Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul's 'Real'

A Lacanian Approach

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Concetta V. Principe
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , May
     245 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s “Real”: A Lacanian Approach is an ambitious but readable multidisciplinary foray into political theology, critical theory, Pauline studies, Jewish mysticism, and much more. Concetta V. Principe covers such a vast range of thinkers that to attempt to list them all would push this review over its word count. One might expect a book that does so much parlaying with critical theory, biblical and extra-biblical studies, and psychoanalysis to be dense and almost unreadable, but this was not my experience. That being said, one cannot come to this book without some prior acquaintance with its main conversation partners.

The focus of this book is on the secular thinkers who, as critical theorists, philosophers, and psychoanalysts, have found in the Apostle Paul a useful paradigm of messianic liberation: Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Jacob Taubes, Slavoj Zizek, etc. In addition, Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” serves as a hendiadys for the book as a whole. The work of others, such as Paul Rosenzweig and Jacques Derrida, are put forward as the antitheses to the Pauline messianic ideal.

Interspersed into this conversation are historians and theologians who seem, from my perspective, to be chosen more for their particular take on Paul rather than a thoroughgoing historical or theological method. While it is impressive to see such a wide range of thinkers brought into this one conversation, at times this conversation seems to be a mile wide and an inch deep. While it is widespread practice for critical theorists to revel in reading diverse texts together to tease out new meanings—Plato would call this sophistry—historical and theological scholars tend to focus on which reading(s) more accurately reflects what they believe could have taken place—as in doing hard science. So, when Principe teases out meanings by reading historians with and against each other, for example with Segal and Sanders, it raises the question of the historical legitimacy of the results. I’m not saying this is unheard of, but is likely to be seen as questionable among some schools of thought.

The core tenet of this book is what makes it a fascinating read. In the introduction, Principe asks a particularly relevant question: “why does ‘messiah’ have currency in secular discourse at all?” (2). This is the question that drives the discussion of the whole book. For Principe, what is called “secularism” is really “Christian” in that it depends on the idea of an exception. The recent return to the writings of Paul demonstrates that Paul’s concept of the messianic, focused on Jesus, is the “traumatic kernel” resulting from his encounter with the “Real.” This concept led Paul to preach a universalistic religion—Christianity—and ironically, placed Judaism in the position of the exception. This switching from Jews to Jesus, or conversion from Judaism to Christianity, is seen as repeated in the many traumas experienced by Jews in subsequent European history.

While I find this an intriguing—and impressive—Lacanian reading of Paul’s experience and message, I also believe it has a few “bugs” to be fixed. One of those would be that Principe’s reading of the historical and theological schools of Pauline scholarship is too facile. The field is huge and contentious and she simply doesn’t spend enough time conversing with it. I especially think a deeper familiarity with the “New Perspective on Paul” would have been productive. Second, while I feel that Principe is correct that Christianity has treated the Jewish people as the exception by which Christianity is defined, I would argue that a careful reading of Paul’s letters does not implicate Paul so much. Language in the Gospel of John, on the other hand, is quite damning. As for the political oppression of the Jewish people, it is more accurate to point to Theodosius I of the Byzantine Empire—some would go back further to Constantine—but not Paul. Ironically, these historical roots of political anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish behavior are not discussed in a book about political theology, messianism, and Judaism. The third “bug” is that Martin Luther does not figure into this discussion. Luther’s reading of Paul is a major resource in reading the Jewish people as the exception. It was Luther who read Paul’s Damascus road experience as a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. And later in his life, Luther was quite hostile towards the Jews for not converting to Christianity. It was Krister Stendahl, in his essay, “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles,” who identified this Lutheran reading and argued convincingly that Paul did not have a conversion experience, but rather, experienced a call. Stendahl also was a factor in setting the “New Perspective on Paul” on its way to a friendlier reading of Jews and Judaism in Paul’s letters. While Principe also correctly sees Paul’s Damascus road experience as a call, she falls back into the Lutheran reading by implying that Paul switched sides, as it were.

Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s “Real”: A Lacanian Approach is, to conclude, a worthwhile read and deserves a place in the expanding field of Pauline studies. Principe has done us a favor by pulling together many strands of the scholarship and presenting them in a unified manner based upon a Lacanian reading. I applaud this application of Lacanian theory to Paul’s life and teaching, but I also recommend a bit of historical corrective to some of its findings. Further research and debate will flesh out this work and we will benefit even more.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas C. Edmondson is senior pastor at First Christian Church of Atlanta.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Concetta V. Principe is an adjunct professor in the Humanities Department at York University.



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