Stories matter. Every day, we hear stories and we tell stories about the world, and these stories in turn shape how we experience the world. These stories include anything from the stories of our religious traditions and our national myths to fairy tales, to our stories about how we were wronged in the check-out line and our internal narratives about what we should have said to win an argument with a friend. Whether we’re aware of them or not, stories are everywhere and stories matter.
One consequence of this is that our words are not neutral, but come loaded with all kinds of baggage from the stories they belong to.
I was reminded this during a recent re-read of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in particular how heavy-laden the words and images Paul uses in his letters were. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III helpfully refers to the Roman Empire as “a storied world” — with symbols everywhere, “on coins, on the banners of the Roman legions, and in the art and architecture of Rome and every other Greco-Roman city.”* The novelist Anthony Doer, reflecting on Pliny’s Natural History (which was published about twenty years after Paul’s epistles), noted that the Roman understanding of the world was “crawling with myth and misinformation, but [was] also elegant and ordered and deeply beautiful” (Four Seasons in Rome). That sounds just about right.
In light of this, it’s worth taking a few minutes today to tease out some of these myths, big and small, and how they interact with Paul’s letter, and the Gospel itself.
In the very first verse of Romans, Paul sets himself up against some of the Empire’s defining images: “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s Gospel” (1.1). We know from Acts 16 that Paul was a Roman citizen (putting him in a privileged ten percent of the Empire). To be a Roman citizen was to have made it, and it conferred special rights and protections that were not available to most. And yet, Paul sets aside his citizenship here and refers to himself as the slave of a rebel executed for treason.
While citizenship and slavery were part of Rome’s sociopolitical narrative, the words ‘apostle’ and ‘Gospel’ belonged to the Empire’s military language. An ‘apostle’ was an ambassador or, more commonly in the age of Empire, a military envoy — someone who made the Emperor’s will known to the world. A ‘gospel’ was a formal message of victory from the battlefield, often accompanied by parades and all of the displays of imperial might. We might know it today as a ‘triumph’. Paul overturns these loaded imperial ideas in how he describes himself and his mission: This slave of a failed rebel is called to be the envoy of a foreign kingdom, announcing not Caesar’s triumph, but God’s.
This is no small thing, because Rome in the first century believed it was in a new Golden Age, an enlightened era in which Rome’s military power, engineering skills, and advanced legal system would bring justice, fidelity, peace, and security to the known world. But Paul isn’t having it. He challenges the narratives behind these common storied words and ideas, making justice and fidelity focal points of his Letter to the Romans (as we’ll explore more fully in a later post), and mocking Roman ideas of ‘peace and safety’ in his First Letter to the Thessalonians: “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly” (1 Thes 5.3).
And so we see that Paul responds to the imperial narratives of universal peace and justice accomplished through Roman power with an alternative set of symbols, drawn from Jewish apocalypticism and his encounter with the risen Jesus. As Neil Elliott concludes, “For Paul, the rhapsodies about a ‘golden age’ are a fraud. There is only ‘this present evil age’ (Gal 1.4), a ‘crooked and perverse generation’ (Phil 2.15), the age of the earth’s ‘bondage to decay’ (Rom 8.21), [etc.].” Paul, in both subtle and overt ways, calls on the Christians of the Roman Empire to reject Rome’s storied world for the illusory propaganda that it is: “Resist conformity to this world and be transformed by the renewal of your minds, that you may demonstrate what is the will of God” (Rom 12.2). What Empire calls peace is not peace. What Empire calls justice is not justice. What Empire calls good faith is bad faith. What Empire calls security is only an illusion.
And, most dangerous of all in an age of emperor-worship, Paul insists that it is Jesus and not Augustus Caesar who is Lord. There is no room for imperial pretension: There is no God but God and no Lord but Jesus of Nazareth. But, because the ways of God’s Kingdom are not the ways of this world, in asserting that it is Jesus and not the Emperor who is the Lord, Paul is not calling for a political revolution. The people of the Roman Empire were caught up in systems that were so much bigger than themselves and that they had no power to stop. Rather, he is calling a revolution of the heart and mind, what one commentator referred to as “an intifada of the mind.” His message is reminiscent of the old En Vogue song: “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”
So what does this have to say to us today?
We too live in a storied world. The American state has its founding myths of the pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, of America as “the city set on a hill,” with the “manifest destiny” to expand across the whole continent. It has its Declaration of Independence with its promise that it is not only true but self-evident that all men are created equal and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are a shared human birthright. It has its legends of Lady Liberty welcoming immigrants with the message, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but also of the rugged self-made man living in a world where talent would always win the day.
We Canadians too have our founding myths: Canada as a place of safety and peace for refugees from war, famine, and poverty — starting with the Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, through the Underground Railroad that allowed escaped Black slaves a chance at freedom, to the present day. (It’s telling that the biggest upswelling of Canadian patriotism I’ve seen was during the welcoming of refugees from the Syrian Civil War in 2016. This is a powerful national story for us.) We also have our stories about our country being forged not in violence but out of compromise, of our triumphant big ideas like the Canadian Pacific Railroad, and of the nation-building sorrows of the Somme and Vimy Ridge. But probably our most important founding myths surround what is now being called the Doctrine of Discovery, the notion that Canada was and is a vast and empty land waiting to be filled and its resources exploited.
You may have noticed that, while some of these stories are bad, many of them aren’t. Many of them represent the best of what our countries are and hope to become. The problem isn’t that we live in a storied world, but that left to our own devices, left unchallenged, our stories only present a partial and very skewed picture of who we actually are. Or put another way, if we mistake who our stories tell us we want to be for who we have been and are now, we become complacent and will never actual reach the true fulfillment of those stories.
It was good for the Romans to believe in justice and peace; yet they needed to be confronted with the divine truths that their heavily stratified society could never be just, and that peace is not an absence of violence for the powerful but the presence of wholeness for everyone.
It is good for Americans be believe in liberty, but it’s critical to ask what true freedom is — in the pithy expression of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, to ask not just what we are free from but what we are free for. It is good to proclaim that “all men are created equal,” but they have also needed to be goaded in every generation to live into the fullness of that proclamation: that “all men” does not just refer to wealthy, land-owning white males.
It is good for Canadians to want to be a people that welcomes refugees of all kinds, but we have to ask what kind of life we are welcoming them to and confront the ways our existing systems impinge on their ability to contribute and succeed. It’s good for us to want to be a strong international voice on human rights, but we have to be confronted with our historical and ongoing violations of the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the land.
Like the Romans, we need to be confronted with the truth of God’s Story, which is Good News for us and for the whole world, to shake us from our complacency and illusions, to help us live into the best of our stories and replace the worst of them with better, truer stories.
The Gospel preached by Jesus and proclaimed by the Apostles challenged the myths of Roman society, and so too does it challenge our own cultural mythology. It’s uncomfortable, certainly, but that’s why it’s there. If we were capable of building God’s Kingdom on earth, we wouldn’t need the Gospel. The Gospel story always holds up a mirror to us and to our stories, asking us who we really are, and showing us who we can really become.
Here are some questions for further reflection:
- What are some of the founding stories of your own culture? In what ways do they point towards the ways of God? In what ways might they need to be challenged by them?
- What are some of your own personal founding stories?
- How would you summarize the story of the Gospel in a way that would confront the prevailing stories around you?
*For works cited in this post, see the series bibliography.