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Book review: Being Real: The apostle Paul’s hardship narratives and the stories we tell today by Philip Plyming

19 January 2024

St Paul sheds light on seeing things honestly, says John Saxbee

GO AND TELL, but not till you’ve been and listened — and seen for yourself the realities as they are in places where the gospel is to be shown and shared. That is the principle governing St Paul’s relationship to Corinth, as highlighted in this very accessible and engaging study by Philip Plyming, lately Warden of Cranmer Hall, and now Dean of Durham.

Paul’s known contacts with Corinth lasted more than a decade, and there is more Pauline correspondence to that city than to any other place. The noted New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown has observed: “The disturbed state of the Christians at Corinth explains the reason for so much attention, and makes the correspondence extremely instructive for troubled Christians and churches of our times.”

It is this that has drawn Plyming to explore further Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian church, and the lessons that we can learn from it for ministry and mission today.

Of course, relating the social and cultural context of a first-century text to the lived experience of 21st-century society is a challenge facing every preacher and interpreter of such texts. Too often, the text is manipulated to fit a contemporary context, or vice versa. But an alternative approach is to describe the original context and show how similar it is to the situation prevailing today, so reinforcing the relevance of the text to current conditions, and apply it accordingly. This is the approach that Plyming pursues to very good effect.

So, he begins with “a verbal open-top bus tour” of the city of Corinth as it was in Paul’s day. It was a city of trade, wealth, and success, full of upwardly mobile people committed to status, power, and self-promotion: “in many ways a culture with many similarities to our own”.

The nascent Corinthian church had the option to espouse a counter-cultural stance towards that prevailing culture, but, Plyming argues, it stayed native and “behaved according to the values of secular Corinth”. It was living in “a worldly way” (1 Corinthians 3.3) when it came, for example, to problems in the community, their treatment of Paul, and the warm welcome given to the so-called “super-apostles”. Comparisons with the way in which many churches today operate in accordance with the values of their social context are not hard to find.

Paul confronts them with numerous accounts of the trials and tribulations that he has endured. Why? Not to evoke sympathy, but to press home the point that at the heart of the Christian gospel is the cross of Christ, who endured great suffering to fulfil God’s positive purposes. Paul has had his own crosses to bear, and they do not cohere with the prevailing Corinthian culture of status-seeking, self-promotion, and worldly success.

The Cross bears testimony to God at work in surprising ways, and Paul testifies to that truth through his own narratives of hardship. Given the current culture evident in Corinth, and the embrace of it by Christians there, Paul concludes that a clear focus on Jesus and him crucified is what is needed to make an impact in that city.

Plyming is now ready to apply Paul’s Corinthian strategy to today’s contemporary context, with special reference to the impact of social media on the way in which we present ourselves, not least in many church environments. For example, wanting to be “liked” online places an unhealthy emphasis on positivity when our real experiences are not always positive — and Christian testimonies often bear this hallmark. Here, Christians are “swimming with the tide of social media culture”.

Finally, Plyming sets out a way forward that embraces Paul’s telling of our story “through the lens of the Cross”. The themes of weakness, self-sufficiency, reputation, encouragement, and joy are explored through this lens. Discovering God at work even or, perhaps, especially in experiences that run counter to the values of our current social-media-saturated culture is to spread, as Paul did, the story of the Cross, and so spread the good news of God in Christ crucified and risen — for real.

This is not easy to do. Plyming ends with a helpful guide to what it entails, with relatable examples from his own and others’ experiences by way of inspiration and encouragement.

This does not pretend to be a comprehensive guide or academically rigorous contribution to Pauline studies. But its honest humanity, wisdom, and lightly worn learning deserve to be widely read — especially during Lent, Passiontide, and Easter.

The Rt Revd John Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Being Real: The apostle Paul’s hardship narratives and the stories we tell today
Philip Plyming
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.59

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