Did you know that lifelong bachelor, the Apostle Paul, once had a love interest? And that his protege, Timothy, had a childhood friend who encouraged him in a most tsundere-like way?
Well, that’s fine, because this is all part of the creative license that writer Matthew Salisbury took in crafting the OEL manga, Paul: Tarsus to Redemption. And it was a most excellent decision.
This three-volume series follows the life of the Apostle Paul, from his days as a persecutor of Christians, when he was named Saul, to his trial in Rome in front of the Emperor Nero. Though expansive in the material it covers, the series moves swiftly, focusing on a few key events and treading years between each volume.
As I mentioned earlier, the book doesn’t remain slavish to the Bible. While Salisbury and artist, Sean Lam, recreate certain scenes from the Book of Acts fairly faithfully, they add dialogue missing from those accounts and add scenes that could have happened, but which are never discussed in the Bible. One example is a storyline in the second volume about a woman in Paul’s life. It’s never fully indicated that she’s a love interest, but Paul certainly seems to like her. The relationship is quietly romantic; I also thought it a bit funny when reflecting that the Apostle Paul, who so steadfastly defended singlehood in his letters, may have almost married once upon a time. The storyline also becomes quite powerful when it takes an unexpected turn near the end of volume two.
These fill-ins become as important to the tale as Biblical events like Paul’s shipwreck and his trial. They present Paul’s mission and the Christian themes of the story in a subtle, symbolic light; the story can thus be enjoyed, avoiding a didactic tone that turns off most Christians and non-Christians alike. The method also helps us become attached to the main characters. Paul is presented as caring, passionate, and strong. Timothy, who is as much the main protagonist of the final volume as Paul, is the typical headstrong youth that we commonly see in manga, while his childhood friend, Phoebe, is a source of humor that adds both a manga feel and a human touch to the tale.
Sean Lam’s artwork is neat and clean. Certain panels are outstanding – one top-down view of Jerusalem was so beautifully illustrated that I paused for a minute to admire it. I wish there were more of these detailed scenes in the series.
If there is a major criticism, it’s that action sometimes moved too fast. Three volumes seemed hardly enough room to tell such a broad tale, and at times the series was rushed. Just as soon as character development occurred, the protagonists were tossed into danger – there was little lead-in, which sometimes led to an exhaustive reading. There were also a number of pages that I had to reread for clarity, though to be fair, I commonly need to do this with most manga series I read.
Still, the volumes were surprisingly enthralling. Christian fiction has always been a source of criticism, for its blandness as much as anything. Lukewarm reviews of Christian-themed manga have echoed these sentiments. But in Paul: Tarsus to Redemption, Salisbury and Lam have done something unlikely – created a story with Christian themes, based on Biblical accounts, and not only presented it in a thoroughly entertaining manner, but also made is accessible to non-Christians. It’s not just good Christian manga – it’s good manga, period.
And that’s worthy of an AMEN.