When Saul Became Paul

Lately at work, I’ve had the occasion to read about Paul. A number of projects have involved the first-century builder of the church, and one thing has bugged me. I grew up thinking that Saul was renamed Paul on the Damascus road, at his conversion. I thought that God had verbally said to him “You, Saul, shall be named Paul” or something similar, as with Simon/Peter and Jacob/Israel. But I have been editing a book of sermons on Acts, and “Saul” continues to be used long after that story. And God isn’t recorded to have openly said anything about Saul’s name changing.

In fact, the first time Paul’s name is used as Paul is in Acts 13, four chapters and several years after Paul’s conversion. Specifically, he’s “Saul” in verse 7, “Saul, also known as Paul” in verse 9, and “Paul” alone from that point forward. Which makes me wonder what was happening in those verses of Acts 13.

Review time! I keep mentioned the Damascus road, which was a literal road from Jerusalem to the town of Damascus, and which Saul was traveling on when he saw a vision of Jesus that temporarily blinded him and changed his life. There were some more details in the few days after that, but most people refer to the Damascus road as being the point at which Saul’s life changed irrevocably, the point at which he became a Christian. He had been a proper religious Jewish boy, a scholar and leader, young but highly ambitious and highly esteemed by the who’s who of Israel’s religious elites. He had been actively involved in the murder of the Stephen for his faith in Jesus, and Saul is recorded as having “approved” (Acts 8:1) of the mob’s violence and Stephen’s death. In fact, Saul was going to Damascus in order to persecute Christians there (9:1-2). But he was interrupted. By a vision of Jesus. Who said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). And Saul basically said, “Who’s this?” And Jesus basically says “Jesus. The one you’re persecuting” (9:5). [Sass level: Jesus.]

So Saul spends some time with other Christians, learning and growing and meeting the who’s who of the early church, not being murderous, and probably confusing the heck out of all his old friends and mentors. And then he starts traveling and telling other people about Jesus and about what happened to him on the Damascus road and about everything he’s learned since that experience. And a few things he learned before that (which shows that your education can, actually, come in handy). Simon/Peter, who had been the leader of the apostles and one of the leaders of the early church, is thrown in prison in Acts 12, and now we’re at Acts 13.

Saul hasn’t sworn off preaching to Jews yet (though he will, despite not following through on it terribly well), but he and his good buddy Barnabas are traveling and preaching about Jesus to Gentiles (non-Jews). The Gentiles don’t have the cultural and religious basis that Saul and Barnabas have, and at this point in history there’s longstanding bad blood between the Jews and…everyone else. So these two good Jewish men preaching to and living among Gentiles was a bit of a stretch for them, a bit outside of their comfort zones, and there weren’t a ton of other early Jewish Christians preaching to Gentiles, either. Our pair of heroes get to Cyprus, and the governor invites them over to find out what all this Jesus hoopla is about.

Enter Bar-Jesus, a local mystic (called a sorcerer, actually). (Bar-Jesus means “son of Jesus”, and Jesus was a fairly common variant of “Joshua” at that time, so even without Da Vinci Code-esque conspiracies, we’re definitely talking about a different Jesus who fathered the Cyprian sorcerer than the Jesus who died on a cross outside of Jerusalem and rose 3 days later.) So Bar-Jesus shows up and tries “to steer the governor away from the faith” (13:8). And Saul gets ticked. Saul says some really choice words to Bar-Jesus, ending with, “You’ll be blind for a while, unable to even see the daylight” (13:11). And it happens. It happens immediately. Which probably prompts the governor to say a few choice words too. But the governor also believes Saul’s message and becomes a Christian.

Disability as punishment is a very gross concept. It reiterates ugly, hurtful stereotypes about disabled people. I know that in the Bible blindness is often used as a metaphor, etc. etc., but it’s still not okay. So I get a little ticked at Saul or God—not sure which was the chicken and which was the egg here, or if the answer is the same as the chicken-or-egg debate—for making Bar-Jesus temporarily blind in order to (a) teach him something, and (b) show God’s power to the governor of Cyprus. There’s a slim chance the blindness was metaphorical only, but those implications aren’t good either. I don’t have an answer for why blindness and other disabilities are treated the way they are in the Bible, so let’s acknowledge the not-okay-ness before we get back around to Saul’s name shifting to Paul.

Ready? Are you uncomfortable? Are you confused? You should be. If you aren’t, maybe reread that last paragraph and sit with it a bit more. Is blindness ever presented positively in the Bible, that you can remember? Tease out those implications.

Feeling uncomfortable now? Maybe even upset? Okay, good.

This Bar-Jesus situation is so similar to what happened to Saul on the Damascus road. Both men were doing what they felt so sure was right, but which was hurting other people. And they were both interrupted. They both became blind for a while, having to be led “by the hand” (9:8; 13:11). Maybe Saul remembers the positive changes in his life after he became blind on the Damascus road, so he says the same thing should happen in the governor’s palace to Bar-Jesus… and God agrees, or at least complies. Or maybe God was going to use the same method on Bar-Jesus that God used on Saul, so God told Saul, who explained this to Bar-Jesus. Maybe both happened simultaneously. We don’t know what happened to Bar-Jesus after Acts 13:11, but we are inclined to believe that his sight returned, just as as Saul said it would. I’d like to believe Bar-Jesus’s life also changed for the better but the Bible doesn’t tell us. What we do know is that Saul isn’t Saul anymore. He’s Paul. And the governor of Cyprus has become a Christian.

Saul cares so much for this stranger, this Roman governor, this Gentile, that Saul is willing to do about anything to make sure no one messes with him, no one tries to lead him astray. I’m thinking about Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dum, in The Fellowship of the Ring, when he’s all, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” at the Balrog, the monster of fire and smoke threatening Gandalf and his friends.

Saul was once a Jew who embodied everything that good religious folk in his culture ought to be. He must have internalized the hatred of Gentiles so prevalent in his culture at that time. But now he’s a Christian, and after a few years of being a Christian, he cares about this Gentile so much that he uses all his power and influence to ensure that the governor isn’t hindered by Bar-Jesus’s opposition. And from that moment on, Saul is only known by his Greek name of Paul.

The Damascus road. The Cyprian palace. I think Paul’s life radically changed more than once. The first time, he became a Christian. The second time, he embraced his purpose.

Or something. I don’t know, the Bible is complicated.

Bouncy Castle Lessons

Last Wednesday, I helped with my church’s fall festival. I expected to be working alongside some of my Sunday school mates at the registration tables. However, when we arrived, we were all separated to various games and attractions, including more inflatables than I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know Macon had so many inflatables. Slides 3 stories tall and steeper than 45 degrees. Jurassic Park raptor fighting ring. Mickey Mouse maze. Massive ball pits. Bouncy houses of nearly every conceivable theme. I worked in the preschool area, guardian of the Disney princess bouncy castle and slide (not to be confused with the smaller Frozen bouncy castle). And I was busy. I was so busy that I needed a couple extra hours of sleep the next morning.

I won’t get into the full argument here, but I have some issues with the princess culture Disney has developed, marketed, and sold to families. I have issues with children believing they are princesses and that the world revolves around them. I have issues with princesses being marketed for females and superheroes for males.

I am very keen on the fact that, though I grew up on Disney movies and still thoroughly enjoy them, my mother repeatedly told me that the stories aren’t true, that a prince isn’t ever going to come save me, that I don’t have to be pretty or submissive or someone’s daughter to be important.

I’ve known several women who have had breakdowns when they realized that the lessons the Disney lexicon taught them—from not having to grow up to a man solving all their most complicated problems—isn’t actually how to world works. But because Halloween is a time for pretending to be someone else, and many of the children were already in costume, I chose to embrace my bouncy castle’s theme. And here are a five things I learned.

1. Names have power. As I helped each child climb up to the castle’s netted entrance, I asked every child who their favorite character was. Then I did my best to call each child by that name. This worked easier than remembering actual names because I was already familiar with Belle, Jasmine, Snow White, and Mickey. Rotating through the same list of 8 or 10 names—even if I had 2 Cinderellas, 3 Snow Whites, and 2 Olafs at any one time—was easier for me and more fun for them. Plus, I could tell Prince Charming to stop climbing the cargo net, advise Princess Belle to wait for Princess Tiana to get out of the way before following her down the slide, ask Queen Elsa to come back out because her Mommy wanted her. For those who couldn’t decide on a favorite or who were too shy to talk to me, I said things like, “You have short hair like Mulan. How about I call you Mulan?” or “Rapunzel is one of my favorites. I’ll call you Princess Rapunzel.” Some of my kids left and came back later on. One little girl in a Finding Dory t-shirt asked me, “Do you remember my princess?” I didn’t, but we’d had a lot of little ones pointing up to Snow White around the time she’d come before, so I said, “Snow White?” I didn’t get a bigger smile all night. I probably had a hundred children come through that bouncy castle, and every one of them wanted to feel special.

2. Most kids respond well to high expectations. After dubbing each new child by their favorite character’s name, I lifted the netting at the entrance and called on them to “Look out for everyone who’s smaller than you” (I doubt any of them had seen Hook, but I certainly have). Politeness and sharing and patience were rewarded with another go down the slide, with thank yous and high fives. At one point, I climbed up the slide to get a warm hug from an Olaf who was scared to go down and had started crying. A group of princesses and princes were waiting behind him, eager but not pushing him, trying to comfort him, offering to go down with him. And every one of those kids was bigger than Olaf. Another time, I had trouble getting my purple-shirted Prince Philip to go down the slide. He was climbing on the outside of the stairs, then leaping down onto the bouncy floor below, which made the nearby children fall. So I told Prince Philip there was a dragon on the slide and asked him if he’d slay it for me. And he perked up, climbed to the top of the slide, wielded his invisible sword high above his head, and leaped, slaying the wide-winged beast on his way down. He rolled to the entrance by me with pink cheeks and a new sense of purpose. “Can I go again?” he asked, and I told him “Yes! But be sure you slay me another dragon.” It became his favorite part. And he recruited the other kids to do so, too. Cinderella and Snow White and Ariel had just as much fun slaying dragons as he did.

3. Kids like what they like. I had female Olafs and male Belles. I had a Superman, a Supergirl, a Robin, and a Darth Vader. I had Spider-mans in and out of costume. I didn’t hear any parents say that their boys shouldn’t go inside because the castle was for girls, though that probably happened. I encouraged hesitant boys, ones who have already internalized that princesses and pink aren’t for them, to come in and have fun. I told one older sister that her brother, who she said “doesn’t like princesses”, can like princesses if he wants, just like she can likes superheroes if she wants. When parents were trying to get their kids off this castle already, I told the kids how cool the dinosaur one around the corner was. And I saw little girls in puffy toole skirts grin and run for the line, just as I saw little boys do. Fun things are fun. Gendering colors and experiences ensures kids worry more and enjoy themselves less. And, for boys, telling them “girl things” aren’t for them also tells them they shouldn’t care about what girls care about, shouldn’t relate to girls’ stories. Boys grow up into men who believe the same thing.

4. We need more diversity. Of all the black children I had all night, only one of them told me her favorite princess was Tiana. Which is fine. Kids like what they like and shouldn’t be discouraged. But I wished, over and over, that my little black and brown princesses and princes had more racially diverse characters to choose from. I wish they could see themselves well represented. [And before anyone starts listing the characters of color in Disney properties, there’s a huge difference between represented and well represented. Just ask the Powhatan tribe what they think of Disney’s Pocahontas. And if you can’t be bothered to read their words (side-eye), here’s a catchy slideshow with pictures.] I wish my little white princesses and princes had more racially diverse characters to love and relate to, too. I truly believe that everyone would be better for it. Furthermore, diversity isn’t only about race. There isn’t a single mentally or physically disabled prince or princess, children can and do internalize absence.

5. You can’t please everyone. Most of the parents were just glad that their kids were tiring themselves out. They took pictures and delighted in their kids’ squeals and giggles. I tried to limit how many kids were inside at once and tried to let kids stay as long as they wanted, but the chaos and quantity was too much for a couple of kids. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at their age, either, so I get it. And the kids like me usually went through the castle and down the slide once or twice before deciding to try Mickey’s clubhouse or the tricycle race. But I had one parent who only let her daughter go through once, declaring to me that it was too much for her Aurora, even saying as she turned away from me that “there needs to be some organization.” And there was, though looser than this parent wanted. I kept rolling numbers in my head, rolling names, trying to keep track of how many I had inside, calling up direction at times, but if five kids chose to come down the slide at once, I wasn’t in a position to discourage them. I suspect that the entire event was more than this mom was comfortable with. Maybe the girl felt that way, too, though I didn’t see any indicators from her. Which isn’t to say they weren’t there. But I couldn’t please everyone, and I couldn’t be upset about those I couldn’t please.

In the end, no one was hurt on the Disney princess bouncy castle and I don’t think there was any significant emotional trauma, either. So I call the evening a success. I may not run into those children again, and even if I do it is unlikely we would recognize each other. That’s kind of nice. I was someone who tried to make them feel important one Halloween, and I didn’t need to know them before or after to want them to feel that way.

Which is how I’ve been trying to act since then. The cashier is important and I want my behavior to tell her that, even if we’ve never seen each other before and never will see each other again. The driver who yielded when I would’ve punched it is also important. As is the bank teller and the woman walking her dog and the man fixing the stove. I can’t please everyone, but I can do my best. I can encourage diversity and acceptance that will make other people’s lives better. I can even expect some goodness of those around me.