Hazel McHaffie

scholarship

What’s in a name?

Hmmm. I’ve just read a book that purports to be ‘A Story.’ Not a factual text, not a novel, something in between.

So a few definitions might not come amiss.
Story – an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Fact – a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Novel – a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

It gave me pause for thought. Because the book – Phoebe by Paula Gooder – is founded in fact, but about a character who is mentioned only once in the New Testament of the Bible (Romans 16 vv1-2):
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Lots of room for creativity then. Not a lot of restrictions. Well, except that Biblical texts and events and meanings have been debated for ever! And most practising Christians will have their own take on things. So what is Gooder trying to do?

In a nutshell, bring the back-story of the early church to the forefront. Give it breath and life. As she says on her website: her passion is ‘to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today, by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way.’ For me, though I enjoyed the fleshing out of the character, I wasn’t as excited by the style of writing which attempts to teach … tell … inform … rather too much for my taste. The knowledge glowers through the mesh of the narrative, as someone once wrote of my own early writing! I learned from that criticism, which is partly why I suspect  ‘show don’t tell’ is wired into my DNA!

So why a whole book on an obscure character? Well, Phoebe is thought by scholars to have been given the responsibility for carrying the Epistle to the Romans from its author, the apostle Paul, to Rome in around 56AD (although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say she did). A significant event then, given that that particular letter is arguably the apostle’s theological masterpiece and contains a great deal of instruction and clarification for this new movement – the Christians. The book Phoebe is woven around that premise. And, of course, it’s fleshed out by yards of information that is conveyed in the Bible. The woman Phoebe provides a useful vehicle through which to explore so many questions and suppositions and theories about life in those patriarchal times, the experiences of the early Christians, and the doctrines and principles which underpin Christianity both then and now.

So, a flimsy foundation, you might be thinking; but no. Gooder is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars and her knowledge is prodigious, her research meticulous. Which puts a kind of stamp or authority on the writing, but in this case also bogs it down. You feel her desire to impart information. She reserves the real ‘scholarshippy’ facts to 85 pages of notes at the end (the story part is only 216 pages), which I found utterly fascinating and impressive. But throughout the text she feels compelled to spell out what she’s talking about. For me, as a novelist, I found it held up reading. I am hugely in awe and admiring of her as a scholar, but as she knows herself, she isn’t a novel writer – and she generously accepts her limitations in an endnote: ‘I am not a novelist – and to all expert weavers of stories, I offer you my admiration for your skill and my apology for the very many ways in which this story falls short of what it could be.’ You know, it made me wonder why she didn’t consult with a novelist and iron out a few of the more obvious anomalies. A little tweaking could have made a big difference.

She describes the book as ‘an experiment in historical imagination’. Phoebe is given a full back-story which gradually emerges and gives the tale momentum. Slavery, rights, ownership, the role of women, clashes of culture and opinion, all feature. Then there’s the most famous character: the apostle Paul himself, about whom much more is said in the Bible. His appearance and traits are depicted in ways that will startle many a believer. More peripheral players in the early church who are briefly mentioned in the New Testament books – Stachys, Titus, Junia, Andronychus, Patrobas, Gaius, Gallio, Aristobulus – are fleshed out by Gooder’s knowledge of life in those times. Their inclusion helps to give the ring of authenticity on one level, but at the same time raises questions as to the veracity of the whole at another level. Confusing.

As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: ‘Vivid and sympathetic … very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively.‘ It is creative, it just doesn’t quite marry fact and fiction sufficiently seamlessly for my personal taste. But it has reinforced a lot of my resolutions for my own writing – and that’s always part of what reading widely is about.

 

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