Many of you reading this will know Richard Dormandy from previous Continuing the Journey conferences and one of my reasons for reading and reviewing this book is because I know him. The other, and more important, reason I wanted to read the book is because it promised to show a different side to Paul than is traditionally presented.
Most of us will have grown up with an image of Paul as the “ideal Christian”, giving us guidelines for living which can feel impossible to live up to and sometimes in an effort to live up to the “ideal” he apparently presents we can end up denying the reality of our circumstances.
In his Preface Richard outlines the steps he went through to avoid completing the “Paul paper” when at theological college and preaching on any of the Pauline texts during his curacy … quite an achievement. When he could avoid it no longer he discovered something in 2 Corinthians that others didn’t seem to be saying at the time and it struck a chord both with him and those he began to talk to about it.
In a very readable, small volume Richard shows us a different side of Paul; and while he acknowledges that it is difficult to make an accurate psychological assessment of someone who has been dead for 2 millennia, his observations certainly speak to us in the present day.
Initially I had trouble identifying exactly what form of “madness” was being described: The beginning chapters describe a man in distress or depressed – not what I would usually call mad. But as I read on I realised that the extremes of language used in the epistle, the anger, insecurities and self-loathing combined with the self-aggrandisement, self-absorption, his “all or nothing view” of the world, painted a picture of someone who could easily have been suffering through some of the cycles of bipolar. Then I spoke with a friend who had suffered with depression who told me that during that time she had thought she was “going mad”. But then labels are never very helpful – whatever we might call it, Paul is shown as someone in emotional distress and therefore in need of psychological help and support.
Richard speculates about the possible causes of Paul’s emotional distress, which I don’t have space for here, but most powerfully Richard describes something of Paul’s journey out of depression … or how he re-found his “mojo”
The foundation of this was a recognition of the character of God: principally that “unlike his worldly judges … God does not require Paul to be successful before drawing close” (p.59). Richard shows that Paul finds a new way of writing about God – the “God of all comfort” who comforts us in “all our troubles”.
In the space of a few short chapters and even shorter book review it would be easy to think that this is another story of how firm faith brings success, which brings little comfort to any who suffer. However, in 2 Corinthians we have more a description of a journey (possibly a long one) and it made me think about how different Paul’s letter writing would have been from ours: long-hand on papyrus, rather than touch-typing on a keyboard. Plenty of time for reflection when letters take so long to write and physical journeys take so long to make.
This book is the condensed product of several years of Richard’s reflection and although it won’t take much time to read, it bears much longer reflection on the nature of dark emotional states and the whereabouts of God when we’re in the middle of them.
Continuing the Journey is a biennial conference for pastoral workers and therapists.