I have not reviewed many books lately about foreign affairs, but those that know me know that it is a topic of great concern— the war, of course, questions about the debt, the global economy, human rights and such. Here are a few recent books that are important that reflect, in one way or another, upon themes of empire—in the Bible and in contemporary culture. As prep or background you might listen and watch Bruce Cockburn’s song Call It Democracy (a salty song of prophetic denunciation of the “idolatry of ideology” inspired by the mis-doings of the International Monetary Fund. Although the language is raw, and the guitar not quite as blazing as in some versions, the song is powerful. Here are the words, and some of Cockburn’s comments.)
Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo edited by Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Brazos) $29.99 This is a heavy volume, with extraordinary chapters, many responding to the important scholarly work of the much-discussed theorists of empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Agree with Hardt & Negri (et al) or not, this is a wonderful example of what we often talk about here at BookNotes, namely, offering theologically and Biblically-informed thinking to develop a uniquely Christian perspective on the theories shaping our analysis of the modern world, done, particularly, as an asset for wise and faithful social reform. I literally praise the Lord for this kind of conversation, this level of discourse, the witness of a book like this. Not long ago Ron Sider wrote a wonderful journal piece in The Christian Scholars Review, calling for scholar-activists. Here is a popularly written overview published in Prism. Fabulous!) This may be the sort of thing he has in mind, and, in fact, he notes on the back that it is “powerful, urgent, and rigorous.”
Diverse authors (ethnically, nationally, and theologically) offer deep insights into one of the biggest questions of our day (and offer so many significant chapters that anyone interseted in global Christianity or modern missions should consider this.) Nicholas Wolterstorff writes the forward (which should alert you to the thoughtfulness of the project) and after chapters written by the likes of Elaine Padilla and Amos Yong and Paul Lim and Mark Lewis Taylor and James K.A. Smith and Michael Horton and John Franke, the two scholars under consideration themselves reply. You can see a listing of all the contributers at Brazos Press (but be sure to come back here.)
One of the editors, Bruce Benson, is the head of the philosophy department at Wheaton and the other, Peter Heltzel, is a theologian at New York Theological Seminary. What a book! Kudos to Brazos, once again.
In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance Richard Horsley (WJK) $24.95 Horsley is the author of many books of New Testament scholarship and is a renowned scholar activist himself. This includes others of his ilk, such as Neil Elliott, Greg Carey, Norman Gottwalk, John Dominic Crossan, and a wonderful piece by Walter Brueggemann. Academic Biblical scholarship explores the role of empires in the ancient and classical world (Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans…) Each chapters offers a way to read the Bible as a reaction to empire and as a call for us to resist imperial forces in our own age. Horsley, as you may know, is an early proponant of this approach, in his important earlier works such as Paul & Empire, Paul & Politics and Paul and the Roman Imperial Order.
The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire Neil Elliott (Fortress) $29.00 Considered by some a “tour de force” and a “remarkable book” this sophisticated example of what some call “rhetorical criticism” seems like it should be on the shelf of anyone who is seriously interested in Romans, or this question of how the Bible can be read in ways that are subversive to the contemporary ideologies that undergird empires today. A handsome hardback, the third in a series called “Paul in Critical Contexts.”
Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke Seyoon Kim (Eerdmans) $24.00 Kim is a very thoughtful scholar, professor of New Testament (and a dean for the Korean D.Min program at Fuller) who suggest that the in-vogue anti-Empire NT trope is not adequate. A close examination of five epistles of Paul shows that the current anti-imperial interpretation is actually not very credible. Kim wrote a thoughtful critique of the “new perspective on Paul” a year or so ago, so this naturally follows as he seeks a balanced and exegetically sound basis for a relevant and truly Biblical, political Christology. It is dedicated to the famous German scholar, Martin Hengel, on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat (IVP) $23.00 This is not new, I’ve named it the most best book of the year for two consecutive years, so it suppose I should note it again. To be honest: I’ve checked each of these above-mentioned books to see if they cite this book in their footnotes. To not deal with this exciting and audacious work is just irresponsible. I think it makes a very strong case, not only about Colossians, but about how best to read and interpret the Bible, and, better than any of the above, how to more faithfully live out whole-life discipleship in ways that enact and embody the counter-cultural Kingdom ways the books calls forth. A must-read, now more than ever…
By the way, I am only guessing here, since I really don’t know, but I suspect that some mainline scholarly authors-
–like, say, the Horsley or Elliott, perhaps—fail to grapple with this seminal text because it is published by IVP which they presume to be overly conservative or less than scholarly, a utterly ridiculous claim that would only illustrate how ill informed some are. Of course, this may not be the case, but somebody needs to expose the empire of liberal ecumenical scholarship and resist their biases about evangelical scholars…and reading the creative and faithful work of Walsh & Keesmaat is a good place to start. Walsh & Keesmaat are great examples of the sort of “scholar activists” that Sider calls for, since they are involved in counter-cultural living practices (they steward a sustainable agricultural center and live in intentional community), work on social, political causes, do ministry on campus and amongst the homeless as well… There faithfulness brings to mind the famous study of political resistance in Mark, Binding the Strong Man by Chad Meyers.
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan Books) $24.00 This is the latest release, and perhaps the most important, of the “American Empire Project.” Bacevich is renowned as a scholar (professor of history and international affairs at Boston U) and has earned large respect from his work (such as The New American Militarism) and his columns in places as diverse as The Nation and the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly and Foreign Affairs. He has identified himself as a conservative Catholic, and is a West Point graduate who served in the U.S. military in Viet Nam and into the ’90s in the Persian Gulf. He has books on the most prestigious academic presses (Oxford, Harvard, Columbia.) In Limits of Power, he offers not only a realistic and solid look into the mess of our failed foreign policies, but, why we need a serious shift if we are going to alter the delusion of power that we current posses. Several reviewers have named it a “must read,” “indispensable for every citizen,” and such. Very thoughtful, well-written (with an opening few pages about Reinhold Niebuhr, indicating he is at theologically informed.) The epigram is 2 Kings 20:1 and the book is dedicated to his son, a First Lieutenant, who was killed in the Iraq war.
I started with a nod to Cockburn, who has been an inspiration to many of us as we try to be responsible in this “world of wonders.” Here is a short clip of him in Timbuktu, filmed during a documentary he made on desertificaiton (River of Sand), meeting, and then jamming, with the legendary Ali Farka Toure, a Mali bluesman. Maybe white guys singing the blues with West African guitarists is some kind of parable for our globalized world. Regardless, check it out.
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