A Talk with James Cannon1. Your career has been largely devoted to covering politics as a journalist and working for political leaders such as Governor Nelson Rockefeller, President Gerald Ford, and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. What motivated you to write a book about Saint Paul?My interest in leadership and the qualities that make an effective leader. As a journalist, I focused on leaders in public life, some of whom made history; as a working politician, I observed leadership close at hand. Paul, I learned years ago from Historian William McNeill’s classic The Rise of the West, was a leader who changed the course of history by bringing Christianity to the Western World. I wanted to learn more about the Paul the man and how he accomplished his mission. I discovered that leadership then, as in modern times, required a man or woman with vision, purpose, a message, moral and physical courage, stamina, and the resolve to overcome all obstacles to make the vision a reality.2. Though Paul is a religious figure, your book, Apostle Paul, falls under the category of “Historical Fiction.” What role does the setting play in your telling of Paul’s story, and how did you go about recreating it?The setting: Cultural and social conflict. Paul was a Jew in a Greek world dominated by Roman arms. By nature and the circumstances in which he lived and traveled, he comes across as a tripartite character: Greek in ethics, education, and in his passion to be free to live his life his way; Jew in intellect, tenacity, and ability to survive, and Roman by citizenship and in his respect for order and authority. The circumstance of Paul’s time was unique: Caesar Augustus imposed the Pax Romana, such a peace on the Roman Empire that it was safer to travel in the Middle East then than it is today.3. What do you think your fictional account of Paul’s life can give to readers that they cannot get from reading the Bible?First, and importantly, that Paul was not born a saint. In fact, in his first career he was such a vengeful prosecutor of the Law of Moses that the followers of Jesus considered him a terrorist.The New Testament offers only fragments of Paul’s life: He was a native of Tarsus -- “no mean city,” as he boasted. Tarsus was an important Roman seaport and overland trade center, with a collection of universities second only to Athens. It was there that he got a Hebrew and Greek education before he attended the rabbinical school of Gamaliel, then the Harvard-Yale-Stanford of Jewish advanced education. The date of his birth can be calculated at about 9 A.D. He was a Roman citizen, probably by inheritance. Tarsus was a timocracy, which meant you could buy citizenship for 500 denarii. A denari was a day’s wage for a skilled stonecutter. From this I inferred that Paul’s father was a well-respected Jew of great wealth. Paul writes, several times, that his devotion to Christ cost him “everything.’My purpose in writing this fictional biography was to present Paul not as a remote figure but as a man who would, if he were alive today, be in the headlines and on the nightly news.4. What is your own relationship to Christianity? Do you think your book will be of interest to non-believers as well as believers, and if so, why?I am a Christian, member of the Episcopal Church. I attend regularly and have in the past been active in Church administration. For example, twice I was involved in selecting a new rector for the church I attended. This book is about a classic quest. It tells a compelling story of a man who was a leader, a campaigner, a writer, an explorer and adventurer, a man of vision and a man of action. I believe it should interest anyone who likes biography and history, or who is simply drawn to a good story.5. . What do you think people already very familiar with Paul’s story will find surprising about your take on it?That Paul was more robust than pious, more fighter than peacemaker. He had a dark side: He was vain, egocentric, and “the thorn in the flesh” that troubled him was almost certainly a lust for women. On the positive side, he was —- as so many leaders have been throughout history — charismatic, brilliant of mind, articulate, fiercely independent, and indefatigable in carrying out his mission in life.Paul was, moreover, the best organizer the church ever had. He was a great captain who methodically trained his Christian soldiers, gave them courage for the battle, and marched at their head to free mankind from pagan myth and god. Paul conquered not by the sword but by the elemental force of his belief that every man and every woman on earth could attain immortality. In the path of his conquests Paul left an occupation force, cadres of converts and cells of young churches; and through them he built an empire bound together not by force of arms, not by the lure of trade, but simply by an idea.6. How has writing the book affected your own views and beliefs?In a personal sense, the more I learned about Paul as a man, the better I understood his message. And the more I probed into his writing and actions, the more I came to respect him as a leader. Clearly Paul was a soul in conflict. Proud of his accomplishments, yet tormented that his zeal, great as it was, was inadequate to his transcending mission, Paul nevertheless advanced in his quest with a fortitude and determination rarely matched by any leader in history.7. How long did it take you to write this book?Ten Years.
" I have just finished Apostle Paul. I enjoyed your book a lot. I read the Bible, and your book helps me better understand the letters and the life of Paul." — President George W. Bush, in a letter to James Cannon
"Cannon masters both character and setting as he brings Paul and the world of first-century Christianity to life.... Without ever sacrificing story, Cannon neatly explores the various doctrinal squabbles between Paul and the apostles who knew Jesus. A solid addition to the biblicial fiction shelves." — Booklist
" A splendid work of disciplined imagination, giving flesh to a complex man who sought to live by the Spirit." — Kenneth L. Woodward, longtime Religion Editor of Newsweek and author of Making Saints
"A provincial Jewish intellectual sets out in life to kill Christians and ends by making Christianity the triumphant faith of the Western world. Cannon's novel makes this passionate and baffling mystic totally and plausibly human." — Russell Baker