Malcolm Muggeridge & Alec Vidler, “Paul, Envoy Extraordinary”

This is a delightful book, and if you have the chance to read it you should. There are plenty of satisfying insights, and the book brings Paul and his travels excitingly to life. It’s a short book (155 pages), and decidedly nontechnical (no index and just a few footnotes, mostly to the relevant verses in Acts of Paul’s letters — but there is at the end a brief prayer featuring St. Paul by Anglican priest and author A.L. Lilley).

Here’s the backstory: The BBC had a television documentary in the early 1970s in which the two authors here retraced St. Paul’s steps on his various journeys, with the two offering commentary and discussion as they traveled along together. This book is essentially a transcript of those conversations, with about 25 beautiful photographs interspersed, and with an introduction by one of the authors (Malcolm Muggeridge) and an epilogue by the other (Alex Vidler). Regarding those photographs: If you’re seeking out a copy of the book, you should make sure it includes those; I specified a hardback, and it may be that a paperback edition wouldn’t have them.

And regarding the authors: Malcolm Muggeridge was Malcolm Muggeridge, and Alec Vidler was his longtime friend and an influential Anglo-Catholic priest. A few cautionary notes about Vidler: He rather casually rejects some Scripture (99); he seems to think that neither works nor faith is necessary for salvation (150). He also does some psychoanalyzing of Paul (40, 46), which does not seem to me to be particularly persuasive, and of dubious relevance anyway. On page 41 he says that the pre-Paul Christians were anti-Law, which may be true, but I’m curious about the basis for that. He says there are inconsistencies between Acts and Paul’s letters (152-53). But, as an Amazon reviewer says, “That said, Vidler is quite evangelical for a British clergyman, as opposed to the self-proclaimed skeptics that generate so much press in the states.” And I don’t mean these cautionary notes to suggest that most of what Vidler says isn’t worthwhile, because it is.

In his affectionate introduction, Muggeridge says (19) that Vidler had no interest in “status or money or celebrity” but, “as is characteristic in my experience of the truly unworldly, [has] a perfect awareness of the gradations and diversities of men. Egalitarianism is a form of vanity; in God’s family, as in our human ones, there is not so much equality as oneness.” This calls to mind another occasion, probably at about the same time now that I think about it, when on a Firing Line interview Muggeridge said that the modern liberal asserts that humans are equal, which is absurd, while the Christian says that all men are brothers, which is not. In Muggeridge’s introduction, there’s also a particularly amusing paragraph relating to the documentary’s production (21), and an interesting paragraph about the relation between History and the Word (22).

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But the book begins, even before the introduction, with a wonderful compilation of quotations about St. Paul, both favorable and unfavorable, and from a wide and surprising variety of people. I noted particularly those by Kierkegaard (13, “clever … even brilliantly clever … [and] he has divine authority”) and Hitler (14, Paul used Christ’s “Aryan” teaching “to mobilize the underworld and to organize an earlier Bolshevism”), but was especially struck by this quote, which I think echoes Muggeridge’s view, from W.R. Inge: “To the historian there must always be something astounding in the magnitude of the task Paul set himself, and in his enormous success. The future history of the civilized world for two thousand years, perhaps for all time, was determined by his missionary journeys and his hurried writings.” For that matter, I think Vidler agrees: When Muggeridge calls Paul’s letters “these extraordinary documents which I’m quite convinced are among the most luminous ever written in the history of the world,” Vidler (34) responds, “I agree about that, and I take it that we also agree that, after Jesus, Paul is the key figure in the whole Christian story.” Muggeridge then concludes that part of the exchange, saying, “Yes: Jesus was the light and Paul spread the light.”

Thus, when Muggeridge and Vidler are at Troas in what is now Turkey, the discussion gives one goosebumps. Recall that it was there that Paul makes the decision, not to continue preaching in Asia, but to go to Greece; he does so because of a plea he received in a night vision (Acts 16:9). “And his acting upon in was without any exaggeration on of the very decisive moments in history,” says Muggeridge (94), and Vidler responds, “Unquestionably; it meant that the Christian faith was for the first time brought into what we now call Europe” (95). And Muggeridge (95): “How extraordinary, how fantastic, it is to reflect that Paul came to this place where we now are and took a decision whereby two thousand years of Christendom, of our civilization, of our history, all came to pass. … And so they sailed across to what is now northern Greece, carrying the gospel to Europe.” On the next page, Muggeridge observes, “It is difficult also to think of any comparable arrival [to Paul’s in Greece]. Perhaps, on an infinitely lower scale, Lenin arriving unknown at the Finland Station in Petrograd in 1917.”

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Paul’s letters were apparently dictated, and this fits in well with what Muggeridge views as not only divine inspiration but a sort of mysticism in Paul. Thus, in his introduction Muggeridge (23) writes, “[S]urely his amanuensis will have recalled how brightly his face shone when, in the midst of dictating polemics, admonitions, instructions of one sort and another, he suddenly broke off into one of those truly sublime utterances of his — Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering … — which belong not only to the highest flights of mysticism, but also to the greatest literature of all time.” In the next paragraph, Muggeridge refers to the letters as “among the most remarkable documents to come down to us from antiquity,” “a kind of sublime journalism” — “hurriedly dictated … at odd moments” and “so patently not studied” — “warm and inspired, straight from his mouth rather than being first chosen and arranged in his mind ….”

Muggeridge quotes part of I Corinthians 13 there, which he later (117-18) calls “one of the most enchanting and wonderful things ever written” — “Paul’s sublimest utterance. I don’t think he ever touched a higher point that this.” Vidler apparently concurs (118): “I can’t believe he just dictated it on the spur of the moment. He must have worked on it for a long time. It has been well said that he didn’t think it up but copied it down; that is to say, he was really copying down what he’d seen in his vision of Christ.”

Later, indeed near the very end of his epilogue and therefore of the book (153-54), Vidler writes: “Although [Paul] obviously had a mind of exceptional power and was adept at arguing in the manner of rabbis, yet fundamentally he was an intuitive thinker. He had the insights of a seer and was able to express what he saw with the confidence of a prophet and with the imaginative resourcefulness of a poet. It has been well said that ‘to speak about God with any degree of adequacy, one must be a poet or prophet or mystic.’ Paul, like other poets, prophets and mystics, had scant regard for the niceties of logic or of rational coherence. He never used word like ‘possibly,’ ‘probably’ or ‘perhaps.'” In the next paragraph, in like vein, Vidler continues (154), “On this showing, Paul should not be described as ‘a reasonable man.’ On the other hand, I also hold that there is very much about what is most important in life to be learned from non-reasonable men ….”

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Some other favorite nuggets from the book:

  • Muggeridge finds, as I do, the farewell to the Ephesian elders at Miletus to be extraordinarily moving (29-30), and he ends his introduction eloquently with that.
  • Vidler (39): “When you consider the moral anarchy of the permissive societies by which they were surrounded, you can see why they [the Pharisees] delighted in the Law. They loved it.” There is, likewise, an interesting exchange (66-69) between the authors on the early Christian attitude toward Roman authority, noting the extent to which, as brutal as it could be, the law and order provided by the Pax Romana was essential to, for example, Paul’s being “able as a rule to travel about in safety”; Vidler acknowledges that, while both Peter and Paul said that Christians should submit to Roman authority, Peter thought it only a human institution (I Peter 2:13) while Paul said in Romans 13 that civil government is divinely instituted.
  • Here’s an interesting exchange between the two authors on the composition and collection of Paul’s letters (87-89):

Muggeridge: When Paul wanted to send a message to one of his churches, there was sure to be some young man around who would take it down from Paul’s dictation. It might well be one of the people we are told about, such as Timothy or Silas. He would have a piece of papyrus in front of him, and then Paul could sit down and dictate as you or I might.

Vidler: The fact that this is how Paul wrote his letters explains why they are sometimes difficult to understand, and why their style is often jerky. They were not carefully prepared and polished literary compositions, nor of course had he any idea that they would be read for centuries to come and, as it were, be canonized. … Anyhow, that is more or less how Paul wrote his letters. Another interesting question about them is how they came to be collected. The probable answer is that about the end of the first century some enterprising Christian went round the various churches that Paul had founded and corresponded with, and asked the Christians whether — in their archives or strongbox or whatever they had — they had preserved any letters from Paul. Where he found any, he got permission to copy them out, and so was able to make a collection of them.

  • I like this passage, in which Vidler answers those who point to the apparent (and erroneous) belief of some early Christians that the End Times were imminent (107, quoting Hebrews 13:14 at the end):

It’s a plausible objection, but I wouldn’t at all allow that it’s a valid objection to the Christian faith. At first sight it does appear to have been an illusory expectation. But on a profounder view it is a vivid way of expressing a permanent truth. For time is always about to be cut off by eternity both for the individual and for the race. All things are always coming to an end both in the sense of coming to their conclusion and also of coming to their fulfillment. The early Christians, by taking this expectation literally — by supposing that the end of all things and the final appearing of Christ were, so to speak, just around the corner — have engrained this expectation in the Christian imagination as it wouldn’t have been in any other way, and that is very salutary for us all. It has made Christians aware, and should always keep them aware, that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”

Well said, though those of us with children and grandchildren (Vidler was unmarried and celibate) are perhaps less serene with a world that grows worse and worse.

  • After Vidler reads Acts 19:30-34, Muggeridge exclaims (124), “I love that, you know, ‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians! Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’ For two hours! So extraordinarily like the idiot demonstrators of our time.”
  • In his epilogue (151), Vidler says that “he found that of the innumerable books that have been written about Paul, the two most discerning and useful were: Adolf Deissmann’s St. Paul: a study in social and religious history and A.D. Nock’s St. Paul.” I’ll note, though, that Vidler is writing in the early 1970s and the the two books he cites were published in 1912 (and that’s just the English translation) and 1938, respectively.