R.W. “Obie” Holmen – Author Interview

Tell us something about yourself.

RW “Obie” Holmen has deep midwestern roots in Scandinavian Lutheranism. He received his K-12 education in Upsala, Minnesota, in the heart of Lake Wobegon country, playing the sport that was in season and participating in a wide variety of extracurricular activities that was only possible in a small high school.

In the fall of ’66, Obie matriculated at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. After an interruption for a Viet Nam tour of duty, he returned to Dartmouth to receive his bachelor’s degree in history in 1972, earning summa cum laude honors his senior year. By then, he was married to Lynn, and they returned to Minnesota where Obie enrolled in the University Law School, earning a juris doctor degree in 1975. He entered the private practice of law in St. Cloud, Minnesota, working as a civil trial attorney. In the early 90’s, he spent a couple of years, part-time, as a graduate student with the Benedictines of St John’s School of Theology in nearby Collegeville, Minnesota. It was then that Obie first considered a novel about Paul, and the idea festered until he finally put pen to paper a few years ago.

Obie has been married to Lynn for nearly forty years, and they have three adult children and one recent grandchild. They now reside in Northfield, Minnesota. Lynn and Obie are lifelong Lutherans with involvement on the progressive side of ELCA political skirmishes. Obie participated in the momentous ELCA Church Wide Assembly of 2009 as a volunteer for Goodsoil, a Lutheran LGBT advocacy group. He is the blogger behind Spirit of a Liberal, a blog of progressive, religious themes, and he also offers occasional posts to Open Tabernacle blog as the only Protestant among a collaborative team of otherwise Catholic bloggers.

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Jesus authored no writings. Nor did any of those who followed him in the Galilee or during his fateful pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It fell to an outsider, who first opposed the movement and who never met the anointed one from Nazareth, to become its reporter, memorialist, essayist, interpreter, and promoter. Paul the apostle. Paul the one untimely born. Paul the enigma.

Most fiction authors must create colorful characters. This novel’s protagonist comes ready-made with knotty complications and buffeted by conflict from all sides. It has been the author’s task to allow the complex, critical, controversial man from Tarsus to bloom before the reader’s eyes.

So too, the setting. To the Jews of Palestine, the Pax Romana was a brutalizing experience of occupying tyrants. Their very culture was at stake as the alluring attraction of Hellenism threatened traditional Hebrew ways. Cross currents of factionalism wafted through the stalls of market vendors in the outer courts of God’s holy house, the Temple of Jerusalem. The priests and the aristocrats, mere puppets of their Roman masters, feared the daggermen of the shadows. The stench of colonialist oppression fouled the air, stirred by the fresh breeze of revolution. Caught between two cultures, Hebrew and Hellenist, Paul dared promote a Jewish Messiah to a Gentile world.

So too, the plot. Following their leader’s death, the mantle of leadership of the Jesus movement weighed heavily upon the shoulders of Jesus’ own brother, James. For a full generation, he struggled to keep the movement alive amongst the Jews of Jerusalem with the bloody Romans all around. His burden was all the weightier because an upstart foreigner, a Jew who acted like a Gentile, who never met his brother but claimed a vision on the road to Damascus, would have the Jews turn their back on the traditions of the elders, would bring the pollution of Hellenism to the Jesus movement, and would turn his brother’s legacy into a Gentile religion. For nearly three decades, Paul and James contended for the heart and soul of the Jesus movement. Christianity was forged in the crucible of their conflict.
It’s all there, it’s all part of our history. It has been the author’s happy task to peel back the layers of two millennia of historical debris and allow these colorful characters and their complicated, conflicted story to come alive again. Characters, conflict, setting, and plot. The story is there; the author merely had to tell it.

What inspired you to write this book?

The most frequent question I hear is “Why Paul? Why did you choose to write about Paul?”

Why bother with a man nearly 2000 years dead with a reputation as an anti-Semite, apologist for slavery, misogynist, and a gay-bashing homophobe? Paul was not one of Jesus’ disciples; in fact, he never met the man from Nazareth. The early followers of Jesus, including his own family, probably regarded the man from Tarsus as an outsider, a usurper, a pretend Pharisee, a “Hellenist”–Hebrew by blood but Greek by language and culture: a man on the margins. For awhile, the working title of the novel was The Jewish Gentile.

But wait, was this not also the man who wrote of Christian egalitarianism, of boundary breaking inclusivity, and whose good news of a gracious God inspired Augustine in the fourth century, Luther in the sixteenth, Barth a mere century ago, and whose message of love unconditional continues to stir our hearts? “Why Paul?” Because he is a puzzling enigma, that’s part of my answer.

Jesus himself authored no writings. Nor did any of those who followed him in the Galilee or during his fateful pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It fell to Paul the outsider, who first opposed the movement, to become its reporter, memorialist, essayist, interpreter, and promoter. At one time, over half the books of the New Testament were attributed to his hand, and this is also part of my answer: “Why Paul?”–because he is the most important man, outside of Jesus of Nazareth, in Christian history. For good or ill, even the secularist would acknowledge his profound influence on western civilization’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

But, there’s more to it. There are more personal reasons for choosing Paul.

Mid-twentieth century American novelist Thomas Wolfe said, “The artist is religious man.” I write because I wonder. That’s my answer. I wonder about the “higher power” of the twelfth step group, and I wonder why I have spent more than half my three score years, and counting, as a clean and sober man. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” it is said, and I wonder. I wonder about the mysterious God revealed to Job in the whirlwind. Job said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” With William James, I wonder about the nature of religious experience; what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus? I wonder about the God revealed in the words of Holy Writ. What truths are unveiled there, but also what untruths? As citizens of the twenty-first century, how are we to interpret the writings of Paul, a man with keen insight into a gracious God, but who also condoned slavery and counseled women to be silent in church? And then there is our issue, a twenty-first century issue that roils our pews and our politics, the issue of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters. How can we make sense of the harsh “clobber passages” penned by Paul?

Because I wonder, I write. And so, as I invite you to imagine yourself into Paul’s journey, I am also inviting you to tag along on my journey too. Come, wonder with me.

Did you have a particular audience you wanted to reach with it?

Progressive religious.

How did you go about doing research for this book? What was the most challenging part of that?

The novel is extensively researched following the best and latest academic literature. Critics and readers praise the level of detail that allows the reader to imagine their way into the first century world of the Roman empire.

Avoiding anachronism was the greatest challenge.

What are you reading now?

Novel: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
Non-fiction: Christus Victor by Gustaf Aulen

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Be persistent. Learn and work at craft. Take yourself seriously.

What are you doing to promote your latest book?

Personal appearances, book signings, exhibitor booth at church conventions.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?