Age of Empire: Books, Biblical scholarship and Music

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.)

E & E.gifEvangelicals 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.jpgIn 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.

arrogance of nations.jpgThe 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 2.jpgChrist 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 smaller.jpgColossians 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.

limits to power.jpgThe 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.


Any book** mentioned here, 10% off.  Buy any two, get 20% off.

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8 thoughts on “Age of Empire: Books, Biblical scholarship and Music

  1. Bob, Dude: I don’t even know what that means. You want the favorite podcasts I’ve done? No way, since I haven’t done them. The favorites I’ve listened to? Believe it or not, I don’t listen to them. My computer can hardly chew gum and walk at the same time, and I get easily confused while typing, so I don’t have anything like that on when I’m working. And when I’m away, I can only listen in the car. Maybe I need one of them fancy ipod things like the kids have.
    Anyway, I’m honored to be tagged. Can’t come out and play, though.
    Say, did you like the piece I did on your man McKnight? Why not send him over this way to comment on something. Not podcast, though, since I don’t do that. Hee, heee.

  2. Byron, when I glanced at my reader and saw your title, I thought you might be getting into reviewing video games, but then I saw this excellent list.
    As I read through your list I thought of two other books that might be added to your list, except that they deal primarily with the Biblical text and less with exegeting it for contemporary contexts. You’ve probably reviewed or seen both of them, but here are my adds.
    Render to Caesar by Christopher Bryan spends most of its time dealing with Jesus’ response to the Roman empire and subsequently his followers responses. But the final chapter briefly dives into modern empire, but not as much as your favorite Colossians Remixed. Bryan uses Horsley quite a bit too.
    The second does nothing with our current context, but does an excellent job imagining life within the Roman imperial world. The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce Longenecker is a fictional and very creative presentation of the conversion of a man from a life dedicated to the Roman ways of power and subjection to the cruciform way of Christ.
    Anyway, I ought to get back to my homework, but I had to drop a note.

  3. THANKS, Josh. Anybody reading in, please know, he’s right! Good stuff. We’ve got ’em too. Very thoughtful.
    That Longenecker is fabulous reading, sort of like a fictional commentary, helping us get at the narrative of the New Testament epistles.

  4. Wow. All of those sound very yummy. Especially considering how much of a convicting-pleasure-read Colossians Remixed has been.
    What would you recommend as my next follow up from that one?

  5. Follow up to Colossians Remixed? WITHOUT a doubt, I’d suggest Walsh’s next one, the “Beyond Homelessness” one.
    None of these are quiet like that, I’m afraid…
    Have you ever heard of Binding the Strong Man on the gospel of Mark?

  6. Beyond Homelessness is certainly a high priority for me as I loved hearing from Brian about it back in March with you. Would you recommend I finish Truth is Stranger first?
    Binding the Strong man seems quite curious and deep, too.
    Right now, I’m spending some time with Tozer’s Pursuit of God.

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