Saul of Tarsus, later known to Christians as the Apostle Paul, is one of the most compelling — and controversial — figures in the history of the faith. Some say he “invented” what we know today as Christianity, putting his spin on Jesus’ teachings, amplifying and expanding the Gospel message via letters, or epistles, to various branches of the then-nascent movement. Many revere him as the catalyst for expanding evangelism that reached beyond the disciples’ fellow Jews, bringing the message to far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire.
Perhaps less known is that Saul’s story makes for a heck of a good read. It does, at least, when told by Jerry B. Jenkins, whose novel “I, Saul” (Worthy Publishing, 400 pages) debuted this week. A page-turner that blends a modern romance/thriller with a dramatized account of Paul’s life before and after the “road to Damascus” experience, there’s enough here to catch the attention even of those largely unfamiliar with Paul’s story.
In a recent email interview, Mr. Jenkins discussed the genesis of the book and where it might lead in future volumes. That the novel’s modern protagonist, a seminary professor named Dr. Augie Knox, could spawn more than one volume isn’t a surprise, given Mr. Jenkins‘ claim to fame as co-author of the famous “Left Behind” series, which achieved the “modest” success of selling 65 million volumes.
The author, who with his “Left Behind” partner Tim LaHaye “novelized” the stories of the Gospel writers in “The Jesus Chronicles” series, admitted that Paul is a logical follow-on for a novelist.
But, he added, “I was also drawn to Paul as a biblical character due to his majestic way with words. Texts that might otherwise have served as mere literary input washed over me as rich devotional experiences as I read, ‘I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.’ And, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.’ Thrilling!”
“If you immerse yourself in the writings of Paul, you’ll soon see him emerge as a brilliant, cogent, logical apologist for the gospel of Christ,” Mr. Jenkins said. At the same time, Paul, as a church leader, didn’t back away from controversial issues: “I find it stunning how much of what he was dealing with 2,000 years ago remains problematic in the modern church. Where leadership turns a blind eye, trouble ensues. Where they face issues head-on as he did, they see victory and spiritual growth.”
The novel jumps between the ancient “memoir” of Paul, written in what is presumed to be the days before his execution, and the modern story of the discovery of the parchments on which the memoir is written and the efforts to protect them. It’s the first time Mr. Jenkins pivoted in this fashion, alternating story lines from chapter to chapter.
“I’ve never before included, in essence, two novels in one — alternating a present-day international thriller with a first-century biblical novel,” he said. “When I’m with Saul/Paul and Luke and their contemporaries, we’re in their ancient setting and manners of experience, of course. But by switching to the present-day story every chapter, I hope the reader does get a sense of the parallels between friendships and romance and danger and intrigue two millennia apart.”
Mr. Jenkins said he didn’t aim to write a book that would touch society in a certain way, rather hoping to produce a solid read: “A novel primarily succeeds or fails on the basis of how it engages the reader,” he said. “When I’m writing it, I’m thinking less about some overall deep societal meaning than I am about laboring to conjure compelling characters and a story that will make you want to keep turning the pages.”
My take: Mr. Jenkins did that in “I, Saul,” a book many likely will relish as they wait for the sequel, which the author is working on right now.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at email@example.com.