AT THE conclusion of his Letter to the Romans, St Paul commends to Christians in that city Phoebe, a deacon in her church at Cencherae. Dr Paula Gooder believes that it was Phoebe who brought this letter to Rome, and, engaging in what she terms “historical imagination”, recounts the shameful story of Phoebe’s earlier life in Rome, escape to Corinth, and how her past catches up with her on her return to Rome, with unforeseen consequences. It is a tale of love and betrayal, abuse and sacrifice, and ultimately of redemption played out among the early Christian community of Rome, using characters and experiences hinted at in Romans 16.
The story is followed in Part 2 by an introduction that would be better read first, and is followed by specific notes on each chapter. These illustrate the author’s wide reading and research, and provide the means to follow up issues raised in the narrative.
I suspect that readers will either love or loathe this book in equal measure depending on their reaction to Gooder’s “historical imagination”. And there seems to be a disparity between her perception of the book and her publisher’s. She asserts that her work is not a novel, and does not fit “fully into the genre of fiction”, whereas the back cover describes it as “her first work of fiction”. In fact, her story of Phoebe outdoes anything that a Mills & Boon author might conceive, and that includes its sentimental conclusion.
But within the story, as can be expected from a much respected and admired theologian, the essentials of Christian faith articulated by Paul are powerfully proclaimed. Central is that jewel of Christian doctrine — forgiveness. Here the story of Phoebe comes into its own in a speech by Peter on a visit to Rome: “Forgiveness is not about forgetting — it’s about refusing to be chained in the past. . . It requires you to love yourself as well as others.”
Other elements of living the gospel and its consequences are similarly perceptively spelt out, as is both the joy of being “in Christ” and the cost of discipleship. Despite any reservations that one might have on “historical imagination”, Gooder’s application of Christian theology to her story of Phoebe is masterful.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
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