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Being Real: The Apostle Paul’s Hardship Narratives and the Stories We Tell Today

By Philip Plyming

Review by LJ Tiffney, curate in Blackburn Diocese

SCM Press, 2023, £16.99

ISBN 978-0-3340-6556-2

Being Real is accessible and engaging, whilst also posing incisive and thought-provoking questions around sharing stories with authenticity and vulnerability. The book does not aim to give simple answers to the questions it raises, but it does help the reader to find a new vantage point from which they can view and make sense of their stories.

The book begins with a brief tour of the city of Corinth through some of its significant features and prominent inhabitants, where Plyming succeeds in his aim to engage with the Bible with a full imaginative seriousness, bringing the city to life. This forms a good foundation for helping the reader to understand not only the context into which Paul was writing, but also to discover some of the similarities with aspects of Western culture today.

By exploring the stories of physical, emotional, and social hardship that Paul shares with the Corinthians, the reader is invited to discover how Paul sees his experiences in light of the cross. Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just a past event for Paul, but the framework through which he understands how God is at work in the world – in unlikely and unpromising places.

Part of the attractiveness of this book is that Plyming rises to his own challenge, by sharing moments along his own journey of trying to embrace the vulnerability of stories that talk of weakness. But more helpfully than that, in his chapter on ‘Viewing Our Stories Through the Cross, he invites the reader to consider some perceptive and incisive questions regarding the manner in which we share our stories. He challenges the reader not to unthinkingly follow Paul’s example, but to genuinely examine their motives, to theologically engage with what they are doing when they share their stories, rather than getting sucked into, or succumbing to, the pressure of cultural norms and expectations.

Despite not being the main aim of the book, Plyming does at points engage with the topic of suffering and the damage that can be done by presumptuous or over-simplified responses. The conclusion also covers an important consideration concerning power dynamics.

Whilst this book does not specifically mention preaching – allowing it to be read by a much wider audience – the application to that context is easily extrapolated. Plyming invites the reader to consider what it might mean for them to be ‘a co-teller in the story of the cross’[1], which could be used as a description of what a person is doing when they preach. This book is particularly helpful for grappling with the way in which the stories we share, particularly the difficult ones, can be used to point towards the hope we have in God.


[1] pg. 131

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