|Paula Gooder's book 'Phoebe'|
Paula Gooder, Phoebe: A Story, Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
Phoebe is somewhere between a historical novel, an exceptionally good interactive museum guide, and an adult’s version of the children’s TV series The Storykeepers, full of daring young Christians braving the culture around them to pass on the stories and letters that they have been entrusted with.
The book consists of two parts. First comes the main body of the book, the fictional story of Phoebe in Rome. She has travelled there from Corinth with a task from Paul and a secret mission of her own. It’s not exactly a novel - though it has much of the narrative arc of one, and is as much of a page-turner. It's a fictional account of what life as an early Christian would have been like, told through the eyes of Phoebe, the deacon mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. It’s an engrossing story, and Gooder's profound scholarship is lightly and effectively incorporated.
In telling this story, although it is fictional, Gooder draws on her own considerable scholarship, both biblical and historical. The second part consists of historical notes, referencing and explaining some of the details and the evidence behind the artistic licence taken in the story.
One of the episodes that stands out most for me is when Phoebe first encounters the Roman Christians telling the stories about Jesus that have been handed down among them. She is astonished – in Corinth, we’re told, they argued about theology with passion and vigour, but she has never come across this kind of corporate storytelling before. That was an entirely new insight for me into the variety of the early Christian experience.
Similarly, later in the book Peter visits Rome, and tells them a story they hadn’t heard before – that of his betrayal of Jesus before cock crow, and then his forgiveness by Jesus at the lakeside. The way in which Gooder describes the hearers of this story incorporating this new insight, this new detail, into their faith – and its impact on one main character, who feels himself to be beyond forgiveness - is electrifying. Its a very effective and thought-provoking dramatisation of how the early Christians received the content of their faith as a continuing process of revelation rather than as a package deal.
We also see how different groups with the Roman church react to aspects of the letter Phoebe carries – Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ - which causes as much consternation as interest! The tension between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus on certain points is sympathetically portrayed, and Gooder succeeds in winning our empathy on all sides.
Gooder also deftly handles the question of different attitudes to women. Nobody in the book is opposed to Phoebe’s presence as Paul’s deputy. But there are sparks of tension as the wisdom of women preaching – and thus risking attracting unwelcome attention or persecution to the whole group – is debated. Phoebe’s own back-story is a moving and all-too-real one of human trafficking and the vulnerabilities of young women – in which Roman society seems both impossibly distant from, and yet eerily close to, our own.
I read this book in two sittings, and came away feeling almost as if I had just heard some of the stories about Jesus for the first time - as if I was having to make a really difficult decision about whether to risk following this new way - as if it mattered. There's a freshness and urgency to the story that captures something of what it must have been like to be hearing all this for the first time.