Here's an ambitious project: how about an updating of the letters of Paul for the church in the United States today? That's exactly the task Christopher L. Webber, Episcopal pastor and writer, takes on in Dear Friends: The Letters of St. Paul to Christians in America. With a great sense of Paul's style and theology, Webber gives a modern take on Paul.
The result is not quite what I expected, but was enjoyable nonetheless. Webber's book is more than a new translation or paraphrase of Paul's writing, but not a whole lot more. He retains the essential structure of the epistles, with much of the same phrases and wording that Paul uses, yet with Webber's own voice, so the text was constantly familiar yet fresh.
Some of the best bits were the modern cultural references, but even then, as you might expect, the concerns are timeless. For instance, Paul writes, "You cannot drin gthe cup of the Lord and the cup of demons, too." (1 Cor. 10:21, NIV) Webber's parallel is convicting, if not exactly equivalent: "You cannot pay more for sports events than you give to your church or spend more at restaurants than you give to the poor." Ouch. Tough reminders of our tendency toward idolatry.
Another example from 1 Corinthians: In chapter 14, Paul reminds his readers not to focus on their own edification when exercising the gifts of tongues and prophecy. Expanding on that idea, Webber writes: "You measure a congregation by attendance and provide convenient parking, comfortable seating, and the music of the secular world yet your divorce rate is growing, poverty is increasing, and anger and divisiveness are more evident every year. I see little difference between the lives Christians live and the lives of those around you."
I cringed a couple of times, as Webber allowed his liberal (read: more liberal than I am) tendencies to come through. In his version of 1 Corinthians 7, on marriage, Webber has Paul clearly endorsing same-sex marriage. "As to faithful marriage between two men or between two women, I find no guidance in scripture. . . . Why should the church not ask God's blessing on that relationship?" I find it hard to believe that Paul would agree.
He later rejects a legal ban on abortion, in Galatians 2, which deals with Jews who want Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs. "Are you not also returning to the bondage of the law when you deny all access to medical help for those who cannot face the difficulties of childbirth? . . . I wish all abortion clinics could be closed this very day, but I cannot force my opinion on others whose circumstances and motives are unknown to me. . . . I will not turn to the law to compel them against their will." Molech is alive and well, and accepting sacrifices daily.
Sorry if it seems I'm unfairly focussing on some quibbles. All told, Webber stays very true to Pauline theology. Reading Dear Friends is much like reading the Bible. I think most of us take Paul in little doses. I can't think of when I've ever read Paul's letters straight through in a couple of sittings. That's really the best feature of Dear Friends. It points the reader back to scripture, encouraging all of us to pick up the Bible and reflect on God's message for today in these ancient pages. Webber is to be commended for that, if nothing else.
Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!