From Paul to Better Call Saul
The concept of Better Call Saul didn’t intrigue me at first. Breaking Bad had just ended. That rollercoaster was still fresh, and a show centered around Saul Goodman obviously had to be a ridiculous sitcom about a scummy lawyer. My initial impression of the show’s concept was completely wrong, for which I’m thankful. Better Call Saul turned out to be not only as well done, deep, and powerful a display of storytelling as Breaking Bad, but in all honesty, surpasses it in areas.
The deep heartfelt struggle of Jimmy McGill to come into his own identity in the shadow of his legendary brother and the steady decline of his heart and character were a powerful story to witness. It also helped to have the delightfully dry presence of Mike Ehrmantraut, the neurotic presence of Gus Fringe, and the surprising depth of Kim Wexler and Nacho. But after watching this series for a time, and after a hearty podcast discussion on the subject, it truly hit me that Saul Goodman had the inverted Journey of Saul of Tarsus. If you are familiar with the Watchmen universe, their lives display a fearful symmetry.
Goodman’s story began with him in a place of hustle and integrity. As the younger brother of the great Chuck McGill, He had the responsibility to live up to that great name and calling. His story started in that place, and led him down the dark path of moral decline, deception, crime, murder, and ultimately hiding out in a Cinnabon in Nebraska.
Saul of Tarsus’s story starts out with him at his worst. He’s part of bringing down the early Christian church. He’s a nefarious bringer of death unrivaled to early Christians, and by the end of his journey he is one of the most well-known and integrity-filled followers of Christ to exist. He was doing everything to live up to the great name and calling of Jesus Christ. Both of their stories show that regardless of where you are in your journey, you still have the opportunity and ability to completely change the course of your outcome. No matter how deeply you’ve traveled down the dark or light paths, there is always the ability or danger to turn around.
When we look at the beginning of Saul’s story in Acts chapter 9, we see how dark things were,
"As “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.” - Acts 9:1-2
As we finish Saul’s story in Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul, he’s not only a corrupt lawyer who is the epitome of everything he didn’t want to be, but also a middle man for a handful of the biggest criminals, murderers, and drug dealers in the world. Between the two of them, both of them had moments where they decided to completely abandon who they were before and peruse a new life. For Jimmy, it was at the end of season 4 and the beginning of season 5. After all that had happened with Chuck, his disbarment, and the dirt he experienced while actually trying to do good, he was going to become Saul Goodman. Saul wasn’t an unfamiliar name to him. It had once been a joking pun. Then it became a quick alias for slightly nefarious deeds. Then, it started to slowly become his full identity.
Saul of Tarsus changed his identity too, and while a name change is involved, it’s not always as clear as we understood it to be in the simple telling. Like Jimmy had already established who Saul Goodman was, Saul of Tarsus was his Jewish name and Paul was his Roman name. Saul of Tarsus had dual citizenship because he was a Jew born as a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus. He chose to use Paul more exclusively when he started following Christ. Like Saul Goodman, the name didn’t just come out of nowhere. But also, like Saul Goodman, the name change itself was a gradual progression into who he was becoming. It wasn’t just that they changed their names, their actions changed. Check out Saul’s conversion in Acts 9.
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus” - Acts 9: 3-19
Saul of Tarsus had this amazing conversion where he met Jesus, but people didn’t start calling him Paul right out the gate. People called in Saul for a long time. Just like when Jimmy McGill began addressing himself as Saul Goodman, it didn’t instantly take. The people who knew him best still called him Jimmy.
His former foil, Howard, brings up the topic over lunch,
Howard: Tell me about Saul Goodman Saul: What do you mean? Howard: Well what I mean is, if he’s not Jimmy McGill who is he, what’s he about.? Saul: Well, Saul Goodman uh.. He's last line of defense for the little guy. You getting sold down the river, he’s a life raft. You getting stepped on, he's a sharp stick. you got Goliath on your back, Saul’s the guy with the slingshot. He's a writer of wrongs, he’s a friend to the friendless. That’s Saul Goodman. Howard: Wow, couldn’t Jimmy McGill do all that? Saul: Maybe he could, but uh, Saul Goodman is.”
They looked at the name change as something silly. They knew that deep down, he was still Jimmy, but by the time we see him in Breaking Bad, no one calls him Jimmy. He had fully grown into his new identity. Saul of Tarsus had his conversion in Acts chapter 9, but if you keep reading, he is still addressed as Saul for a long time. You will notice the switch up in Acts chapter 13. In Acts 13:7, he is addressed as Saul, and then in verse 9 they establish he is also called Paul and make the switch.
“They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.” - Acts 13:6-11.
Four chapters may not seem like a big deal, but in that time, a lifetime of change and ministry was happening. Seriously, go back and read what takes place just within those four chapters. See how Saul of Tarsus’ reputation and reception had changed. Saul's conversion is in Acts 9 and people didn't start addressing him as Paul until Acts 13. A lot of time, action, and growth takes place in those 4 chapters. It was never about the label; it was about the change. He became a different person, and people began addressing him differently. Some of us are out here more concerned about what people call us than we are with what we actually do.
But the reality we need to face is that regardless of what we are calling ourselves, people will truly see who we are.
One of the things that play a factor in who we become is who we surround ourselves with. I’m talking the people who we allow to influence us and let shift the dynamic of our actions and attitudes. When we meet Saul of Tarsus in scripture in Acts chapter 7, he is literally rolling with self-righteous murderers.
“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” - Acts 7:54-60.
Saul of Tarsus literally was coat check for the murder of Stephen for sharing Jesus. These were the people he surrounded himself with. And before you think he was just a bystander who was innocent of the situation, look at his recount of the situation in Acts 22:20:
“And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.”
With Saul of Tarsus surrounding himself with these types of people, there’s no wonder why he turned out thinking and acting the way he did.
It’s the same with Saul Goodman. When his influences were his brother Chuck, the other lawyers at Hamlin & McGill, or Kim, he at least made an effort to move forward. He was at least trying to do the right thing and be a better man. But he began to seriously let himself be influenced by people who were leading him in the wrong direction. Granted, Goodman is a lawyer; he is bound to be in the presence of criminals, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow yourself to be affected by them.
Saul of Tarsus wasn’t just around for Stephen’s murder. He cheered it on. When Jimmy McGill began sliding further and further into a climate where he was comfortable committing crimes for his own benefit, the people around him could have been the deterrent to what dragged him down, or the encouragement for what pushed him over the edge. Nacho helped drag Jimmy down. Lalo helped drag Jimmy down. Not only did Lalo give Jimmy more access to crime and corruption, he also planted the thought of abandoning his whole concept of identity. When Kim gave Jimmy the briefcase with his old initials, JMM on it, it leads to this conversation,
Lalo: JMM? What’s That? Saul: Oh..that’s my motto. Lalo: Oh yeah? Saul: Justice Matters Most. Lalo: Haha... Queires ser amigo de el cartel? Jimmy: I’m sorry..I don’t uh... Lalo: You wanna be a friend of the cartel? Time to get yourself a new motto. Just. Make. Money.
Jimmy told Lalo it stood for “Justice Matters Most,” and Lalo quickly turned it to say “Just Make Money.”
This leads Jimmy to eventually agree to the insane task of retrieving 7 Million in cartel money from Lalo’s psychotic cousins for a 100- grand payout. The episode “Bagman” is one of my all-time favorite episodes of TV period, but it would be a horrible situation to live through. It only took 1 conversation for Saul Goodman to be in the middle of a huge gunfight, almost die in the desert, and drink his own urine. That was in the span of 1 episode, not to mention the crazy stuff that would happen in the years to come. Lalo straight up asked Saul if he wanted to be a friend of wickedness, and he jumped right in. And that shouldn’t be surprising.
Later in Saul of Tarsus’ story, when he was deep into the process of being Paul, he would write these words:
“Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.” 1 Corinthians 15:33-34.
Paul knew what the impact of those words were, and Saul Goodman was becoming more and more understanding of that impact by the moment. One of the saddest things in the story of Saul Goodman though is the fact that Kim would continually flip from being a source of strength for Jimmy to an encouragement for Saul Goodman. She would often reject Jimmy’s more wicked notions until they benefitted her. Then, she would rely on Saul Goodman for the dirt she wouldn’t do herself. She was pushing Jimmy further and further away. She was encouraging Jimmy’s corruption, but then by the end of season 5, she was gunning for corruption even Saul Goodman was hesitant of. It is all a very slippery slope, and you can’t imagine how easy it is to fall down into.
Paul on the flipside, went from being surrounded by the murdering self-righteous to the humble followers of Christ. Jumping back to Acts 9
“And after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” - Acts 9:19-2
Paul went from meeting Jesus, to being surrounded by disciples, to powerfully teaching about Jesus. Imagine what it would have been like for Paul to return to the Sanhedrin and the self-righteous men he had stood beside for so long. His spirit, and most likely his body, would have been crushed. In the uphill struggle of becoming who you want to be, surrounding yourself with people who pull you up is essential, because being pushed downward is so easy.
As I write this, season 6 is a long way away. While I don’t know the outcome of season 6, I do know where we find Saul Goodman in season 2 of Breaking Bad, and it’s not a great place. Saul Goodman is nearing the finish line of becoming his worst self. Psalm 10 describes the path he was on as the corruption was spreading so utterly.
“In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises. He boasts about the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord. In his pride the wicked man does not seek him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God. His ways are always prosperous; your laws are rejected by him; he sneers at all his enemies. He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.” He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”
His mouth is full of lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue. He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent. His eyes watch in secret for his victims; like a lion in cover he lies in wait. He lies in wait to catch the helpless; he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net. His victims are crushed, they collapse; they fall under his strength. He says to himself, “God will never notice; he covers his face and never sees.” - Psalm 10:2-11.
While we know the outcome of Saul Goodman’s story almost completely, it could have been different. He could have fought against the downward spiral, just like we all the choice to do. Jon Jacobs stated on the Faith & Fandom podcast while we were discussing this:
“The only thing you have to do to become your version of Saul Goodman is to just stop struggling. Like, I never thought struggling meant you were doing something right, I just assumed struggling meant you were doing something wrong. But in reality, giving up to the struggle, refusing to struggle, to stop fighting against the thing that is eating at you. Letting it take over who you are, that’s when you become the “Saul,” the worst version of yourself.”
In Saul of Tarsus’ story, we saw him go from the worst version of himself to the best version of himself. While he did get a miraculous encounter from Jesus, that didn’t make it easy. Every day was a struggle. You have to willingly fight if you don’t want the struggle to bring you down. Paul, who knew this better than most wrote in Romans,
“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.” - Romans 7:14-25.
Paul spoke of a legal battle. It’s an epic war between two opposing sides. There are going to be days we win, as well as days we lose. On the days we lose, we have to appeal. We are guilty, but we can’t simply plead guilty and surrender to allowing the struggle to stop. When we continue to fight, we will find ourselves with not only victory, but also a new identity.