By Rev. Dr. Don Carlson, host of LEAD’s In Search of Paul pilgrimage
Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, set in River City, Iowa in 1912, opens with a group of traveling salesmen riding the Rock Island Line. They agree on one thing; to be a good salesman, “You gotta know the territory!”
After hosting five In Search of Paul study pilgrimages for LEAD, I am convinced that knowing Paul’s territory – the Roman Empire – brings a much richer understanding of the apostle Paul and his gospel.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has said, “For too long we’ve read Scripture with 19thcentury eyes and 16thcentury questions. It’s time we get back to reading with 1stcentury eyes and 21stcentury questions.” My experience tells me that Wright is right; too often we read Paul through Reformation lenses.
Walking through ancient Philippi, seeing the Roman forum at Thessaloniki and the Temple of Apollo at Corinth, discovering that there were imperial temples to Hadrian, Domitian, and Augustus at Ephesus – these experiences bring with them the realization that Paul was writing to very small faith communities that lived in a world very different from Luther’s or ours.
The pervasiveness of Roman Imperial Theology, the patronage system, the social restraints of slavery and caste, the inescapable economic inequality, the array of gods and temples, and the brutality of the “Pax Romana” – the peace of Rome – all stood in stark contrast to the grace and peace of Jesus. Faithfulness to Jesus called for a different way of doing life together. Paul knew his territory.
A pastor, rostered less than ten years and who received a partial scholarship, wrote this note of thanks for his In Search of Paul experience:
Dear Scholarship Provider,
I wanted to write you this note of deep gratitude for the money you gave to the “In Search of Paul” trip. Since I began professional ministry, this trip was a dream of mine and your generosity made it possible. The experience has forever changed the way that I read Paul. It has influenced every sermon since returning and I have already offered two presentations on the experience. Later next month I will also use my new insights to lead a listening session after a showing of “Paul, the Apostle” motion picture at a local theater.
Your scholarship makes it possible for younger people like me to have experiences like that will directly influence the next 10-20 years of service. Because of this, I plan to give to the next scholarship drive. It will not be much, but I feel called to pay it forward and I pray that your continued help will make more dreams possible.
That is the goal of any pilgrimage or immersion: to know the territory and understand life from a different point of view. In this case, to begin to understand Paul from a 1stcentury point of view; and then begin asking some 21stcentury questions.
Visit In Search of Paul for more information about the 2020 pilgrimage.