Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat & Brian Walsh (Brazos Press) ON SALE – 20% OFF regular price = $26.99 / our sale price = $21.59
Okay, I’m just going to admit it. I’ve got writer’s block. Not because I don’t know what to say, but because I’ve got so much to say. I don’t know how to begin, and this is important. I want to make a case why this new book is one you should buy from us here at Hearts & Minds, right away. But it is admittedly complicated and I just don’t know how to get going.
Okay, I’m just going to say it: I want to honor my friends Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh by reviewing their new (long-awaited) book with care and some detail, but I’m afraid I’m not quite up to it; even though I’ve read Romans Disarmed twice, it is daunting to tell you about it in a review that would be short enough that you, dear reader, are likely to read it. I want to say a lot about it, but know some of you will tune out. I wish I could be more succinct, but this is one of those remarkable books that I truly want to honor (even if I don’t agree with all of it, and even knowing some of our customers will disapprove of some of it.)
This new book, bravely published by Brazos Press, is a very socially-potent, painfully relevant, righteous application of the social ethic of Paul’s long letter to the Romans, in which the authors call us to a counter-cultural politics of Jesus by way of studying the ways the marginalized and powerful alike would have heard Paul’s famous epistle situated, as it was, in the midst of truly awful Roman imperial idolatry. That is, they offer us a very creatively-written, super-engaging, and well-informed study of the socio-cultural-political habits of first century Rome and how that context helps us properly appreciate the revolutionary vision behind Paul’s anti-imperial social ethic. Romans Disarmed is very much like their much-discussed Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. On steroids.
LIFE IN FIRST CENTURY ROME. WHAT INSIGHT WE CAN GLEAN!
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice has a long chapter that could nearly be published as a short novel. It tells of two fictional characters that aren’t imagined out of thin air, but are drawn from what we know about first century social experience in Rome. In a chapter called “Kitchen Walls and Tenement Halls” we meet a slave, Iris, (who is named after a person who is actually described in a scholarly work by Peter Oakes called Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Zero) and we meet Nereus, a Judean who lived among the dock workers and leather makers in the lowlands by the Tiber, but who ventured into the heart of Rome to hear Paul’s letter. Where he meets the pagan slave woman, Iris. What a story, laden with scholarly footnotes and even Bible references (who knew the list of names in Romans 16 could be so informative and yield such an interesting story!)
I might add there are several fun books that do this sort of thing, but not many. Keesmaat and Walsh site the fabulous The Lost Letters of Pergamum: A Story from the New Testament World by Bruce Longenecker (Baker Academic; $19.99), a book we championed it its early first edition. See also the clever books in a recent series by IVP such as A Week in the Life of Corinth and A Week During the Fall of Jerusalem (both by Ben Witherington) and A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge) and several others.
Besides this page-turning fictional device in Romans Disarmed (that is just one chapter in a book that weighs in at just under 400 pages), there are so many fascinating and important historical details, including first-century urban archeological, linguistic, political, and theological matters that are above my pay-grade to comment critically upon. Whenever I read a Biblical commentary and the writer asserts that a Greek word really means this or ought best to be translated like that, I have to choose to appreciate their scholarship and trust their instincts (or not.) In this case, I think their exceptionally interesting and very extensive footnotes illustrate their extraordinary research chops; they’ve read whole books and numerous scholarly journal articles about, say, the room designs in first century Roman houses (did you know slaves often slept in the kitchen, or sometimes in their master’s rooms?), what we can learn from the graffiti in Pompeii, the sexual relationships between Roman masters and their slaves, or the particular dining habits of Roman Judeans, Gentiles, and those in the palaces of the Emperor. The vividly described debauchery (sexual and culinary) of the Roman elite helps us understand Paul’s passionate pastoral reminders to the Roman Christians of why they must live in ways that are not morally stained by the ethos of the Empire. From the famous conflict between the Judeans and the Gentiles in the Roman house churches to the equally famous vile spectacles of the likes of the Nero and Caligula, Keesmaat and Walsh have done their scholarly work and brought it alive in astonishing, colorful, detail. If you like this sort of historical background stuff, you will be riveted by all they explain. If you don’t do much of this kind of reading about the social context of the New Testament, you will be astonished.
IT’S IMPORTANT. REALLY IMPORTANT.
I might as well just say it. I think Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is the most important book of Biblical study I have read in years; perhaps ever. I promise you that you have never read anything like it, and it is one of those few books that the often-used (but rarely accurate) phrase “it could change your life” applies. It surely deserves a Best Book of the Year award, but, because it is so politically charged, don’t expect to see it on evangelical “Best of 2019” lists. I suspect most Christian bookstores won’t even carry it. I assume (but one never knows) that the respected New Testament commentators who are active – Douglas Moo, Tom Wright, Fleming Rutledge, Beverly Gavanta, Katherine Grieb, Michael Bird, Frank Matera, Craig Keener, Scot McKnight, Richard Longenecker, Michael Gorman, Stephen Westerholm, Thomas Schreiner, Richard Hays — will be weighing in on its merits. Will they appreciate how much social location matters? Will they know why they draw so much on Elsa Tamez and her book Amnesty of Grace exploring justification by faith through the lens of suffering and repression in Latin America? Romans Disarmed is a very important book and I can’t wait to hear what others think about it.
SOME WILL DISAGREE and SOME WILL EVEN BE OFFENDED.
Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it. This book will upset some people. It is relentless in bearing witness to what they themselves experience as they grapple, as a married couple, parents, homemakers, pastors, preachers, scholars, permaculture farmers, citizens, and leaders of faith communities (mostly among college students in Toronto although also in more conventional Anglican parishes) where they have ministered to and become friends with marginalized folks, those cast aside by other churches and the mainstream culture. From LGTBQ students and friends to urban homeless folks to First Nations people seeking reparations from stolen land and treaties broken, Brian and Sylvia care for their land, their place, and those whom God has given them; their taking Pauline mandates to welcome all, to serve the stranger, to be inclusive and caring to outsiders, has become a huge part of their lifestyle and is a lens through which they do life. They are able to see the subversive teaching in the Bible (and let it be said: they know and love their Bibles much better than most) and especially of the Apostle Paul, because they themselves spend time with the marginalized and oppressed. And, boy, do they ever see these themes in Pauline writings! Wow.
As they tell of these painful stories (some of us met their late friend Iggy in Brian’s powerful Habakkuk Before Breakfast; Books Before Breakfast; $14.00 which I reviewed here) about racism and injustice and ecological abuse, they mince no words. Like the Old Testament prophets so beloved by Paul, they are nearly crass in their punchy denunciation of idols old and new. Few contemporary political movements and leaders are left unscathed in this broadside, so my fear is that our customers (especially those on the political right) will be offended. I hope (as Brian and Sylvia do, I know) such readers hang in there with their arguments about how the epistle of Romans can help us live in a more Christ-like way. They are convinced, and their argument is compelling, that Paul’s letter is less a systematic theology treatise and more (like so many of Paul’s letters to house churches around the Mediterranean of the Greco-Roman world) a passionate, Holy-Spirit inspired manifesto of how to create a new community, resolve conflict, repent of complicity with the injustices of the social order, and live out the gospel-centered life of the Lordship of Christ in the face of the grinding oppression of the Roman imperial regime.
And, in case I’m being coy, I’m going to just say it: they insist that we, too, live under the boot heel (even if many of us benefit from it) of the Empire of our age and that if we are serious followers of Jesus, and are serious about being rooted in the Biblical narrative, we, too, will need to be attentive to how the Word and Spirit calls us to denounce and resist the 21st century Empire, by which they mostly mean the confluence of United States political and military power and its corporate allies. (Or is it the other way around?) They (rightly in my view) think our imaginations have largely been captured by the ethos of technology and progress and greed and hubris and that our own government and media are seducing us into acceptance and complicity in grave injustices.
NOT THEOLOGICAL ABSTRACTION, BUT EMBODIMENT IN COMMUNITY
Christian faith is never mostly about holding the right abstract theological truisms, but always about what we embody as we live out the deepest convictions of our hearts, “against the world, but for the world” as some put it. (By the way, as an aside: did you know that James K.A. Smith, who wrote the must-read “cultural formation” trilogy, summarized in his one-volume You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habits (Brazos Press; $19.99), studied with Brian Walsh when he was a grad student at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto? One can see their common concerns about not weaponizing the language of worldview and realizing that our faith is embodied, not abstract, lived out in but not of the surrounding culture and its deformed and deforming ethos.)
You see, the idols we give ourselves to are nearly the same in our day as in first century Rome and, curiously, like then, are made into virtues not only by classic capitalist theory but by President Trump and his cheerleaders: hubris, greed, sexism, individualism, power, tribal nationalism, white supremacy, detached rationalism, sentimental piety, gross militarism, all rooted in a worldview driven by faith in technology to help us grow, grow, grow, economically. Bigger is better, don’t ya know?
That a religious-like trust in and love of material progress has become a demanding, devastating god has been a theme in Brian’s writing since the 80s; this critique rooted in the pathos of a prophetic imagination has only become more bold and blunt as he and Sylvia became students of simpatico Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann and localist farmer and activist poet Wendell Berry and anti-globalization prophet Naomi Klein. If you’ve read the latest from Brueggemann (like Tenacious Solidarity or Truth Speaks to Power or God, Neighbor, Empire) or Wendell Berry’s Sex, Economy, Freedom Community or Citizenship Papers, or any of Ms. Klein’s anti-climate change manifestos (or, for that matter, anything by their friend Norman Wirzba, who writes on faith and food, farming, Sabbath, and the like, and edited the Wendell Berry agrarian collection The Art of the Commonplace) you’ll have a sense of where they are coming from. Or, maybe, you could pick up the book I last spotlighted in BookNotes, The Possibility of America (WJK; $17.00) by David Dark, who, with a poet’s eye and patriot’s heart, gets so much of this.
Nobody, though, has put this stuff in conversation with so close a reading of the Apostle Paul. Romans Disarmed is a major, major contribution to a distinctively Christian social-political vision and a major, major contribution to Pauline scholarship. It is a must read for anybody who cares about the New Testament.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE TRANSFORMING VISION, SUBVERSIVE CHRISTIANITY, and BEYOND HOMELESSNESS
That they learned much of this analysis about ideology and idols from Dutch Kuyperian economist and socio-political observer Bob Goudzwaard is no secret, and Brian’s 1980s classic (co-authored with Richard Middleton) The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview (IVP Academic; $25.00) remains a succinct and powerful study of the development of the idols of our time that they named as scientism, technicism, and economism. (Idols, you know, are good things that become ultimate things; things we trust for communal salvation and that we start to serve and even become like.) That their imagination of seeing and saying this stuff has been deepened by Canadian folk-rock-pop singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is no surprise, either, and Brian has explored how a Christian social imaginary can be enhanced by a close reading of Cockburn lyrics in his brilliant Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos Press; $19.00.) Believe me, it’s illuminating about the arts, about music, and about the idols of our time, helping us “see” things anew, whether you happen to like Cockburn’s songs or not.
We have often promoted Brian’s small but potent collection of essays/sermons (with a foreword by N.T. Wright and a blurb on the back by yours truly) called Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time (Wipf & Stock; $17.00.) Even for those old friends who have the first edition, the second edition released in 2014 has a very important, long, new chapter that anticipates the work being done here analyzing the American empire, globalization, economic injustice, the violence of the state, and how the Bible itself can deconstruct – subvert – the harsh ideologies that, in Cockburn’s lyric (in a song about the International Monetary Fund’s dubious work in the developing world) offer “deification of tyranny – idolatry of ideology.”
Almost a decade ago, Brian teamed up with beloved environmental studies professor and creation-care advocate at Hope College, Stephen Bouma-Prediger to write a book that, again, forms a nearly essential backdrop to the work he and Sylvia have done in Romans Disarmed. It is called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans; $29.00) in which they play with the classic shorthand for the Biblical narrative, “creation-fall-redemption”, by talking about “homemaking-exile-homecoming.”(For those who get the inside joke, I have called that book Al Wolters meets Wendell Berry meets James Howard Kunstler.)
Listen — if you’ll go with this short digression — to what their friend Marva Dawn said about it:
This astutely timely book deserves an extensive audience — environmentalists, pastors, low-income housing advocates, students, those who forecast doom, good citizens eager to make changes, allChristians! Just to whet your appetite, you’ll learn such things as nine kinds of homelessness, eight characteristics of ‘home,’ many imaginative ways to ponder Scripture, ten drivers of environmental deterioration, and one colossal hope. Broadly researched and splendidly written, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants truly to comprehend and mend our culture!
Or, what the great environmental writer and anti-climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote:
Beyond Homelessness is admitted a big and sprawling book, but it is a wonderful and significant companion to Romans Disarmed.
Christian faithfulness, in that amazing, generative, ground-breaking, truth-telling, critiques the way our upwardly mobile culture causes a sort of homelessness; many of our most “established” middle-class (not to mention upper class) Westerners (and, increasingly, rich Asians) are nomads, metaphorically displaced from home, alienated from a sense of place. (This theme of longing for a safe home was conjured up beautifully in Brian’s book on Cockburn in which he preached the gospel of homecoming in tandem with Bruce’s song “The Candy Man’s Gone” and previously in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP Academic; $26.00) which made the case that a longing for home was behind much of the and ennui and restlessness of postmodernity.It remains the best book on the subject, and the one the engages the Bible the most!)
This theme of the call to home-making comes out not just in Brian’s earlier writing but — get this! – it’s all over the book of Romans! They show it over and over, and it gives a new insight into what is going on in this part of God’s Holy written Word. You don’t have to read those previous books to fully appreciate Romans Disarmed, but after reading it, you just may want to.
HOME-MAKING IN ROMANS? REALLY?
Home-breaking, Homelessness, and Home-making in Romans? You have got to read it to believe it! Chapter 4 of Romans Disarmed is called “Homeless in Rome” and Chapter 5 is called “Creation and the Defilement of Home.” In fact, the second to last chapter (“Imperial Sexuality and Covenantal Faithfulness”) uses these themes of fidelity to the project of creating a safe home and how the gospel grafts us into God’s true home to explore what Paul was and wasn’t saying at the end of Romans 1. (Their explanation of what Paul is saying about human sexuality in the end of Romans 1 and into Romans 2 is too complex to be described here, but I will say it isn’t utterly new, but it brings forth an argument that I have long found compelling and that they press home with vivid, passionate exegesis. It really should be pondered.)
I am familiar with Brian’s writings because he’s written (and co-written) a lot of books. But Sylvia (who got her PhD from Oxford under N.T. Wright and whose work is sometimes cited by him as influential in his own thinking) is, within the more scholarly world, a major conversation partner and professional colleague with many other renowned scholars. She has chapters in many books, including one in the British festschrift for N.T. Wright called One God, One People (Fortress Press; $89.00.) Sigh — I know. Why, Fortress, why? Brian has one in that collection as well. Her preaching is often imaginative and poetic and she laces her Biblical exegesis with stories of planting environmentally helpful shrubs around their watershed and their solar panels and their eating habits, but she has earned the right to be taken very seriously by the guild of Biblical scholars. Her most substantial volume is called Paul and His Story: (Re) Interpreting the Exodus Tradition (Sheffield Academic Press) and it is generative and important.
She is remarkably gifted and has studied long and hard to be able to see the inter-connections between different parts of the Biblical story, how New Testament writers draw on the Hebrew Bible. There’s lots of rich Bible study in Romans Disarmed and, just to remind us of what their friend Richard Hays calls “echoes” of the Old Testament in the New listen to this excerpt of Romans Disarmed drawn from a portion called “Redemptive Homecoming the Spirit (Romans 8:1-38):
Here’s the good news. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! This is not a house of condemnation! Slavery is never the last word in this story. Liberation is always at hand. Homecoming remains available. The promise is not nullified and cannot be nullified even by our home-breaking ways.
After a rumination on sin dwelling in us (“yes, it has become at home in you”) they use dwelling and home-building images about the role of the Spirit to contrast the sin that “dwells” in us (Romans 7.) And then a paragraph about being called out of slavery (8:14) and being crowned in glory, etc.
And then, this beautiful homily of echoes, one of many throughout the book:
Of course, this language echoes the exodus from Egypt. When a Judean talks about being set free from slavery, the exodus is the memory being evoked. When a Judean says that we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, the story of fearful Israel in the wilderness longing to return to Egypt resonates through these words. When a Judean talks about being led by the Spirit, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night is the unmistakable reference. When a Judean speaks of receiving a spirit of adoption, wherein their slave status is overturned through covenant promise, then the nation-constituting exodus is undoubtedly ringing in the background. When a Judean refers to the Spirit bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God, their language of inheritance reaches back to Moses leading the children of God toward their inheritance. And when a Judean places all this in the context of our crying out, “Abba! Father!” then it is impossible not to hear the Israelites “crying out” to God in the midst of the Egyptian bondage, groaning under the weight of Egyptian brick quotas.
Oh my, this line of thought goes on for a page more, and it is wonderfully inspiring. I think I’ve only ever heard such good inter-textual story-telling/truth telling from fiery black preachers! It brings a lot of insight about how these texts might have been heard and, in doing so, help us get their import and impact for our own faith communities.
WHAT WE MISS…
They remind us, helpfully, that each generation has certain sayings or (in our culture, especially) clichés we know from advertising; at least sayings and slogans that were popular in our own era. In some circles, just for instance, Christian people have played on those sayings – the Jesus Movement of the 1970s would say, referring to Jesus, “He’s the Real Thing” which was (some of you may know, and others may not) a riff off a very popular Coke commercial. Leaving aside the question of whether it is wise to appropriate secular ad campaigns for evangelistic purposes, the point Brian and Sylvia are making is helpful. We don’t catch allusions in the Pauline letters that their first hearers or readers would have easily picked up, just like Millennial Christians would be unaware of the ’70s Coke marketing slogan, “It’s the Real Thing” and therefore would be clueless about the meaning of a “He’s the Real Thing” tee shirt. Brian and Sylvia help us by introducing us and unpacking what might have been assumed and understood on the streets of first century Rome. It’s pretty eye-opening when they tell us that first century Jews or first century tenement dwellers in Rome would have heard or understood something in Paul that maybe we’d not fully get.
So, this is a really useful book, functioning as a socio-cultural Biblical study with a good eye for the original social context. And it insists – as most Bible commentators would, but few really do much with — that this pastoral letter from the great apostle to the Christ-followers of Rome has great application for our discipleship, congregational life, and spirituality today. Where they really are fresh and provocative is how they insist Paul was knowingly (and the hearers were knowingly aware) of a subversive rhetoric against the powers and values of the Empire, and how that may be a key for understanding the power of the gospel for us today. Like them, we must be “non conformed” to the ways of the world, and form communities of resistance to structural evil and forge new habits anticipating the ways of Christ’s eschaton. We are welcoming and non-violent as Christ was and as the Kingdom should and will be.
A few specific observations to help you see what’s going on in Romans Disarmed so you can see if it is book you should purchase and study:
WE SHOULD READ FROM THE MARGINS, THROUGH TEARS
First, Brian and Sylvia teach us (although they are not the first, but they are among the most vivid and clear and compelling about it) that our social location matters if we are going to see and interpret the Bible well. C.S. Lewis’s narrator says in The Magician’s Nephew that what we see and hear “depends a great deal on where you are standing, and on what sort of person you are.” Let that bit of critical theory sink it from good old Clive!
After energetically describing a joyful moment one night on the dance floor at Sanctuary in downtown Toronto, they tell how the mood changes as they needed to embrace some hurting brothers as some harsh songs brought prophetic denunciation of injustice perpetrated against First Nations peoples. Their empathy is palpable and they remind us of how this is, if you will, a hermeneutical key:
Somehow we will have to find ourselves in the midst of this pathos, this sorrow and anguish, if we are going to understand Paul’s letter to the Romans. We will need to find ourselves both on the dance floor in liberating joy and on the sidelines holding Frenchy, keeping vigil at Iggy’s bedside, bearing witness to one more death, one more betrayal, one more deep, deep hurt, with tears running down our cheeks. Without standing in such places, we will miss the power of this epistle both in its ancient context and in a contemporary setting.
I think they are right. If one is heart-broken by gay youth taking their own lives because of being shamed by their God-fearing churches, if one know and hears the story of the rural poor or the urban evicted, if one has ever met anyone jailed for their expressions of faith, if one sees the toxic pollution in one’s own water supply, one just might notice stuff in the Bible that others may miss and one may even wonder “why didn’t I ever see that before? It is right there in the text!”
And so, our own effort to “weep with those who weep” (even as we rejoice with those who rejoice) and hear the stories of the poor and oppressed and marginalized and misunderstood will allow us to become the kind of people who see things in the Bible that we might not otherwise have been sensitive to. They say this specifically and directly and their own personal stories have illuminated their work as Biblical scholars. This becomes evident in the first two pages that had me wiping tears away from my cheeks as they told us about the joys and sorrows of the ragamuffin folk that make up the Sanctuary Community in downtown Toronto to whom the book is dedicated.
WE’VE GOT TO KNOW OUR BIBLES BETTER
Secondly, our knowledge of the Bible itself in its narrative flow, its major themes, its socio-political setting and the interconnection of texts and themes is immensely important. Too few of us really understand the key moments of the Biblical history of redemption. It is curious to me that some who most loudly espouse a conservative theological perspective don’t engage the Biblical texts as seriously as they do the logic of this or that theological idea or thinker. Serious Bible scholars may agree on the importance of background and context, but my sense is that so much of the way Keesmaat and Walsh connect various themes, Older and Newer Testaments and the socio-economic stuff is exceptionally illuminating, bringing fresh and solid insight into what was going on in that context. N.T Wright has done this for us a bit; our old friend the late, great Kenneth Bailey did so in remarkable ways.
Some scholars I trust have expressed concern that some have overstated the anti-Empire themes in the New Testament. For instance, see Scot McKnight & Joe Modica’s Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (IVP Academic; $22.00.) Reading Romans Disarmed has rekindled in me a conviction that this is a very helpful interpretive lens to help us understand the first century Greco-Roman books of the Bible as they would have been understood in that setting and to apply the truths of God’s Word in our own urgent context of the fraudulent and often objectively hurtful Pax Americana.
For many of my generation, by the way, it was Ron Sider’s exquisitely important Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Thomas Nelson; $15.99) that showed, over and over and over (and over) that the Bible is crystal clear about denouncing social injustice, economic abuse, and structures that cause or deepen poverty, even while wealth is relativized and often seen as a threat to one’s spiritual vitality. There’s so much in the Bible that we had previously just missed! Similarly, my Dutch Calvinist mentor Peter J. Steen gave me Walter Brueggemann’s groundbreaking book The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Fortress; $25.00) in the late1970s and, again, it opened up vistas of Biblical knowledge which are still reverberating for me decades later. Who knew then that stewardship was more than giving money to the church, but the primal call of humans to care for creation? That salvation in the Bible often include inheritance of land, and that land reform and social justice are often talking about in the Bible. It’s just right there, plain as day for those who care and have ears to hear. There are so many texts and stories in the Bible that directly call us to a counter-cultural social ethic and many of us just miss them; we glaze over, we don’t connect the dots, we fail to catch the allusions. Perhaps it is because of our “ease in Zion” [that’s Amos 6, by the way] or the kind of people we are, but authors like this can truly help us. For some, spending a month with Romans under the tutelage of Walsh & Keesmaat could be considered “doctor’s orders.” You may never recover from it, or “un-see” that which you learn and see in this revolutionary text and I suspect you’ll read the Bible (any part of the Bible) with fresh eyes and desire to live it out with more willing hands. Thanks be to God.
Shane Claiborne is mostly right, then, when he says that Brian and Sylvia are two of his favorite Bible scholars. “Whether your over-churched or under-churched, they stir in you a fresh curiosity for the Bible. This new book is perfect for scholars and new Bible readers alike, and for everyone in between.” I’d only add that the book is dense with detail and is broadly thematic, which might take some getting use to for some conventional Bible students. That is, they don’t just wade through the Romans epistle paragraph by paragraph, but mix it up a bit. And they constantly shift between way back then and today, talking about what it must have been like for Christ-followers in Rome to welcome those of different eating habits and positions of power in the city and those with different degrees of loyalty or disdain for the Empire itself to break bread together and then they reflect on what it is like for most of us in our own congregations as we try to be friendly to guests or talk well among ourselves over matters of importance. The shift from the era of Paul and Caesar to your church and Trump moves quickly and it is stimulating and provoking, to say the least.
It’s a fun read, I’d say, but it even could be disorienting, maybe, for those who expect a linear, line-by-line commentary. On the other hand, it could be a godsend of Biblical insight to stimulate those who are put off by the sometimes abstract and nearly pointless detail of some Bible commentaries. Romans Disarmed is, as the subtitle shouts, both a serious bit of Biblical scholarship and a charter for a counter-imperial Christian community. Like I said, other than their Colossians Remixed I bet you’ve never read anything like it.
HAS ROMANS BEEN WEAPONIZED?
A third point to underscore: from very contemporary debates about climate change or sexuality or race and ethnicity or theological doctrine, the letter of Paul has been weaponized (used to bolster a strident view, to exclude others, or, as in Boy Erased, where a Bible was literally used to pummel a teen, making a point that God’s Word can pound out same-sex attraction.) From a Trump official saying last summer that we have to obey them because of Romans 13 (oh, what a misreading!) to insistence on certain views about Jews or predestination, this weaponizing is prevalent. Drs. Keesmaat & Walsh insist we have to read it in a more generous and disarming way so it can function for us today as it surely did in the first century in Rome.
Just to clarify: they are not trying to soften hard theological truths or eliminate all classic doctrines or only emphasis the lovey-justicey social gospel pieces that today’s cool kids want to hear. Not at all. I just want to be clear that this is not that kind of a book. Those who assume it is primarily a magisterial theological outpouring will be challenged to think about Romans in this new perspective, but it is quite compelling, I think. (And why do some assume that it is the zenith of Paul’s doctrinal systematics, anyway? Just because it is long? 1 Corinthians is longer, and nobody thinks that is Paul’s systematic masterpiece just because it’s long and complicated.)
By taking the letter and its anti-Imperial tone and its socio-political and economic context seriously, it allows us to de-escalate some of the peculiar debates about it, and how it tends to be used these days to close down conversation or flog people with.
HAVE THEY DONE THE SAME THING. WEAPONIZED IT ANEW?
Is this merely a new kind of weaponizing of Romans, using it for a far left, counter-Imperial, anti-American narrative, beating up Republicans and those living for the American Dream? Perhaps. Because they are pushing back on behalf of those who have been hurt, badly hurt, by toxic religion often based on what they believe are mis-readings (and certainly mishandling) of Romans, they can be strident. In some ways, they are trying to help those who are leaving the evangelical world because of the way the Christian right has been so ugly, helping them see a new way to be Christian and a new way to read (and love) the Bible again. I get that. So they do come across as insistent, prophetic, even, sometimes, in speaking (Paul’s) truth to power. But, happily, they are often quite clear about inviting authentic diversity and being welcoming to all (regardless of politics or point of view.)
Hard as it may be, they believe the gospel of God’s grace creates a safe place for everybody. Since they are allies and advocates for the dispossessed and marginalized, it is a live question about how – in a communal conversation or small group Bible study, say – we keep it safe for LGBTQ brothers and sisters, for instance, if someone in the group is bombastic and unkind? (They tell of one such encounter and how they handled it might surprise you.) They talk more than once about this sort of “generous spaciousness” – something more spiritually mature and theologically robust than being PC, by the way, and it is helpful.
UNITY IN CHRIST?
And – of course! – this is a major part of what is going on in Rome. What in the world might it have been like for slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, sexually abused women and children and their perpetrators to hear the great apostle tell people they are one, to welcome all? This is explosive, painful, hard, breathtaking stuff. That few commentaries on this book of the Bible explore with much depth or passion this extraordinary re-making of social relationships then and there (not to mention here and now) is almost professional malpractice among the theologians and Bible teachers. I heard NT Wright talk about how many classes on Romans just peter out before they get to the upshot of it all in the last few chapters, just skipping that as not particularly urgent. In his newer perspective, and in Romans Disarmed, it surely is the point, how the gospel of grace forms a new egalitarian community that can serve as a count-weighted witness to the violence of the powers that be. At any rate, this volume helps us see the need for and helps us become equipped to form this kind of inclusive and just community (despite our huge differences.) This is part of the agenda of Romans Disarmed and what allows the well-informed authors to unpack this so fruitfully for us.
THERE’S A PERSON, AGAIN.
One of the ways they enact this exact sort of hospitable discourse is by using a device they featured creatively in Colossians Remixed. Just when some of their teaching is getting heavy and their Bible interpretation seems a bit speculative, in comes another voice, in italics, an interlocutor. I was hoping the argumentative kid who gave them a hard time in Colossians Remixed, interrupting with skeptical questions that led to fascinating digressions would be back, but it isn’t that guy. This new conversation partner is skeptical enough, but seems to be on board more with their claims, asking wise and good questions, seeking clarification of their exegesis and theological views and telling stories from his own life about the difficulties of applying this kind of anti-imperial lifestyle. They can debate about what Keesmaat & Walsh mean when they say that Romans 1 exposes “the idolatry at the root of the depravity of life in the Empire” and how the Jerusalem Council re-imagined the nature of faithful discipleship and what stipulations are essential for fellow believers, but they also must talk about what difference all this makes for us and what we should be about now, in these times. I don’t recall that we ever learned this person’s name, but she (I thought it is a he, but we learn, eventually that it is a woman) is a great part of the story. This dialogue partner, even though pushing back against some of their statements, is sincere and eager to learn and grow into deeper more relevant fidelity to the gospel. She’s a good part of the story.
Kudos to them for bringing in this other voice from a friendly skeptic who isn’t taking all this “resisting empire-demanding justice” stuff lightly. In doing so they model the kind of robust conversations that are needed within our faith communities and they anticipate the kinds of questions many readers will have while reading Romans Disarmed. Granted, at time he seems like a mere foil, a chance for them to springboard into re-saying what they’ve already said, but it isn’t disingenuous. It makes the book more interesting and more useful for us all.
HOW THE BODY OF CHRIST TALKS
It is true, after all, that we all need to grapple with this matter of hearing each other, of hosting better conversations, which is why I’m sure Brian and Sylvia would love – as we do! – the new book (also published by Brazos) by our friend out at Englewood MO, C. Christopher Smith, who just released the must-read How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press; $16.99.) I suspect that as you are reading Romans Disarmed you are going to want to have some conversations about a lot of different things and How the Body of Christ Talks just might be tool that will save you a lot of grief, guiding you towards being communities of missional conversation and prophetic dialogue. Oh yes, this is rich, thoughtful, good stuff and would make a great companion volume to read alongside Romans Disarmed.
Smith assures us that practices of conversation – especially while eating together — can be transformational within local congregations, and this resonates with the sort of body life that is described in Romans Disarmed. Near the end, Sylvia and Brian note that even in New Testament times, given what we know about what Paul and other apostles said and didn’t say, there was “considerable diversity on discerning what fruitful discipleship looked like.” Learning to talk well together is itself a good and necessary practice; it is mentioned all over the New Testament and healthy churches today bring it on!
“Much, indeed depends on dinner,” they write on page 242. They continue:
Much depends on how you eat, with whom you eat, and what you eat. Eating is, of course, foundational to all of life. And where there is food, there are questions of justice, inclusion, and equality, and, most importantly, of identity.
And then they have a whole section (in a chapter called “Welcoming the Powerless”) in which they note:
It should be no surprise that Paul’s economic vision comes down to food…. if Paul’s gospel is to be embodied in the lives of Jesus followers in Rome, it will be proven at table fellowship. The whole anti-imperial agenda of this letter, together with its commitment to the formation of an alternative home at the heart of the empire, hangs on what happens when Jesus followers gather for the family dinner.
That is, they think Paul’s letter, read carefully and contextually, insists on an open and inclusive fellowship. But they also are clear that (following nearly every other major, well-informed Bible scholar) when Paul uses the word righteousness, he means very much something like what we today might call social justice; as N.T. Wright puts it in his oh-so-British way, a “putting things to rights.” Salvation is not a promise of an ethereal soul floating off to heaven because one got the ticket out of hell, but the breaking in of a new creation order, a regime change here on earth where God in Christ brings His shalom, social health, cultural renewal, a politics of peacemaking, a Jubilee vision of justice. This is not liberal social gospel rhetoric, but the best, most faithful rendering of what the Bible itself really says. We have Christ’s righteousness imputed and imparted to us, and that, properly understood, means we become gospel-infused agents of justice. Which maybe starts with hospitality, being welcoming and listening well, especially to the marginalized and hurting.
You can decide for yourself if chatting with Sylvia and Brian at church, or hanging around the rough-around-the edges ministry of Greg Paul and his Sanctuary Community that they tell us about, or visiting their farm and joining in the daily chores (yes, it’s a real farm with a lot of daily chores) would feel safe and good for you, if they are truly hospitable and welcoming of a variety of views. I have a hunch that even if you find them, as I do, a bit strident at times, you will like them a lot. They know a lot about philosophy, about church history, about contemporary political issues, about rock music, about urban architecture, and contemporary social science, and, yep, they grow food and love to bake bread and do many, essential home-making arts. They know their Bibles and they love Jesus. And you can trust that they’ll shoot straight, telling you what’s on their hearts. What’s not to like?
Their organic farm community that practices regenerative agriculture is called Russet House Farm. The story of their acquiring stewardship of it is itself nearly a miracle; they do educational events and offer hospitality and welcome. Check them out.
I think that the disagreements that this book itself will engender will, if faced in the proper spirit, in the context of the welcoming grace of the gospel itself, mirror some of the difficulties of this new Christian communities forming in and around the Roman Empire in the first century. Many of Paul’s letters, after all, were calling on followers of Jesus to reject identities from the Empire (or “the world”) and to live into the oneness they had in Christ. Just think of Galatians or 1 Corinthians or what are sometimes called pastoral letters. Romans, Keesmaat and Walsh insist, is one of these, writ large. It is not primarily or firstly (if at all) an abstract theological treatise and they explain well why they believe that. The history of assuming and privileging this kind of de-contextualized doctrinal reading is itself part of our problem in blunting the revolutionary socio-economics and political resistance which is nearly overt and surely implicit in this pastoral letter from the hand of Paul. The Paul who would eventually come to Rome and visit all those people he mentions by name in this letter – rich and poor, slave and free, men and women, Judean and Gentile – and end up in jail, killed for sedition against the Empire.
THEY AREN’T THE ONLY ONES SAYING SOME OF THIS…
By the way, even the editors who sounded an alarm [see above] about over-doing the anti-Empire theme in recent New Testament studies, Scot McKnight & Joseph Modica [who do not critique Keesmaat & Walsh directly, by the way] have also edited a valuable volume where some who adopt a “new perspective on Paul” get to explain the contemporary implications and consequences for ministry of some of their new ideas on how to read Paul. See their The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: Ethical and Missional Implications of the New Perspective (Baker Academic; $26.00.) There are some very interesting chapters in there from important Pauline scholars.
A must-read chapter that could have been included in that volume was Brian & Sylvia’s well-intended, painfully hard words to their dear friend Tom Wright in a chapter called “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” found in the great collection Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright edited by Nichols Perrin (IVP Academic; $24.00.) I suggest these titles for those few who want to dig deeper into this bigger conversation and name them just to note that Keesmaat & Walsh are clearly not the only ones insisting that Romans is more than a doctrinal treatise and necessarily has vast social and even political implications. They flesh it out more robustly and with more verve than any other book we know, but this isn’t altogether pioneering stuff. In fact, just a few months back a great book was released compiled and edited (again) by McKnight & Modica called Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives (Eerdmans; $20.00.) These essays and sample sermons illustrated generously how many different views there are about the heart of Romans, how to read it, and how sermons proclaim its grace and grit to us for our daily discipleship. From Fleming Rutledge to Will Willimon to Carl Trueman to Tara Beth Leach, there is good stuff in here. Friends who are sympathetic to Walsh and Keesmaat are included in voices such as Michael Gorman and Richard Hays.
Okay, I might as well just be honest and say it: that was all mostly prelude.
I’m trying to warm you up to the general thesis and style of Romans Disarmed and to warn those who might find it off-putting that there is so much politics and economics and ecological concern in this Bible study work, but that these topics are integral to understanding it properly and to reading it fruitfully. You are going to have to read this big book itself to see if I’m right that this is instructive, enjoyable, provocative, and helpful. I think you’re going to need a book club or study group or friend to talk with you about it, because it is that kind of book. I can’t stop thinking about it!
WHEW, THEY BRING IN A LOT (AND IT MAKES FOR ALMOST A NEW GENRE OF BIBLE COMMENTARY)
What other Biblical scholarship book has pages about permaculture and watersheds and describes ways to be involved in advocacy for Indigenous people’s land rights? What other book spends pages on exegeting Biblical texts (and offering footnotes about where this or that translation gets a word right or wrong and which captures the meaning surely heard by the first century hearers of this public letter) only to follow up with screeds against using cell phones too much or our expectations to eat too much out of season (which, by the way, they call, colorfully, a “culinary indiscretion.”) (It’s a reasonable ethical stance I’m not sure I fully agree with, and about which I know I’d be hypocritical to say I did, but it sure is punchy when they say, “Eating out of season is like having an affair. It is eating in a way that is unfaithful to your place.”) Like I said, there is no other book like this.
And, please know – I assume you get it – that this is not faddish or them trying to be clever, trying to make the Bible “relevant.” This is about our understanding of the huge and hard-wrought question, what is the gospel and the equally huge question how then shall we live? They are joyful and good folks but about this they are deadly serious.
They end the book with a beautiful sort of litany of how Paul called this community to ways that were counter to the values and practices and ways of living in the Rome Empire (and counter to our own culture as well.) Paul’s’ call to offer dignity and respect subverted a world where status and honor legitimated the shaming and denigration of the others (especially the poor and slaves.) Paul’s call to welcome others into community subverted the imperial divisions; “in a world where the enemy is vilified, Paul calls for generous blessing and hospitality for those who have wronged us…”
“In a world where the pain of the suffering was denied and ignored because it was considered collateral damage in the good ordering of society, Paul called this community to weep with those who weep and walk with the oppressed.”
You’ll have to read it in its entirety to catch the hope and inspiration and cadence and implications of this good proclamation.
But hear this, now:
Can we envision a world where the voices of the suffering allowed to subvert the ideology of militarism and consumption that dominates our imaginations? Can we imagine a world where those of us with privilege sacrifice that privilege in order to enter into the suffering of others, of creation, of God?
It is clear that Paul could envision such a world, and this is a world that we want to live in, too. That is the kind of hope that Paul calls us to. If we truly walk with the oppressed and allow ourselves to be led by those who mourn, perhaps we will find ourselves, with Iris and Nereus, not only imagining the new creation but living in such a way that others too will recognize it when it arrives.
This lovely ending names their fictional characters (Iris and Nereus) that we’ve learned so much about in the second big chapter. Not only does this illuminating device help us imagine the explosive social impact on Paul’s pastoral letter to the Christ-followers in Rome, but other devices in the book help us, too. (I’ve mentioned the conversation partner — that italicized interlocutor that interrupts from time to time, another helpful device.)
TARGUMS. YES, YOU HEARD THAT RIGHT: TARGUMS.
There is another teaching device used, an imaginative practice that was, in fact, used in first century rabbinic circles, a poetic and application-oriented modernized paraphrase of the Older Testament texts. First century Christ followers often didn’t know Hebrew (Hellenized Jews, they were called, that is, Israelites who had been pretty much accommodated to the Greek worldview and living within the Roman Empire, so they didn’t even know Hebrew, let alone the law and the prophets. Not to mention the non-Jewish Gentiles grafted into the story of Israel.) So church leaders would do these preaching performances called targums. Walsh excels at doing them for us.
Pages 297-320 of Romans Disarmed is one such imaginative, improvisational re-telling of Romans 12 and 13 that serves as an update of much of what they are saying Romans is saying to us today. It is worth the price of the book to read and re-read (aloud in your own community, perhaps) this modern, creative, re-telling. I mean that. Early on they have a great one re-telling the first part of Romans 1 and nearer the end, a vivid one about inspired by the end of Romans 1. These targums are brilliant.
Here is how they describe these (essential) occasional sidebars:
When rabbis would stand up to read the Torah to Diaspora synagogue congregations throughout the Roman Empire, they would have to translate because Hebrew had already been lost for so many Judeans. But they never translated straight. They did not understand meaning to be conveyed through exact and literal translation (that is a modern notion of translation.) No, that would have been too reductionistic for them. Rather, they believed that the Torah was a living word, still speaking into every new situation. So their translations were also interpretations of the ancient text, an updating of the text, an attempt to allow the Torah to speak anew and fresh to a covenant people from their homeland, living as strangers in a foreign land. Are we not in a decidedly analogous situation? We have an ancient text that we have been struggling to understand, sometimes trying to free if from the shackles of dogmatic interpretation, and we desperately want to hear this text speak a word of liberation into our own lives. Such a fresh hearing of this text requires an exercise in interpretive imagination. So we turn again to the genre of targum.
Remember that a targum is invariably longer than the original text. It has to be, because I need to explicate a lot of what would have been implicit in the original writing. What might have been easily grasped by the first hearers if often lost on a later audience. And a targum also needs to bring the ancient text into conversation and perhaps conflict with later historical, cultural, political, and economic realities. Moreover, this particular targum, coming three-quarters of the way through a sixteen-chapter epistle, also needs to spend some time hearing what Paul is saying in light of all that has come before. In other words, the targum needs to take the time to unpack something of what Paul means when he says “therefore” at the beginning of our passage.
Okay: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice is a guide to new ways to read the Bible, a radical call to live more faithfully in our own socioeconomic times, to be so transformed by God’s grace in community that we become gospel-grounded and Kingdom dreaming people, making a difference against the forces of disruption and distortion in our own broken times. They reject the popular notion that Romans is somehow an abstract systematic theology, neither a simplistic Romans Road to soul salvation nor a treatise on Calvinistic (or other kinds of) intellectual dogma. As originally written and heard, it can be heard a manifesto for staying alive – both in the sense of not being deadened by the swirling seductions in our own fake Empires – and for keeping the true Biblical faith alive, becoming more authentic Christ followers of the sort that populated the counter-cultural, anti-imperial communities that transformed the Roman Empire. It isn’t a call to woodenly return to some golden era or early church purity (if anything, it shows us that the early church was itself pretty dysfunctional and confused.) But it does invite us into an adventure of hearing this letter as part of a story, a controversial, dangerous, adventuresome, almost revolutionary story.
I simply don’t know of any other Bible study book that puts application – improvisational and political, even – in the center of our interpretation of the text, and with such compelling and persuasive (and interesting) power. As I’ve noted, they tell about their own lives of being stewardly within their own watershed (they are part of a movement explored, in fact, in a book edited by Ched Meyers called Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice [Cascade; $30.00.]) Of course they draw on some of the great, clear writings of Wendell Berry, who they’ve been citing for years. They talk about race and racial injustice (which, for them, include a lot about First Nations people in Canada, among whom they have good friends and with whom they have been working for decades, long before the uprising at Standing Rock brought Native people’s contemporary issues to most of our awareness.) They talk about food and music and politics and violence and home-making and sexuality and worship and lament and joy and grace and worldviews. All in a commentary on a book of the Bible that some people think is metaphysical, theological, and beyond their ken. Again I say, wow. Romans Disarmed is one of the most curiously interesting, life-changing books I have read in a very long time.
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A FINAL POSTSCRIPT: A NEW BOOK BY JAMES W. SKILLEN
God’s Sabbath With Creation: Vocations Fulfilled, the Glory Unveiled James W. Skillen (Wipf & Stock) $35.00 Well, if Sylvia Keesmaat & Brain Walsh are feisty farmers and watershed activists, stewarding well their own land even while in conversation with First Nation’s peoples seeking justice, and this sense-of-place informs their study of Romans which they see as an anti-Empire manifesto, this new book – which picks up some (vaguely) similar themes, by political scientist and founder of the moderate Christian think-tank and faith-based, US citizen’s group, the Center for Public Justice – might be a good companion volume. (Here is an interesting interview with him about the founding of CPJ decades ago and his views about the relationship of faith and citizenship.) Although written with a very different tone and style, it, too explores Romans a bit, if in a more conventional exegetical style with lots of theological language, albeit of a “creation regained” / all of life redeemed, worldview perspective. There are no poetic targums, but there are some citations of Abraham Kuyper…
I know that some who have benefitted from the early, influential worldview studies of Brian Walsh – he was the first to hold a professorship and chair of worldview studies (at Toronto’s Institute for Christian Studies) – would know that in his early years at ICS he drew much of his foundational critique of the secular rationalism of much of the Western philosophical tradition (and the pietism and/or secular rationalism of the Western theological tradition, as well) from the famous Dutch philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd. Dr. Skillen has long been deeply grounded in that particular stream of neo-Calvinist (“reformational”) worldview philosophy and although he has been a political scientist most of his life (his most recent previous book is one I’ve raved about in a long BookNotes review; it is called The Good of Politics: A Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Introduction [Baker Academic; $25.00]) he has been a serious student of Holy Scripture and knows the very best Biblical scholarship. This is a book he told me years ago that he wanted to write and we are thrilled to announce that it just came out.
A new book by Skillen is always a good thing. A book about reading the Bible is great.
Like Walsh & Keesmaat, Skillen is convinced of the Biblical truth that God’s faithfulness to the good but fallen creation means that, in Christ, this world is being re-made; healed and restored. He so disapproves of “other-worldly” piety and anti-creational dualism that he has a chapter in this book – a collection of essays about the drama of the Biblical promise and fulfillment of God’s Sabbath for creation itself — about political philosopher Eric Voegelin who, in Skillen’s learned estimation, gets Paul wrong, but has a lot to teach us against the debilitating heresy of Gnosticism. Amen!
Skillen – in a way that is more foundational and less vivid about social issues than Brian and Sylvia – is, nonetheless, a public intellectual doing some sort of public theology, if you will. Or, perhaps I should say, he’s doing Biblical study with an eye to the creation-wide, daily-life, public implications of a solid and creative view of what the Bible says about life and times. He knows how the Bible works and the trajectory of the story from creation to new creation; from garden to city; he sees creation and its historical opening up as “disclosing” God’s will; he writes about “hospitality and honor” and how covenantal views are not the same as social contracts. All of this matters as we proclaim that Christ is reconciling all things. As royal priests, we all are called to do work which anticipates the future completion and rest God is bringing to His world. What we do now matters, and it is important to find ourselves immersed in the covenantal promises of God to cause human shalom and flourishing throughout His own beloved creation.
God’s Sabbath with Creation is not a lefty manifesto (as some might see Keesmaat and Walsh’s Romans Disarmed) but it does have within it a socially potent view of the Scriptures as they shine a light revealing the circumference and scope of Christ’s reign and can point us towards a counter-cultural witness in but not of the world. That is, this solid, even dense, set of Biblical reflections has public implications.
As Skillen puts it:
Christ Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one through whom all things are created and all things are fulfilled. We are creatures made in God’s image, called to develop and govern the earth in service to God. The exercise of human responsibility in this age plays a major part in the revelation of God’s glory. Every vocation matters for creation’s seventh-day fulfillment: family, friendships, worship, civic responsibility, and our work in every sphere of life.
This is serious, even if at times a tad tedious; it is edifying and helpful to work through Skillen’s God’s Sabbath with Creation and we recommend it. His quibbles about, say, N.T. Wright’s less than fully adequate exposition of the relationship between this creation and the re(new)ed creation is quite interesting. (Some it is found in a footnote, so don’t miss it!)
Here are the main units of this hefty book that bridges the worlds of contemporary socio-political analysis and his previous books about pluralism and citizenship and our human longing for cultural renewal with careful exegesis of Biblical words and themes. There are several short but meaty chapters in each major section. Believe me, he pulls more implications from these Biblical themes than most, and bases his understanding of our contemporary lives within this hopeful trajectory that God is at work bringing plans to fruition, bringing healing and hope to the cosmos.
- Created Reality
- Revelatory Patterns
- The Covenantal Disclosure of Reality
- First Adam Last
- Already and Not Yet
- Israel and the new Covenant
- The Way, the Truth, the Life
Jim has a remarkable gift of discernment and can unpack more from a passage than most. He is widely read, almost playfully, so, and here draws on scholars as unique as Alexander Schmemann and Jorgen Moltmann, Christine Pohl and Oliver O’Donovan, Richard Middleton and N.T. Wright, Richard Hays and Abraham Kuyper, Sallie McFague and Herman Ridderbos, Miroslov Volf and Gerhard Von Rad. His own Reformed leanings are evident when he draws on Gordon Spykman, John Stek, Ray Van Leeuwen, Calvin Seerveld, Alvin Plantinga, RIdderbos, and Al Wolters.
Here is a very good endorsement from two scholars and teachers we admire:
Jim Skillen is one of our best Christian thinkers today, a scholar we have long admired. He is, moreover, a top Christian political theorist who takes the Bible seriously in his academic work. And so it is a delight to read the fruit of his many years of wrestling with the scriptural text. He challenges an individualistic narrative of sin and salvation, and articulates a rich view of creation in fresh and surprising ways. Following Jesus means redirecting the whole of our creaturely lives to serve God, others, and the non-human creation in joyful anticipation of God’s coming Sabbath with creation. Highly recommended! –Craig Bartholomew & Michael Goheen co-authors of The Drama of Scripture, At the Crossroads, and Christian Philosophy
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