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Religion professor brings an ‘apostle on the edge’ to life

This weekend St. Olaf College Associate Professor of Religion James Hanson ’83 will portray the apostle Paul in a one-man play that illustrates the call, mission, and personal anguish that characterize one of Christianity’s most admired and controversial figures.

Hanson wrote Apostle on the Edge, which finds Paul in prison in Rome on what may be the last night of his life. As he tries to come to terms both with his life’s work as Apostle to the Gentiles and with his legacy, he wrestles with his demons, revisits his letters, and confronts his later interpreters with their misunderstandings and betrayals.

“He is asking himself, ‘Have I done everything acceptable to God?’” Hanson says.  “As an actor, I thought it would be fun to take the oral dimensions of scripture to create a hybrid, thereby creating Paul himself.”

What kind of person was Paul?
Hanson says one of the purposes of his study was to get inside Paul’s head; rather than focus on making Paul’s thoughts coherent to an audience, he is more interested in the character who emerges from these letters. He sought to answer the question: what kind of person was the apostle Paul?

“There is so much drama in Paul’s life,” Hanson says. “He has this sacred calling to bring the message of God’s love to the Gentiles before the End comes. He gets jealous and angry, but he writes so much about love.”

Exposure to scripture is nothing unusual for St. Olaf students. But it is an act that typically remains restricted to the text — something Hanson hopes to challenge with his performance. Along with creating Paul’s character, his production offers what he thinks will be a new experience of the letters as he delivers a version of the text intended to orally engage listeners.

“We have to get the image of Paul sitting at a desk, writing, out of our heads,” Hanson says. “Paul composed his letters orally to a secretary… and then he sent them off to be delivered orally to a community.”

Hanson explains that a letter from Paul was meant to act as a substitute for his actual presence, and he hopes his audiences find that encountering Paul’s letters in this way can be a very different experience.

“When Paul talks about those who were strong in faith and those who were weak, the two groups were right there — beside each other — in the audience, listening,” Hanson says.

Preparing the part
Hanson is familiar with the study of Paul, having taught courses about his life and theology, led several Interim trips to Greece and Turkey to visit the landmarks of Paul’s mission, and spent the previous year, including a spring sabbatical, devoted to research about the apostle.

He has also been involved with theater for most of his life, even performing in St. Olaf productions such as a faculty reading of Yazmina Raza’s comedy, God of Carnage, in the fall of 2012.

In preparation for his portrayal of Paul, Hanson is working with director John Woehrle, who has helped him to sharpen Paul’s character and make him come to life as authentically as possible.

Hanson will perform Apostle on the Edge Saturday, November 2, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, November 3, at 2 p.m. in Haugen Theater. Admission is free, and tickets will be available at the door one hour before the performance, or may be reserved by emailing