"I, Saul" by Jerry B. Jenkins and James S. MacDonald, A Review

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  1. InTheLight

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    Dec 17, 2010
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    I, Saul by Jerry B. Jenkins with James S. MacDonald

    *** 1/2 out of ****

    "I, Saul" is the title of the book and is also the opening line of Paul's personal memoirs. We don't know for sure if Paul had personal memoirs, but it's possible based on instructions Paul gave to Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:13:

    When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.

    This book contains a hypothetical account of what Paul's memoirs may have contained. Not only that but it also gives an account of Paul's second imprisonment in Rome while he is waiting execution (incarcerated for having been blamed for Rome burning, which history suggests was caused by Nero), and it also contains a modern day cloak and dagger story. So the book is really three stories in one. The format of the book is to alternate chapters between first century Rome and modern day Dallas, TX and Rome, Italy. At first the format seemed disorienting but the reader quickly becomes acclimated to it.

    Dr. Augie Knox is a 38 year old seminary professor at Arlington Theological Seminary in Arlington, TX. It "was like the stepchild no one ever talked about" and "sat in the shadow of two renowned institutions, Dallas Theological Seminary and Southwest Baptist Seminary". In other words, he's an underpaid professor at an underfunded small seminary. Over summers he works as a tour guide in the Holy Land and is an expert in Biblical era antiquities. He receives a cryptic message from a friend in Rome urging him to drop everything and come to Rome. His friend is in danger and urgently needs help.

    The Apostle Paul is imprisoned in a small dungeon in a Roman prison. The dungeon is accessed by a hole in the floor of a prison. He is denied light and is fed a bowl of thin gruel twice per day. The prison guards are under orders to keep him alive until his execution day. Luke visits him and Paul gives him a letter to be sent to Timothy (now known as 2 Timothy).

    This is the setup for the book and while it starts promising, it gets somewhat bogged down in the characterization of Augie, his family, friends, and also Paul's predicament and daily prison routine. In this phase of the story the sections about Paul are more interesting, but once Augie gets to Rome the story really takes off.

    This is where the book splits into three narratives. It sounds complicated but it's not.

    We have the ongoing story of Paul's predicament in prison, his interaction with the guards, Luke working to heal victims of Nero's fire and his daily visits with Paul. Mark brings Paul his cloak and parchments and has a nice visit with Paul. He explains that his letters to the various churches are being copied and distributed to other churches because the brethren are encouraged by them and it's the next best thing to having Paul visit them in person.

    We have the story of Augie arriving in Rome, meeting his friend and learning of an incredible archeological find that will send the antiquities world buzzing. Probably the most important find in history. Augie's friend, Roger, is being hunted by corrupt police bent on finding this treasure. The item is in a safe place but even Roger doesn't know where it is. The challenge is for Augie and Roger to find the treasure before the police find it, or before the police kill Augie and Roger.

    Finally, we have the hypothetical account of Paul's memoir. It picks up when he is a thirteen year old trying to decide which rabbinic school he should attend--Rabban Shammai or Rabban Hillel. The Shammai school is more orthodox, emphasizing strict obedience to the law (read, fundamental) the other school, Hillel, is run by Gamaliel and is more tolerant and open. This story line follows the journey of Saul and his tentmaker father as they travel from their hometown to Jerusalem to interview both schools.

    The story of Paul in prison was very interesting to me because it brought to life what it might have been like to live in that era. However, it suffered because it told how bad the prison was instead of having Paul experience how bad it was. The old adage for authors, "show, don't tell" comes into play here. Luke's daily visits were interesting and there is a side plot involving a power play amongst the prison guards. I chuckled at how many times the author described Paul's dismay at being stuck in a dank hole in the ground, unable to preach to anyone. He needs an audience! The guards and the other prisoners are sick of hearing his preaching and praising of Jesus.

    The story of Augie and his friend's search for the antiquity is a fast-paced cat and mouse story with plot twists, double-crosses, and general mayhem and skullduggery. It's a real page turner and contrasts well with the other two story lines. Author Jenkins handles this with ease. He's authored at least one other spy novel, "The Last Operative" which I enjoyed and proved he could write the spy genre. This story line in these sections have the most tension and for me it edged out the memoirs as being the most involving parts of the book.

    The memoir section is interesting because it attempts to fill in details of the early life of Saul, and it mostly succeeds. There is a romantic element as Saul falls for Gameliel's daughter but ultimately he can't commit to her because he is married to his studies. The memoir follows Saul through his schooling, his work with the Sanhedrin, the persecution of Christians, the stoning of Stephen, his subsequent conversion on the road to Damascus, and his early missionary work. There is a couple of lines in the memoir that promise excitement for believers (and hint at a book sequel) where Paul intimates that during his three year exile in Arabia God had impressed upon him the principles he should use in his ministry and later, referring to his missionary work Paul says, "I am eager to recite the details of my work that I have only summarized in my letters to the churches."

    Paul's last days on earth is not as fascinating as the other story lines but it is interesting in its own right. There are parts of dialogue that read like excerpts from his many epistles and the authors do a good job of weaving the (now) well-known scripture to Christians as every day conversation by the apostles.

    The book covers themes that have concerned believers for centuries:
    Earning God's approval by self-righteousness or through legalism
    Dysfunctional family relationships
    Fundamentalism vs. a real relationship with God
    The letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law
    How greed can destroy you

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and highly recommend it to fellow believers. An unbeliever may not find the Biblical themes as compelling but I believe they would appreciate it as a historical novel and thriller in its own right. I wanted to give this book 4 out of 4 stars but that would mean it was virtually perfect. Still, 3 1/2 stars out of 4 stars his probably as high as I'll ever rate a book. Read this book!
    #1 InTheLight, Mar 10, 2014
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 10, 2014

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