Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Saul

There is a relatively contemporary piece of choral literature called "Saul," by Norwegian composer Egil Hovland. The text, delivered both by narration and by singing, is taken from the eighth and ninth chapters of the Book of Acts. The story is of pre-conversion Saul, who, after witnessing the murder of Stephen, began "breathing threats and murder against the diciples of the Lord." It follows Saul's story through his persecution of the church up until his fateful meeting with Jesus on the Damascus Road. The piece ends with Jesus's question: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"

Our choir director asked me to help the choir understand the context of this piece. When he asked, I eagerly grabbed the folio, anticipating the chance to draw something of great inspiration.

Some of you will remember a radio spot that Paul Harvey presented for years called “The Rest of the Story.” Typically, he would tell an interesting tale about someone, and then, in a grand climax, would reveal the name of the famous person he was describing, finishing by saying, “and now you know the rest of the story.”

This piece, "Saul," is backwards. We already know the rest of the story. We know Paul, writer of thirteen epistles now canonized in our New Testament, leader of three famous missionary journeys, preacher on the Acropolis, the main developer of Christian theology and its principal proselytizer, and ranked by at least some pop authors and pseudo-historians as more influential than even Jesus Christ. But this piece is not concerned with that.

We already know the rest of the story. The Damascus Road story. Whether your pop music tastes run toward “I Saw the Light” or “Blinded by the Light,” you know it. On the way to Damascus, the young Pharisee Saul is confronted with a light, out of which Jesus Himself speaks and changes his name to Paul. Facing accusations and testifying in his own behalf, Paul tells the story himself, concluding, “I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God.” But this piece is not concerned with that.

Yes, I was hoping to find great inspiration. But this piece is not, at first glance, concerned with that either; however, it is profound.

The climactic finish of the song presents the echoing question, the actual words of Christ to Saul on the Damascus Road – “Why are you persecuting me?”

It is a haunting reminder of the question that God asks us all. Before we come to throne of grace, we come to the bench of conviction. Over and over again, we see versions of the same question asked: Adam, where are you? Eve, who told you that you were naked? Cain, where is your brother? Sarah, why did you laugh? Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Elijah, why are you hiding here? Moses, what do you have in your hand? Isaiah, whom shall I send, and who will go for me? Son of man, can these bones live? Peter, why did you doubt? Pharisees, why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? Church at Thyatira, why do you tolerate the woman Jezebel? Disciples, why are you talking about having no bread – do you still not understand? Blind man, what do you want me to do for you?

Saul, why are you persecuting me? Why?

That is the obvious textual analysis of the piece, but this piece is something else. Taking its text directly from scripture, this work is the story of villainy.

We don’t think of Paul as a villain, but we must think of Saul that way. Saul was not merely a half-innocent bystander at the stoning of Deacon Stephen, although that is how scripture introduces him to us. No, Saul was the leader of the attempted destruction of Christianity itself. Ever the good Pharisee, Saul masterminded the task forces of storm troopers whose aim was nothing short of rooting out the nascent church. Going from house to house, Saul dragged women as well men to prison solely for being a follower of the Way. The Bible describes him as “murderous.” Contemporary church historians have called him a terrorist.

And now you know the rest of the story.

As I say, that is not particularly inspirational, so long as you don’t let it get personal. But when it gets personal, there is something to speak to all of us, for there is nothing that any of us knows so well as our own villainy.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a great play, but the young heroine is wrong when she says she still believes that people are good at heart. Because (at the risk of being too personal)… we are not good. We have gone astray like untamed, stupid sheep. We are, all of us, villains. To spend four or five minutes, as this piece does, focusing on pre-conversion Saul is inspirational if you know your New Testament. If someone like Saul can turn into someone like Paul, what can God have in store for us? If this villain can become the apostle to the Gentiles, the planter of myriad churches, and the one who penned “Rejoice in the Lord always. … And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” – yes, even the writer of those words - then there is hope for villains everywhere, for Iago and Sauron, for Shere Khan and Long John Silver, for Moriarty and Grendel’s mother, for Mr. Hyde and the talented Mr. Ripley and the Joker, for Voldemort and Cruella de Vil, for Amin and Pol Pot, for whichever current political candidate you have written off as untenable, for your boss who does not understand and your neighbor who won’t return your hydraulic log splitter, for the play director who refused to cast you child, for the abusive husband and the unloving wife, for you, and for you, and for you, and for me.

And that, thank God, is the rest of the story.

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