Four decades ago, a Shakespeare professor remarked in connection with the religious theme of “The Merchant of Venice,” that the difference between the New and Old Testaments comes down to the choice between love and law. Moses brought the commandments; Jesus commanded us to love one another.
My favorite passage in either testament is what I think of as Paul’s concise version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: I Corinthians 13. Its theme of love reflects the spiritual center of the Sermon — the greatest public speech in the history of Western civilization. (Go ahead: Name a better one. A more important one. Or name a speaker — Lincoln, Churchill, King– who would be likely to disagree with my assessment or fail to say of Jesus’ speech what Mozart said of Bach — that all composers are his children.)
I make that assertion on the real, if slender experience of having been a professional speech writer for corporate executives and college presidents. (Well, president — singular.)
The professor’s sermon today is not particularly about either law or love, but rather the uses to which they have been put by speakers — persuaders. Politicians, if you will. Certainly, Paul was one. Indeed, he was all three, not to mention a merchant (he came from makers of sails), a manager (with a secretary), and a martyr (appears to have been met his fate in Rome), the founder of Christianity (that wasn’t Jesus’ ambition) and, of course, a saint.
N0t bad for a Jew.
As I’ve written in the pages of the Public Relations Review, if Paul wasn’t the first public relations practitioner, he was certainly one of the most influential, ever.
But to the theme of my sermon — persuasion. It would be hard to find a more effective persuader than Paul. But then again, religion is among the the world’s richest sources of persuaders, along with politics, business and the military. And while some poems are famous for laying out a persuasive case — Andrew Marvell’s sexy seduction of his coy mistress — when it comes to persuasion, poets are strictly second rate, along with beggars, corporate CEOs and college professors.
Musicians have a special place in persuasion’s hall of fame. What would propaganda be without Beethoven, an army without Strauss, a policeman’s funeral without bagpipes? On the down side, radio commercials are all too seldom without the very worst, grating, generic or cliched sorts of background music, as if awful music were the way to guarantee the sale of GM trucks. (I’m neglecting to mention that generic, American Idolish belting that is the aural wallpaper of dentistry, so falsely advertised as painless, given such hysterical noise.)
Not that religion, much like business, politics and other professions, fails to make instrumental use of music for the purposes of persuasion. I don’t know whether Paul had a musician open for him, or whether like young David he was accomplished on the harp. (Acts is silent on this matter.) And yet there most certainly is music in Paul’s epistles, in their cadences, their structure, their spiritually soaring assertions.
At times I have thought that religion has a monopoly not on music but on love. Both testaments indicate that the Supreme Being is a God of love — even the famously irascible, vengeance-exacting Old Testament Jehovah. Christian theology softens God’s personality with the introduction of a principal actress, Mary, and further reduces the furious intensity with the mind-boggling triangulatory conception of a three-in-one godhead, a trio that brings onto the stage with Father and Son a Holy Ghost.
Even for theologians, that’s an intellectually challenging collection.