October 19, 2017

Review: Colossians Remixed

Colossians Remixed: Subverting the EmpireColossians Remixed by Brian Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat. IVP, 2004.

Reading, rereading, hearing, rehearing, teaching, reteaching, discussing, rediscussing….the letters of Paul and books/sermons/teaching from them. Sometimes, I become quite bored, I’ll admit. In the conservative evangelical circles I move in, Paul gets a lot of attention, and everyone assumes they understand him. He is didactic and blunt. He’s easy for preachers to expound (except when he’s not.) He comes out and says things without having to wade through parables and stories. There is a conservative concensus on most of the background of his letters. For most conservative Bible teachers, Paul is the preferred source.

Which means you hear a lot of the same things, the same interpretations, the same comments, delivered the same way, citing the same sources. I sometimes wonder why most people who write books and commentaries on Paul’s letters even bother. Most of it really has all been said before. Hundreds and hundreds of times.

So when someone begins talking about Paul in a new and a fresh way, I want to listen. I need a kick in the pants to get enthused about Paul. I suspect most of what I’ve heard about Paul’s letter is probably wrong as well as dull. When Paul turns out to be the defender of everything fundamentalists love and when there is a Pauline verse on everything that nicely fits into the worldview of every conservative Bible teacher on the radio and at the bookstore, I’m suspicious that Paul has become an inkblot that everyone identifies in predictably self-justifying ways.

So despite the predictably worries, warnings and narrow reactions of most in the fundamentalist and conservative reformed quarters, I’m very interested in the New Perspective on Paul, the work of N.T. Wright on Paul and the recent work of many younger scholars influenced by both. Not because I agree with everything these scholars are saying, but because my own encounter with Paul simply needs some fresh excitement and stimulation. I’m not wanting novelty, but I do want a fresh approach.

For that reason, I was excited with the prospect of reading Colossians Remixed by Canadian scholars Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. The book is endorsed by N.T. Wright, and both authors are associated with the Institute For Christian Studies in Toronto. Walsh is well-known for his provocative book on Postmodernism.

It took me a while to get to the book, but I’ve now finished it, and it was one of the more interesting and stimulating reads I’ve experienced this year.

Keesmaat and Walsh have written a kind of “remixed” commentary that includes sections on major themes, extended imaginings of situations in the Colossian church, “targums” on the text that rewrite the book into contemporary idioms, contrapoint dialogues from a skeptical reader and applications from the political left that will probably ruin the book for a lot of conservative readers.

That would be a shame, because despite the fact that many readers will find the leftist political rhetoric in the applications to be annoying and predictable, the methodological approach to the text of Colossians is exciting, provocative and useful. It’s well-written, and passionately involved in a quest to place this letter into the dual worlds of Paul and the contemporary reader.

Walsh and Keesmaat take the idea of “subverting the empire” as the central motif of the book. They keep this idea crucial as they place the life of the Christian community in the contemporary “empire” of western, America-dominated, consumerism and global corporate culture. Living in a new empire is the theme of Colossians, and the writers let each section of the book examine what it means to be a Christian in a world with an aggressively idolatrous religion of consumerism.

I have to admit that I don’t listen to liberals or leftists very seriously, but when those who are serious Biblicists connect their understanding of the Biblical text with the contemporary world in a way that makes that text speak clearly, I will listen. Walsh and Keesmaat earned my respect, if not my agreement.

While I haven’t changed my politics, I was not offended by the way the authors interpret the many aspects of today’s global consumer empire in a way that presents an idolatrous, seductive environment for the church very parallel to the first century. I haven’t yet made the connection between SUVs and Praise and Worship music, but I am quite fascinated by the sincere confidence that the text speaks deeply to the world I live in.

Colossians Remixed isn’t a textual commentary for the verse by verse preacher. It is an electrical charge on the thematic level that will excite your reading of the text and perhaps encourage you to teach the book in a way that will surprise- or even anger- Christians who have been lulled into a complacent assumption that Paul has nothing new to say.

I highly recommend the book. Conservatives, be warned. The applications will take you on quite a tour of the current mindset of the political left, and if you are sensitive to anti-Americanism, you will get your nose tweaked. I respectfully disagree with some of those applications, but I am enjoying Colossians more than ever before.

Comments

  1. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    Interesting. I first saw ideas like this in Wright’s own comments on Collossians and I recently saw a new book by Crossan that looked like it was making a similar case about Paul. People seem to be jumping on the Paul-as-opponent-of-empire bandwagon. Since my dad is a member of the Quinalt tribe and I learned Indian nicknames for what BIA really stands for my own view of government, though conservative, is not without some bits that might be “left”. One of my friends, whose further left theologically and politically than I am, nevertheless had a good point saying he felt that it seems a lot of Christians start with their political assumptions and make sure they have a theology that justifies those assumptions rather than the other way around.

    Even though there may be some great stuff coming from these circles on Paul a lot of it may get dismissed because peopel don’t like their politics. I know people at my church who dismiss Wright for his political views and think he’s a mushy liberal while in the UK people in the Guardian dismiss him as some old conservative. A conservative from the UK or Europe isn’t going to look lik a conservative from the Bible belt, or even a conservative from the Northwestern United States.

  2. This sounds like the same approach as Tom Wright’s “Fresh Perspective.” Jesus is Lord, Caesar was not Lord, and, therefore, neither is George Bush. To me, this all too easy soft heart, empty head liberalism reduces the power of Paul’s gospel in a fundamental way– what Paul was doing, building his little churches, was about as apolitical as you could get at the time, though the results three centuries later were dramatically political. (And maybe the fundamental wrong turn in human history if you believe that combining state power with Christianity corrupts Christianity, as I do.)

    If one wants to read Paul politically, the same arguments Wright makes for reading Paul as an advocate of, say reducing thrid world debt, can just as easily be used to advocate substituting charity through the Churches for welfare. I’m conservative, but I’ve never read Paul that way. Wright’s earlier works, while not without problems, were very provocative becuase they seemed to bring Paul up to the level of an advocate for a transcendant, non-legalist Gopsel, away from the proof texting I had so often heard. If the work you have reviewed has the drift you seem to be saying it does, it is a step backwards. Paul’s radical worldview (“Make every thought captive to Christ”) is only trivialized by efforts to make him subject to a political agenda, liberal or conservative.

  3. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    It may be easy and soft but it’s still true, only Jesus is Lord. That the observation will get used to promote a soft/liberal agenda is as inevitable as trying to proof-text things the other way, that God would have you vote only for Republicans (I speak as someone who has been told maybe I’m not even a Christian because I preferred McCain in 2000 to Bush). I’m not a liberal but I’d also prefer that both left and right not call into question my love of Christ because I didn’t vote for the people they wanted me to.

    But I can also see why politics do get brought in. Before Christ came and showed us otherwise politics and religion were often inextricable. It took Jesus saying “my kingdom is not of this world” for there to be an eventual apolitical option.

    I agree that Wright’s variation seems more palatable because he doesn’t move from exegesis quite as quickly as, say, Crossan might, from a text to what liberal agenda you have to embrace to even be a real follower of Jesus.

  4. There are a lot of problems here, though. A lot.

    The book is so anti-America that its sounds like the night table reading for Saddam Hussein. No hint of any actual evil in the world other than America and its corporations.

    The solutions are uniformly Marxist, U.N. mandated and sponsored socialist, statist power grabs.

    The authors, who I assume are up to their ears in the technical west in order to teach in Universities and write books about postmodern geeks and nerds, are about as Luddite as you can be.

    The inclusion of an f-word boasting poem that is glibly announced as something Paul would approve of sounds like the freshmen poli sci clubs newsletter.

    All the solutions that would come to mind are NOT U.N. statist, Marxist, leftist, anti-American solutions. The authors need to check THEIR persups at the door.

  5. The real shame is that there is indeed, as I think Jeremiah is saying, a real point to Paul’s claims. Applied today, I think he would say that Christians in China and Christians in America and everywhere else have to proclaim Christ as Lord and judge every action of their respective governments against that standard, and hold their rulers accountable.

    And the Crossan book BTW, actully doesn’t go as far as the work Michael has reviewed seems to. He has a typically sceptical view of much of Paul, but he does a good job in laying out the archaeological evidence for the religous and political context of the times. Even though I didn’t agree with some of what Crossan had to say, I learned from the book.

    The device of reading PAul as against the power claims of the Roman empire is also useful in other parts of the Bible. Historians have never, for example, been able to determine that there was an empire wide census as stated in Luke. Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. Thinking along the lines Wright suggests, might it be that the reader of Luke wouldn’t have known for sure either? But Theophilus would have known what q census back then meant– not jsut a counting of people, but an assertion by Caesar that he had power over all his subjects throughout the then civilized world. But without saying so in so many words, Luke tells us the real power of the world was born in Bethlehem.

    Submerging that point in any prticular political agenda is, frankly, shameful.

  6. I am currently reading “Colossians Remixed”. I linked to your review from my blog.