Book Review: The Philippian Fragment



Author: Calvin Miller

Date: 1982

Publisher: InterVarsity

Length: 175 pages

Illustrations: drawings and decorations by Joe DeVelasco

Quote: “He loves all men and especially those who are of the household of faith. But his preaching is a persecution of the saints.”

Calvin Miller, an innovative minister best known for his poetic rendering of the New Testament as the Singer Trilogy, turned his hand to satire in a collection of epistles allegedly written by a second-century pastor in the church at Philippi.

According to the blurb on the jacket, the story “demonstrates conclusively that in church life the more things change, the more they remain the same.” A work of satirical fiction is not exactly historical proof. There was no such person as Marcus Sparkus, who had “written thirty-two scrolls now, with such titles as The Impossible Possibility, This Way to Success, The Zeal Deal, and the ever popular You Are Numerus Unus,” before being thrown to the lions—“It left the class unsettled.” Even in the 1980s that didn’t happen, although the careers of Jim Bakker, Bob Schuller, and Pat Robertson suggested that some Christians wished it would.

History also disappoints us by failing to mention Croonus Swoonus, who “is through crooning that he ‘found his thrill on Palatine Hill’…there were numerous rumors that his singing career was about over when he had the good fortune to be born again.” Little Richard, who was bouncing in and out of churches in the 1980s, was not unique in history, but neither did he have this precise parallel in second-century Philippi.

Then there’s Hezekiah the Abominable Monster of Bythinia: “He was at the business meeting in the congregation in Cenchrea where a brother was dismissed for his views on baptism…Hezekiah…became distraught…It put such a strain on his own need to be secure he began weeping and then, of course, chewing scrolls.” Indeed, “Some say the Ghoul of Galatia” (who “lurks outside empty churches on the dark of the moon and pounces on old elders”) “is a wolf who once wore sheep’s clothing until he saw the sheep devouring each other.”

Flippant, irreverent comedy? Or wise insights into the group dynamics that cause church and Bible study groups to fall apart, with a tendency to help students laugh off their quarrels and focus on what matters? Moreover, do the characters, in their own way, tend to glorify God?

Sister Phoebe, who can’t bring herself to vote on the question of whether Jesus might be expected to return before or after the Tribulation, despite “studying furiously,” leaves a “scroll study” to visit the lepers and spends the afternoon binding lesions. Brother Coriolanus forms a grudge against Eusebius when Eusebius fails to promote Coriolanus’s daughter; he recommends that Eusebius join an order of silent monks, and when Eusebius is put in prison he’s willing to inherit Eusebius’s good clothes right away, but when he finds himself in prison too Coriolanus “no longer speaks for God but is content to seek Him.” Eusebius himself fears that he “will embarrass God running and crying before the lions.” He won’t. This fictional Eusebius can only be imagined as a sort of distant relative to the real Saint Eusebius, but if he’d been real, his famous cousin would have no reason to feel ashamed of him.

I tend to vote thumbs up on The Philippian Fragment. It’s written for college students; it addresses the questions that cause unnecessary grief to college students; its snarky tone is likely to appeal to students, and I think it steers students in the right direction. In the end I think it uplifts Christ more than it rebukes Christians, although it does both.

Unfortunately, The Philippian Fragment no longer qualifies as a Fair Trade Book, but if you send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you can add this book to a package that includes one or more Fair Trade Books and pay only the one $5 shipping charge.

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