Ryan S. Schellenberg, Abject Joy: Paul, Prison, and the Art of Making Do, Oxford University Press, New York, 2021. 248 pp. $61.76. ISBN-10: 0190065516.
I thank my God for every remembrance of you, always in every one of my prayers for all of you, praying with joy for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil 1:3–5, NRSVue)
But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the service of your faith, I rejoice, and I rejoice together with all of you; in the same way also you should rejoice and rejoice together with me. (Phil 2:17–18, NRSVue)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. (Phil 4:1, NRSVue)
Traditional Western views of Paul often conceive of the apostle as a stoic figure, detached from his physical status and the ebb and flow of feelings, thanks to a strong sense of religious virtue. Yet, an attentive read of the above verses cannot be so neatly squared with this portrait of bodily and emotional indifference.
In an intriguing new analysis of the letter to the Philippians, Ryan S. Schellenberg argues for a view of Paul as prisoner—one whose bodily, emotional, and social self-conceptualization influenced the words put to the page. Schellenberg takes as his starting points two important interpretive factors: (1) that Philippians ought to be studied without reliance upon the heroic narrative Paul of Acts (4–13), and (2) that the apostle’s historical imprisonments were the result of coercive force by local magistrates in response to public disturbances attached to his preaching (47–51). Such factors, per Schellenberg, guard against hagiographic readings of Paul’s letters and create space for his self- conceptualization to emerge from behind the text.
Schellenberg invites his readers to view the imprisoned Paul from the perspective of the poor, for whom imprisonment was yet another source of bodily degradation imposed by a system built upon the idea of embodied dominance (58). Such an approach contrasts with a tendency in scholarship to primarily reference comments from the social elites of Paul’s day. An analysis of Philippians from the vantage point of the non-elite is accomplished through the use of a variety of ancient and modern sources. From antiquity Schellenberg references letters of petition to regional magistrates, non-elite prisoner stock characters, and interpersonal correspondence. Weighed against such materials, Paul is seen as engaging in a process of self-identification as a divine messenger whose imprisonment played out on the cosmic stage (chapter 3). Such a battle found its locus in Paul’s very embodiment, with social abjection reflected in his wounds and his hope placed in the expectation of a bodily transformation accompanying Christ’s upending of earthly power dynamics at his return (87).
Also important for Schellenberg’s arguments are modern prison diaries, which witness (from a historical distance) to affective components of prison life. Such materials illustrate two aspects of the letter’s emotional functions: First, how Paul evidenced a “performative indifference” toward suffering and bodily degradation through rejecting traditional honor-shame categories (chapter 4). Second, that Paul, like many prisoners today, appears to have placed his hope and joy (at least in part) in moments of physical reunification with his beloved community outside of the prison’s walls (chapter 5). His longing for physical proximity, whether with Christ following death or with the Philippian believers, is evident from the letter’s opening chapter and remains an important concept throughout. And, although an imperfect substitute for physical presence, the sharing of letters served as an exercise in nurturing social and emotional bonds, further reinforced by visitations from the letter carriers to whom Paul alludes in the letter’s second and fourth chapters. In other words, Philippians may have acted as “a sort of affective technology, wielded at once on the writer himself and on his addressees” (177).
Schellenberg’s approach to the letter critiques traditional Western approaches to Philippians that downplay Paul’s physicality, emotion, and self-interest in pursuit of a modern altruistic portrait. The Paul of Philippians, per Schellenberg, was not a disinterested philosopher waxing poetic about his stoic demeanor, but a fully embodied, emotive person whose hopes, fears, and joy bubbled over onto the page. This book invites us to see Paul afresh as one who suffered imprisonment not as a matter of indignity nor because of state hatred toward the church but as part of a larger cultural pattern of establishing control through the denigration of the poor (58). We are also invited to see how his ecstatic experiences of the risen Jesus, theologically influenced reflections on his present status, and emotional bonds with others enabled him to “make do” in an abject position.
In addition, this book challenges readers to reassess pious framings of earthly suffering and imprisonment. Whether in reference to the historical Paul, the modern martyr, or the imprisoned neighbor, Schellenberg helps readers reconceptualize their understanding of imprisonment. Such abjection is to be neither treated with revulsion nor romanticized but recognized as interplay between body, emotion, and community on the parts of those in prison and those impacted by imprisonment.
This framework ought to assist Christian communities in interrogating our own views of the imprisoned. We must question whether culturally received ideas of bodily (in)violability cause us to withdraw in horror or shame from those imprisoned by our society. In addition, we must consider how both the “free” and the imprisoned in our communities can strengthen relational bonds to make “abject joy” attainable.”
Matthew R. Peterson is a PhD candidate and Adjunct Instructor of Greek at Asbury Theological Seminary (Wilmore, KY, USA), a member of Plowshares Brethren in Christ (BIC) church, and a credentialed minister in the BIC U.S.