Monday, July 21, 2014

Simon, Who Is Called Peter by Mackenzie Mulligan

Source of book: I was given a copy by the author

First, in the interest of full disclosure, let me note that this review is a bit of a first for me. I have never reviewed a book written by someone who I know even a little bit. (Leave aside for a minute the fact that a great many of the authors I read are, well, dead.) This is not because I don’t know any authors personally. Rather, it is because I have a hard time writing an honest review of a book when I know that I will have to personally interact with the author afterward. Also, in many cases, I may not enjoy the book, not because of its faults, but because of the genre. For example, I really dislike self help books, books on current politics, most genre fiction, and many books in the “women’s” section. That is a personal preference, not a reflection on the merits of any of those genres. So I tend to avoid writing about these books for the same reason I don’t review hip-hop music or green bean casserole recipes.

The reasons I chose to make an exception in this case are as follows. First, I do not know the author in person, just online. Thus, if he hates my review, there won’t be any awkward moments when we see each other. Second, the way we met (at least on my end) was that he made some insightful and interesting comments on my review of Till We Have Faces. Upon further exploration, we discovered a mutual love of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton. I also discovered that he and I might just be the two last remaining young men of our generations who are still Arminians, rather than neo-Calvinists (or, more accurately in many cases, neo-Puritans.) Finally, the topic of the book sounded interesting, so I took a chance.

In any case, I am not likely to be taking on reviews on request as a general rule. I blog purely for my own pleasure - I do not make a dime in any way from the blog. Likewise, I read for pleasure and my own education, so I am only likely to read books that I think will be worth my time for one of those reasons. So, future inevitable author of Amish Vampires of the Tribulation, don’t bother.

According to the Afterword, Mulligan began this book as part of his senior project while at Biola University. It kind of got out of hand and turned into a book.

If you want to read more about Mulligan, he blogs at


Simon, Who Is Called Peter is written as a first person account by the apostle Peter of his life and experiences. All of the original disciples are fascinating, but Peter has to be one of the most intriguing by any measure. (For the record, I tend to identify with the skeptical Thomas rather than the impulsive Peter.)

It is easy to make the saints of the past into types, mere cardboard outlines with some piety in the middle, but they are really more fascinating in their humanity than in their greatness. The Bible is a much more earthy book than we tend to acknowledge, filled with more failure than success, and more frailty than strength. Peter serves as a great example of all of the above, mixed together in a marvelously human contradiction.

Mulligan takes the approach of sticking entirely to the biblical account, with a very few exceptions taken deliberately to make the narrative flow. In each case, he footnotes and explains his decision. In addition, where there are multiple views as to the meaning of events, he explains those views, and why he chose his particular narrative path. For anyone wishing to follow along in their own bibles, he also footnotes the sources. The link to the academic project that birthed this book is pretty clear, and in that sense, the book does have a little bit of an academic flavor. I am a bit OCD when it comes to footnotes, so I kept breaking the narrative to read them. (I’m even worse with endnotes, trying futilely to keep a pinky finger in the back of the book so I can toggle back and forth…)

As a narrative story, I found the writing to be fluid and natural. I’m sure that if the real Saint Peter had written it, it would have read quite differently. (Peter was a fisherman, unlikely to have been polished in Greek, and appears to have credited his editor or ghostwriter in his epistles.) Mulligan, on the other hand, writes the story with polish, giving evidence of his English degree and extensive reading. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I enjoy good writing, and the polish gives Peter the chance to be more introspective and in touch with his own feelings than he may have been had he tried to put it all into writing himself. In addition, it isn’t far off from the tone that Peter’s editor/ghostwriter took in his epistles.

One thing that Mulligan captured well was Peter’s impulsiveness. If any a man ever seemed to act without even realizing what he was doing and saying, it would be Saint Peter. It is a good part of what makes him so fascinating. In this book, Peter truly can’t understand why he does what he does - and I think that is exactly as it should be. Everything from amazing courage - even recklessness - to senseless cowardice, and from brilliant insight to the ability to miss the obvious: all of us know someone like this, who is both loveable and irritating.

I’ll also note that Mulligan sticks closely to his purpose: a first person narrative of the details. There is no digression regarding the culture of the day, or the theological framework, or much of anything outside of the Gospels and Acts. Don’t expect a full theological tome, or an expanded history. It isn’t a commentary, or a book with an axe to grind.

It is a straightforward and unsensational tale of an ordinary man, impulsive and generous, and his experience with Christ. At less than 120 pages, it is a quick read.

While little will be new knowledge to someone who is well-versed (sorry about the pun) in the Gospel accounts, there were a couple of things that I did notice for the first time.

First, since I am not really a theology nerd nor skilled in the languages of the bible, I missed an interesting point that Mulligan makes in a footnote. In the iconic meeting between Saint Peter and Jesus after the resurrection, where Christ asks Peter if he loves him, much hay, and by that I mean much hay, has been made of the different Greek words used for love in that passage. I have heard quite a few theories about the significance of the words used, and one can easily end up with a theological knot of Gordian complexity. Mulligan takes a slice that seems obvious, once you read it: Jesus and Peter weren’t speaking Greek during this conversation. They were speaking Aramaic. Which doesn’t have the different words for love like Greek does. So, either the writer of the Gospel of John (traditionally believed to be Saint John) used the different words for some point of his own, which wasn’t actually part of the conversation, or he just did it for some random or stylistic reason. (My snarky side wonders if he had a Greek 101 teacher who taught him not to repeat the same word too much, but to look for synonyms…) In any case, it is a reminder that many theological disputes may be rooted in translation semantics rather than the plain will of God.

The other thing that I hadn’t really considered was just how weird Peter’s name - or rather nickname - was. Maybe we consider nicknames to be a common part of our experience, but when Simon was dubbed “Peter,” it really was a strange name. Probably even stranger than Dwayne Johnson’s eventual appropriation of Peter’s moniker. If one may be so bold, “You shall no longer be Jesse, but shall be called, ‘The Body.’” Or something like that. (Pro wrestling meets theology?)


If you want to get this book, Amazon is probably your best bet, as I do not know how widely available it is elsewhere.

One quibble I have is that, for some reason, it isn’t currently available on Kindle. I can’t imagine it would be that hard to make available in that format as well.

For another book on the disciples, see my review of John MacArthur’s book.


  1. Thanks so much for the awesome review! I'm glad you enjoyed it (and I have to admit, the "Aramaic vs. Greek" thing never occurred to me, either, until I saw it in the commentary!). And yes, I briefly considered simply exchanging Peter for "Rock," but everyone agreed that it would be too distracting.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that it IS now available in Kindle! So that's cool.

    1. Great to hear it is Kindle too. Thanks for sending the book my way.