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Lydia: A story by Paula Gooder

21 October 2022

Rachel Mann marvels at an exposition of Paul using the life of Lydia

THE Bible is alive with hope and promise. It invites its readers into the most extraordinary encounters with God. As faith has receded from our society, however, there has never been a greater need for wise, lively, and theologically astute communicators to provide tools for new audiences to appreciate the Bible’s wonders.

Paula Gooder is easily one of our leading biblical scholars. But, as she proves once again in Lydia, her follow-up to her first foray into fiction, Phoebe (Books, 25 May 2018), Gooder has a rare gift for translating scholarship into page-turning storytelling. If, as Gooder is at pains to remind us, Lydia is less a novel and more a vehicle for theology, none the less it displays storytelling skills that many fiction writers would envy.

It is a story of the first recorded convert to Christianity in Europe. Nevertheless, the biblical material that underpins Lydia’s story is thin. Lydia is mentioned once, in Acts 16, where we are told she is a seller of purple in Philippi. She meets Paul and becomes a follower of the Way. To create a lively narrative from such limited information is a tall order. Gooder’s faith-full imaginings and scholarly grip on the world of the New Testament make it seem effortless.

Gooder’s story is set ten years after Lydia’s conversion. This is a Lydia who has experienced trauma and whose faith has worn a little thin. Lydia and her household have returned to Philippi, the Roman colony from which they fled ten years before. The story’s lodestone, however, is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, and its justly famous hymn to Christ. Each of the story’s characters (drawn from a mix of Gooder’s imagination and those mentioned in Acts and Philippians) find their lives slowly (re-)orientating around the Jesus revealed in the Christ hymn.

Gooder is clear-sighted about the costs of becoming Christian in a Roman culture obsessed with honour. She also explores the impact of endemic slavery. But her tale is gentle and edifying and will be popular with church book and study groups. Gooder’s extensive post-story notes amplify her narrative helpfully.

If Lydia were a novel, one might question some of the narrative decisions. Gooder is discreetly didactic in places. Lydia, however, is a deeply humane dive into a theological idea worthy of a lifetime’s meditation: God’s self-emptying into a human being, Jesus. This book positively crackles with hope, faith, and love.


Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.


Lydia: A story
Paula Gooder
Hodder & Stoughton £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.99


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