Posted by: Dan | May 5, 2007

April Books

Hmmm, it seems like these “reviews” are taking more and more time to write. I might have to start making them even more inadequate than they already are.

1. Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God by Karl Barth.

Well, I’ve been poking away at this 900pp monster for the last few months and, now that I’ve finally finished it, I’ve got no clue how I can possibly summarise it here. Within this volume, Barth continues to address the topic of the revelation of God (begun in Vol. 1), through the incarnation of the Word (within this section he explores God’s freedom for man, the time of revelation and the mystery of revelation) and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (and in this section Barth explores the freedom of man for God, the revelation of God as the abolition of religion and the life of the children of God). Barth then goes on to explore the topics of “Holy Scripture” (as the Word of God for the Church, as authority in the Church, and as freedom in the Church) and the “Proclamation of the Church” (here, Barth explores the mission of the Church, dogmatics as a function of the hearing Church, and dogmatics as the function of the teaching church).

There were times when I found this book to be very exciting, and other times when I found it to be very, well, boring. I think the main reason why it took me so long to work through this book is because Barth spends a great deal of time addressing issues that I’m not altogether that interested in addressing. While Barth goes on about “subjectivity” and “objectivity,” I am reminded of a famous saying from Wittgenstein: “Don’t think. Look!”

2. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology by Stanley Hauerwas.

It had been awhile since I picked up anything by Hauerwas so I finally got around to reading this publication of his Gifford lectures. I’m glad that I did; this is an excellent book and one that is much more comprehensive than many other things Hauerwas has written (I’m slowly working my way through Hauerwas and, if my count is correct, this the 9th book that I have read by him).

Within this book, Hauerwas traces the development of twentieth century theology by examining the “natural” theologies of William James, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Karl Barth (all previous Gifford lecturers). Barth, Hauerwas argues, succeeds where James and Niebuhr fail, because Barth recognises that any sort of “natural” theology must be rooted within the doctrine of God. Therefore, such a theology cannot be developed by rational arguments; rather, it is developed by bearing witness to God’s activity within the world. Hence, Hauerwas’ central thesis is that:

natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly of the world in which we find ourselves. The metaphysical and existential projects to make a ‘place’ for such a god cannot help but ‘prove’ the existence of a god that is not worthy of worship.

Therefore, in summarising the differences between James, Niebuhr, and Barth, Hauewas argues that:

James was committed to the criticism of criticism for the sake of living well. Alternatively, Reinhold Niebuhr’s life was a political life in which all convictions were tested in terms of their significance for sustaining the democratic enterprise. In contrast, Barth’s convictions were tested by their ability to sustain service to God.

Hauerwas argues that both James an Niebuhr remove both the cross (i.e. christology) and the Church (i.e. ecclesiology) from the centre of theology. Consequently, he concludes that Barth must be seen as the greatest “natural” theologian of the three because Barth understands that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe” (a line Hauerwas takes from Yoder). Is it any wonder I enjoyed this book so much?

3. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David A. deSilva.

This book is probably the best introduction to NT culture that I have read. It is a scholarly work, and deSilva spends a lot of time exploring the cultural values of both Greco-Roman culture, and the Jewish subculture in NT times. However, he does this in order to bring a new perspective on a much of the NT writings themselves (thus, each theme [honor, patronage, kinship & purity] receives a chapter on how those values operated within ancient culture, and then a separate chapter exploring how our understanding of these themes impacts our reading of the NT). Furthermore, this book is easy to read and understand (i.e. you don’t have to be a biblical studies student to understand what deSilva is talking about) and it also also a pastoral focus; deSilva points to some of the ways in which the insight he provides impacts how we live as Christians today. The method deSilva employs is one that I think a great deal of biblical scholars should learn to use. I highly recommend this book.

4. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed.

Within this book an NT scholar (Crossan) and an archaeologist (Reed) team-up to see what new insights might be brought to bear on Paul if we are more aware of the context in which he lived (although you don’t see any mention of this, I think that Crossan and Reed were led to to this approach [and to some of their conclusions?] by the work co-authored by Horsley and Silberman in ’97).

Essentially, Crossan and Reed argue that a proper understanding of Paul’s context should lead us to conclude that Paul was engaged in a highly subversive mission — on that directly opposed the values and reign of Rome, with the values and reign of Jesus. Although the text is rather meandering (Crossan prefers to write for popular audiences), I think that this central thesis is valid. Unfortunately, there are other places where the argumentation is sloppy and completely unsubstantiated, and it becomes clear that much of Crossan’s writing is motivated by other agendas that end up restricting his picture of Paul. Thus, Crossan’s “radical Paul” ends up looking strikingly similar to a 21st-century American Liberal.

5. God & Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan.

This book is largely a summary and synthesis of Crossan’s earlier books on Jesus and Paul and it thus continues to argue that Christianity originated as a non-violent, counter-cultural movement that focuses on the kingdom of God and the equality of people. However, in this work Crossan wants to engage with the Christian canon more fully, and so he traces a fundamental tension/ambiguity that he sees running through the biblical narrative. This is the tension between the portrayal of sanctioned, divine violence, and the portrayal of sanctioned, divine non-violence (Crossan also describes this as the tension between God’s distributive and God’s retributive justice). Essentially, Crossan is asking: is God violent or nonviolent? His answer to this is as follows: “My proposal is that the Christian Bible presents the radicality of a just and nonviolent God repeatedly and relentless confronting the normalcy of an unjust and violent civilization.” Furthermore, this is the conclusion Crossan comes to because, despite tensions within the canon, this is the answer that is incarnated “by and in” the historical Jesus.

Now, that’s all well and good but, despite my sympathy for Crossan’s basic conclusion, I find his argument is often too simplistic, many passages (and even whole books — like the Apocalpse of John) seem to be discarded a priori, and there are other areas that Crossan just doesn’t seem to understand at all (his perspective on the resurrection, well known it a lot of circles because of his ongoing debates with N. T. Wright on this topic, is a prime example of one of those areas). I guess I find Crossan so frustrating because, although I agree with a lot of what he has to say about Jesus and Paul as people who were “against” empire (then and now!), I think that he ends up discrediting himself precisely in that key area because of his sketchy scholarship in other areas.

6. A Long Way From Tipperary: A Memoir by John Dominic Crossan.

So, because I was working through Crossan’s material on Paul (part of my thesis research), I decided to read through Crossan’s memoir (after all, scholarship reminds us, over and over again, of the importance of reading a person’s work in context). In this book, Crossan tries to explore how his own life and experiences may have impacted his research on Jesus (he hadn’t started writing about Paul when this book was published). What I find most interesting about this is not what Crossan discusses but what he leaves out. For example, Crossan spends some time talking about how he grew up in Ireland, in a family that was inspired by the violent Irish resistance to the British Empire, and notes how many people have argued he was reading his own experiences in Ireland into his interpretation of Jesus as a Galilean peasant, who engaged in non-violent resistance to the Roman Empire. Thus, he spends some time showing why (or at least asserting that) he thinks his upbringing in Ireland, didn’t warp his scholarship. However, apart from one throw-away comment, Crossan spends no time at all questioning how his academic rootedness in a twentieth-century American Liberal environment may have impacted his scholarship. However, the impact of this environment is one that concerns me far more than Crossan’s upbringing.

I suppose what I found most interesting about this book is Crossan’s explanation of his own language. In this memoir, Crossan makes it clear that when it talks about things like “resurrection” he doesn’t literally mean “resurrection” as it has traditionally been understood; nor, when he talks about the “trinity” is he actually referring to the “trinity” in any sort of orthodox manner; nor when he talks about the “second coming” does he actually believe in any sort of literal “second coming.” And, finally, when he calls himself a “Catholic” it also becomes obvious that no Catholic would agree with his understanding of membership within the Catholic community. Of course, where his appropriation of biblical language and themes is concerned, Crossan would argue that he is simply being faithful to the biblical authors who never intended for things like the “resurrection” or the “second coming” to be taken literally (indeed, Crossan suggests that we would be “dummies” if that was the way we read the texts).

To be honest, I can’t help but find Crossan to be somewhat obnoxious. Although he argues that he is now more “polite” than “nasty” when arguing with orthodox Christian, it seems to me that he is now more condescending than crass. That is to say, it seems to me that Crossan’s “nastiness” is now simply more polished.

7. How to Read Lacan by Slavoj Zizek.

This was an exceptional book. I have found Zizek to be a very stimulating writer but, in part due to his writing style (the flow of his argument is often non-existent), and in part due to the fact that I have no academic training in the realm of psychoanalysis (Zizek is a psychoanalyst — among many other things!), I have strugged with some of his writings. However, this book (an introduction to Lacan, which ends up serving as an excellent introduction to Zizek as well), flows very well, carefully defines all the technical language it uses, and offers very helpful illustration. Indeed, I find Zizek’s reading of Lacan’s language of “the Big Other” (i.e. the symbolic order; i.e. society’s “unwritten constitution) coheres very well with Walter Wink’s reading of Paul’s language of “the Powers that be.” Add to this, Zizek’s understanding of Lacan’s take on the way in which desire is conditioned and alienated, as well as with the role fantasy plays in sustaining our (fake) “reality,” in combination with Paul’s understanding of the impact of Sin and Death, and you’ve got some incredibly provocative results. Oh, and the book is also very short — highly recommended.

8. Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

This book contains a number of disconnected aphorisms and observations that were recorded as asides by Wittgenstein in his various journals and notebooks. Here Wittgenstein explores themes of music, ethics, pedagogy, faith, and the existence of God. There is a great deal of insight in some of these comments, although a familiarity with Wittgenstein’s main works is probably helpful for understanding a number of the remarks. Here is are a few remarks I found particularly interesting.

On Christianity:

A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer (Karl Barth). It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.belief, it’s really a way of living.life. (Or the direction of your life.)

It seems to me that a religious belief could only be something like a passionate commitment to a system of reference. Hence, although it’s

I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your

On Philosophy:

This is how philosopher’s should salute each other: “Take your time!”for heaven’s sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.

Don’t

On Science:

Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.

[P]erhaps science and industry, having caused infinite misery in the process, will unite the world — I mean condense it into a single unit, though one in which peace is the last thing that will find a home.

9. Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.

Maybe my expectations were too high, but I was pretty disappointed with this book — which is too bad because I’m sympathetic to Perkins’ cause. You see, in this book, Perkins describes how he worked as an “Economic Hitman” (EHM). As an EHM, Perkins worked for multinational corporations that would give false statistics to nations in the two-thirds world, thereby inspiring those nations to receive massive loans from the IMF or the World Bank, or the USA. This would then drive these nations into an ever-increasing debt and dependence upon the ones who granted the loans. Thus, the USA, for example, could then manipulate those nations, using that debt to garner their votes at the UN, to build military bases on their territory, or to plunder their natural resources.

That this sort of thing has been going on for the last fifty or so years should come as no surprised to the informed reader. However, Perkins’ book, because of his insider perspective, left me with the impression that we would get a lot of the nitty-gritty details of the parties involved, the transactions that occurred, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, this is almost no supporting documentation for what Perkins says, and most of his anecdotes are incredibly vague. Instead we get the ramblings of a guilty conscience (Perkins has since tried to expiate himself by working for an environmental organization, supporting other non-profits and, of course, writing this book). So why does this bother me so much? Well, it bothers me so much because I think Perkins writes a book that is too easily discredited. If I compare Perkins to Chomsky, for example, I find that both reach very similar conclusions, but Chomsky has a long track record, a vast collection of sources to which one can be referred, and an equally vast collection of specific examples to which he can appeal. However, despite these things, Chomsky is often blown-off, so my question is: what chance does Perkins have of being taken seriously by those who are immersed into the system as it is?

10. Batman: Year One written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli.

Okay, if I’m not nerd enough reading all these books, I’ve recently taken to reading comics. Stumbling onto the whole genre of “illustrated novels” a few years back introduced me to some really excellent pieces, and this process has now led me back to some acclaimed comics (like Watchmen which I read a few months ago). I never read Miller’s most famous collection of graphic novels (the “Sin City” collection — a collection that overlaps sex, violence, and glory in ways that make me uncomfortable) but I thought that I’d give his take on Batman a go. And it’s a good take. This comic was a lot of fun and a pleasant distraction from all the reading I’ve been doing for my thesis.

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