Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
For the writer of Luke-Acts, Saul of Tarsus’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is more than a story about one man. Rather, it embodies virtually all of the dynamics of the Christian Church as he understood it—the encounter with the resurrected Lord, the spread of the church, and the breaking of barriers thanks to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Like most parts of scripture, especially those as familiar and favored as this one, Saul’s experience generates different kinds of readings about the man and the early church, each with its own emphasis. It is instructive to map some of the major avenues of interpretation.
The Damascus Road experience as a story of triumph for the growing early Church. Plagued by a murderous and powerful persecutor, the fledgling movement called “The Way” enjoys a great reversal when Saul is miraculously won over to the right side en route to Damascus. Chalk one up for Team Church who, thanks to its powerful risen Lord, will survive the threat and flourish as a result! In this reading, the story is less about one man’s experience and more about the continuing process of massive church growth already begun at Pentecost in Acts 2:1-13. As Saul comes into the church, so too will the Gentile converts from all of the Roman Empire to whom he will preach. In this reading, it does not require a big leap of imagination to get from this fledgling church to the church of Constantine, an established church at the center of the Roman Empire. With the great reversal wrought in Acts 9, there remain few barriers to triumphant expansion.
The Damascus Road as a singular and extraordinary moment of conversion. But the Road to Damascus can point us in a very different direction, too, for it can also tell the story of a radical individual experience outside of institutional structures. This version of the story makes central Saul’s personal experience of Christ and his turning, or metanoia, from the non-Christian life to the Christian life. Paul is very much the hero of this story, and the one after whom we should model our own faith narratives. Indeed, in some forms of Christianity, one must pinpoint a moment of radical turning in order to demonstrate true Christian bona-fides. Cradle Christians need not apply.
The Damascus Road as part of a continual process of turning, for those on the outside as well as those on the inside. This line of interpretation emphasizes that the Christian life is not about a singular moment of turning toward God, but many moments. In this story in particular, and in the book of Acts as a whole, metanoia is an ongoing process that is supposed to characterize all of Christian life. Ananias is as much the hero of this interpretation as Saul—for he too undergoes metanoia. Though already a Christian, he must overcome his reluctance and turn toward Saul, treating as a brother one who has been a threat to his community. Moreover, the calling of Saul and that of Ananias by the Lord might also point more broadly to anyone’s calling into Christian service.
So what’s at stake in these varying lines of interpretation? We tend to read Acts 9, like other stories of early church, in light of what the Christian church has become for us and according to what we think it should be. These interpretations are not simply descriptive: they are often prescriptive as well. Each of these readings contains a valuable insight for the Christian life that is not easily jettisoned. Note also the two recurring, and sometimes rival, emphases of personal experience and institutional church. These elements have also been the focus of recent discussions about the changing landscape of American Christianity. Thus, Acts 9 offers an opportunity to reflect on both where Christianity has been and where it is going.
Of course, it is old news that traditional institutional forms of American Christianity are in decline. Stanley Hauerwas has been saying for decades that Constantinian Christendom, which held out longer in America than in Western Europe, ended in the early 1960’s. Moreover, Pew Research surveys constantly remind the reading public of Christianity’s shrinking numbers on both sides of the Atlantic. In some quarters, this news occasions much gnashing of teeth and sometimes a mad scramble to protect what’s left of the institutional pie and its resources—its organizations, structures, and place of influence in the culture.
Others, however, are optimistic about the future of Christianity. In her 2012 book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass sees much to be hopeful about. She argues that, although there is decline, there are also signs of renewal. There are indicators that individual mystical experiences, not unlike Saul’s encounter with the Lord, are on the rise, even as church attendance declines. Bass interprets this as a shift from external forms of religion—code for old, moribund, and superficial religiosity—to internal forms of spiritual experience. For her it is metanoia on a large scale, a spiritual re-awakening. Moreover, she is optimistic because this new spiritual movement, though largely unaffiliated with traditional religious institutions, is nevertheless aligning itself with politically progressive causes such as environmentalism.
Other voices are less sanguine than Butler Bass about this shifting landscape, its political affiliations, and its highly individualistic character. Identifying spiritual concerns too closely with politics opens the door for co-option by partisan politics. Moreover, as Lillian Daniel points out in her book, When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough, the language of “spiritual-but-not-religious,” often used to characterize this new movement, doesn’t have much appreciation for the difficult work of living one’s faith communally and learning from hundreds of years of careful thought about the Christian life. Emphasis on the individual experience can degenerate into something inane and un-rigorous.
The contemporary church, the offspring of that original movement called “The Way,” finds itself once again (or still?) on an uncertain road. How might this change our reading of Acts 9 in ways that are realistic, robust, and faithful?
Let me suggest a slightly different reading, one that is faithful to the text yet resists any kind of triumphalism. It is a story about a small and rather idiosyncratic offshoot of an ancient and respectable religious tradition. In this story, Saul, for reasons that are not altogether clear—let’s resist 9:1-2, which places blame on the Jews and the Jewish leadership—finds himself well beyond Jerusalem, well beyond the religious center of Judaism, and well beyond Judea, where this fledgling little group had established its leadership. Saul’s extraordinary personal moment with the Resurrected Christ, one which echoed the ancient calling of God to the Hebrew prophets and seers (Jeremiah 1:5; Isaiah 6:1-13), could have died with him or could have been forgotten or repressed. Instead, it was nurtured by Ananias and others in houses and small domestic communities within the big city of Damascus (9:11, 19-20). Though reluctant at first to embrace such a hothead, with the Spirit’s prodding, Ananias welcomes Paul into the family of faith (9:17).
When Paul began to live into this calling, he did not build massive churches and congregations, nor command an impressive salary. Instead, he moved in and out of urban communities, cobbled together work of various kinds, and spent his time in homes, nurturing small communities of worship and fellowship led by women and men. These communities maintained a dizzying variety of theologies and political ideologies. The road remained uncertain for him and the experience of the congregations was often turbulent and unstable. Remarkably, however, the God in whom they put their faith made a way for these fragile communities even when there seemed to be no way.
A turbulent and unstable start … an uncertain path caught somewhere between personal experience and life together in Christ … this road looks strangely familiar.