenes from first-century Rome, where the Apostle Paul spends the days leading up to his execution in a deep dark dungeon. In martyrdom, Paul is portrayed through the eyes of his physician, Luke.

The sight is unpleasant: "I fought tears as the man (Paul) laid his bald head on my shoulder. How often I'd seen Paul's glee over the years, after a day of arduous travel, contentious meetings, threats, abuse. Paul had a fierce look too, a resolve that shone in his eyes."

Luke agonizes over the task of keeping Paul alive just long enough so that rather than dying out of sight in a cell, his death will be public before the crowd gathered for his execution -- a moment the apostle plans to witness one more time of the One who won his salvation. The doctor's sole comfort is the hour or two at the end of his workday when he can read by torchlight Paul's own account of his life. He simply can't put the pages down. 

These bedtime reading sessions essentially create a story within a story. The reader gets glimpses of phases of Paul's life that the New Testament only alludes to or leaves room for: his boyhood in the Roman city of Tarsus learning the tent making trade from his father, his family's move to Jerusalem to further his rabbinical training, a broken engagement, emerging as a star in both Pharisaic circles and among the temple authorities, his disgust at the claims and devotion of Jesus' followers, and his collision course with the very One whom he persecuted.

Readers may object to parts of this portrayal. For example, Paul formerly Saul has a make out session with his sweetheart, the daughter of his mentor Gamaliel.  He also delivers oration with a silver tongue, out-debating even the masters of the rabbinical school. This, critics can argue, contradicts New Testament descriptions of Paul as unimpressive in person or slow in speech.   

But I applaud the author for smashing the stained glass images of Paul.  Forget the phone booth transformation-- from to sinner to saint, from enemy to ally, from persecutor to church planter-- in one blink of the eye. Jenkins plumbs the thought life of the apostle to a depth that the inner war between his personality, a tangle of emotions and his growing understanding of the truth come into view. The process of Saul to Paul makes sense in light of Jenkins' interpretation: Paul's deepest conviction even as a curious child was closeness with the Creator.   

"I was struck that God knew the men in the Scriptures. Perhaps if I learned all there was to know, followed every rule, honored God in everything I did, He would notice me. Know me. How I longed to walk with God as my ancestors had!"

I wish all the characters in I, Saul were as well developed. Augie, the co-protagonist, is more of an Indiana Jones character, fun to watch but not a fedora you can look under. Not only does he save the damsel and the day, but also the damned. While he and Roger run for their lives, Augie pauses every so often to preach the gospel to him. These are well-intentioned additions to the narrative that feel a little out of place. 

What seems to be an attempt at character development, Augie's awkward relationship with his cold fish father and constantly cheery mother, never suspends disbelief. It's an element that has potential but falls short. 

But this might be nitpicky considering all that Jenkins accomplishes with this book. He builds suspense for explanations of why parchments are getting people killed, he weaves a tapestry from many threads of Scripture and he satisfies numerous niche audiences: Bible scholars will appreciate the theological tensions. Sunday school teachers will love the expansions of New Testament stories. Evangelists will love the conversions. Tourists will appreciate the descriptions of ancient and modern Italy.

It is a book that, like The DaVinci Code, makes thousands of years of history seem like a single drama fast approaching a thrilling conclusion. However, where Dan Brown's book leaves you feeling, "I better look out for all those sinister, religious people out there to get me," I, Saul leaves you with a conviction far nobler and more helpful, "Jesus, you really are worth my life." Yes, the sequel on my wish list.

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