Book reviews: 'Paul Among the People' by Sarah Ruden, 'The Hidden Power of the Gospels' by Alexander J. Shaia

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By Jane Lampman
Sunday, April 4, 2010

PAUL AMONG THE PEOPLE

The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

By Sarah Ruden

Pantheon. 214 pp. $25

THE HIDDEN POWER OF THE GOSPELS

Four Questions, Four Paths, One Journey

By Alexander J. Shaia with Michelle Gaugy

HarperOne. 367 pp. $26.99

Just where do the Scriptures fit into contemporary lives? The Bible remains a global bestseller, resonating with people in many cultures. Yet it is also widely viewed as a difficult book to engage with on one's own. In the United States, where the great majority call themselves religious, studies show an astonishing lack of knowledge about the Good Book. Sixty percent of Americans can't name five of the Ten Commandments, and fewer than half can name the four Gospels or even the first book of the Bible. While most Christians view it as either the inspired or inerrant word of God, many are reading it less. Even some seminaries are falling short in biblical preparation for those entering the ministry.

The difficulties seem to involve more than busy lives. Some people have been shaken by research that raises doubts about the historicity of biblical narratives. Others find it difficult to relate the Bible's agricultural idiom to their urban experience. And some are anguished over traditional teachings on the role of women in the church and homosexuality.

Are people getting the help they need to engage with the sacred texts as spiritual and moral guides for today's complicated lives? Two new books address this predicament from different angles, while aiming to breathe new life into the encounter with the Bible. In each case, the author unlocks meaning and relevance by offering a deeper understanding of the context in which the narratives were written.

In "Paul Among the People," Sara Ruden brings a unique perspective to the teachings of the apostle most responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the Greco-Roman world. As an accomplished translator of classical literature, Ruden offers a wholly fresh reinterpretation of Paul's most controversial writings -- on slavery, the role of women in the church, homosexuality, love -- by examining them alongside the writings of the polytheistic culture of his day.


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