Naomi Osinnowo, editorial content manager at the Evangelical Alliance, caught up with theologian Paula Gooder, to talk about her first work of fiction and the inspiration behind it.

Being a firm believer in the Holy Spirit’s ability, and assignment, to unpack God’s word in order to help my heart grasp His will and purpose, I had a few reservations about Christian fiction. I wondered, how could fiction help me better engage with the Bible and God?

Not only did Paula help me to understand the value of literary pieces such as Phoebe, but she revealed how her first work of fiction celebrates the work of scholars, helps the church to get the most out of the apostle Paul’s letters, and encourages us to use our imaginations to explore scripture.

My great passion is to inspire people to read the Bible,” says the Anglican lay reader, who specialises in the New Testament. People sometimes struggle to read and understand it.” In her conversations with Christians in churches, Paula has become acutely aware that Pauline Christianity (Paul’s teachings) is sometimes thought to be too complex for people to comprehend and enjoy. Subsequently, they often think Paul’s letters aren’t for them.

Phoebe is based on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and its eponymous character is mentioned in chapter 16, verses 1 – 2 of Romans. Phoebe, the protagonist of Paula’s book, was a first-century distinguished Christian woman in the church of Cenchreae, who was entrusted by Paul to deliver his letter to the Romans, resulting probably in her being the first person to explain it. Along with these details, scholars suspect that Phoebe – due to her name often being given to slaves – was a freed slave who had accrued wealth and a client base.

This interesting collection of information,” says the scholar, is largely agreed on among theologians”. So, Paula has built on what we know about Phoebe, and has allowed her imagination and biblical scholarship to fill in the gaps.

The thing that has motivated me more than anything else in my writing, is being able to communicate the best New Testament scholarship to people, especially those who wouldn’t normally read it,” says Paula. To me, Phoebe is another way to make biblical scholarship more accessible. I want readers to imagine what it was like for people in the first century, who heard Romans for the first time.“

Paula points out that we use our imaginations all the time when reading the Bible: I’m sure many Christians have a picture of Paul in their heads.” I agree with her, knowing that I can picture’ the woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43 – 48), or the guys who let the man down through the roof of a house (Luke 5:17 – 29). I even occasionally thank God for my imagination, because it puts pictures to my faith, which is based on things I don’t see in the physical.

Christian fiction, Paula explains, can speak to people’s hearts and heads in a way that many other books about the Bible can’t, and appreciates that we perceive the truth both with our hearts and our minds. Paula says that this is noticeable in the way we think and communicate today, which is based around stories. At the time of Paul, people used to think philosophically; we think more in terms of stories – we see this in sermons all the time,” she says.

So, while Paula absolutely believes in the Holy Spirit helping us to understand the Bible”, she says that scholarship can take you to even greater depths”, as, in the case of Paul’s letters, Roman philosophy and culture of that time are often alluded to. But, if the traditional academic study of biblical literature proves inaccessible, narrative fiction such as Phoebe, can help to bridge the gap.

Book review

Graham Hedges, secretary of Christians in Library and Information Services, could not wait to get stuck in to Phoebe. Read his review.

Book review: Phoebe by Paula Gooder

Book review: Phoebe by Paula Gooder

Graham Hedges reviews Paula Gooder's first work of fiction, Phoebe.
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