The Joy and Justice of the Gospel, #3
As a teenager, I was on a Bible Quiz team at my church, which included a very competitive and intensive study of a single book of the Bible each year and competitions at the district, regional, and national levels against other churches. The year I was most involved was the year we studied the book of Acts. The premise of Bible Quiz was that we did not ‘interpret’ the text; we only studied ‘the facts’ and answered questions based on a literal reading of the King James Version of the book. That year we ended up losing in a regional contest on this last question on the book of Acts: In what two cities did Paul stay for “a very long time?” The other team beat us to the buzzer. They didn’t know the answer, but they only lost 15 points for a wrong answer and we needed the 30 points that would have been rewarded for the right answer. It was a strategic mistake - heartbreaking for us, delightful for them.
While we ostensibly were not ‘interpreting’ the book of Acts, the truth is that there is a slant of interpretation about Acts that we took for granted – less like a conclusion and more like a lens through which we read the book. It is a common way of reading Acts as
a book of conversion stories
. A “conversion” – as we understood it – was when someone had no faith, or was following the wrong faith, and then heard the gospel and found the true way. The story of Saul of Tarsus, in Acts 9, was always the archetype of conversion stories. Saul was a bad guy, evil, fighting against Christianity, and then, Boom! he gets “blinded by the light” on the road to Damascus and becomes a Christian missionary and theologian. He once was lost, but now he’s found, was blind but now he sees. Saul of Tarsus’ conversion to Paul the Apostle was how conversions work. Once you see that pattern, it’s everywhere in the book of Acts, from magicians to Ethiopian eunuchs to women washing clothes by the river to Roman centurions – all walking in the wrong direction then turning 180 degrees to the true faith. It is a way of reading the book of Acts that, once you wear the lens of seeing conversion stories that way, seems to be exactly what the book is about.
Then I tried on a different prescription and everything changed. It started after my teenage years, when I began to notice a pattern in some of these “conversion stories,” but I didn’t know what to do with it. Krister Stendahl helped. In this book
Paul Among Christians and Jews
, Stendahl argued that when Paul talked about his experience – repeatedly in Acts as well as in some of his letters – Paul speaks of it more as a “call” than a “conversion.” You can read and assess Stendahl’s argument for yourself, but for my sake it was a crack in the lens that I had been given for reading the book of Acts and it allowed me to explore my suspicions that the way I was taught to read these stories was not as “objective” as I had been told. It was not a deliberate mislead or a conspiracy of any sort – the people who taught me to read it that way had themselves been taught to read it that way by people who had been taught to read it that way, and so forth. They, and I, simply were trying to be faithful readers of Scripture, so it was not a matter of anyone acting out of perfidy. It was just a deeply ingrained way of reading that we needed to become conscious of.
So, for the next few weeks I want to explore both the theological and biblical dimensions of reading the “conversion stories” of the book of Acts differently. My overall purpose is not to show just how wrong my mentors, teachers, preachers and teenage self from the past were, but to become more self-aware of how we read texts, in order to open ourselves up to meanings in the text, which we might not have seen along the way. I’ll try not to bore you to tears.
Oh, by the way, the answer was “Antioch and Iconium.”
Mark of St. Mark