Posted by: Dan | June 2, 2007

May Books

1. Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle by Neil Elliott.

If one begins to explore the topic of “Paul and politics,” as I have, this book becomes unavoidable. It is, to date, one of the first (and only) full-length and scholarly attempts to present a picture of a Paul who is, not only counter-cultural, but also explicitly counter-imperial. Thus, Elliott’s title, Liberating Paul, has a double meaning. It expresses Elliott’s desire to “liberate Paul” from the service of death (i.e. liberate Paul from readings that make him pro-patriarchy, pro-colonialism, pro-quietism, dejudaized, and so on and so forth), and it also expresses Elliott’s desire to paint a picture of a Paul who is truly “liberating.”

Thus, in the first part of the book, Elliott notes the way that Paul — and Paul especially of the New Testament voices — has been pressed into the service of death. Elliott’s sees two majors causes of this corruption of Paul: first, the pseudepigraphical books have been allowed to dictate who we read the genuine Pauline epistles (resulting in a so-called “Pauline Social Conservatism”) and, second, Paul has generally been “mystified” (i.e. seen as a “theologian” uninterested in “political” issues). Consequently, in the second part of the book, Elliott moves from criticisms to positive contributions, and looks at how three central elements — the centrality of the cross (an unavoidably political event) in Paul’s writings, the (political) apocalyptic mysticism of Paul and his conversion from “sacred violence,” and the apostolic praxis of Paul, living out the dying of Jesus in communities of discernment, resistance, solidarity, and confrontation — in Paul and his letters leads us to a liberated and liberating Paul.

Although I did not find all of Elliott’s arguments fully convincing, this books is an excellent read and a much needed blend of Pauline studies, liberation theology, and Western cultural criticism (I only wish that more authors were seeking to bring these strands together! Unfortunately, a recent post on Ben Witherington’s blog [] shows what happens when a NT scholar attempts to speak of liberation theology with hardly any understanding of liberation theology [let alone marxism! One wonders if Witherington has even read Marx, let alone Lukacs, Gramsci, Bloch, Marcuse, Adorno, and many others — like Derrida or Foucault, especially — who, although not marxist, had the horizon of their thinking set by marxism, and thus engaged in a creative dialogue with marxism]). Part of what I found so enjoyable about Elliott’s book is the way in which he retains the political insight of people like Horsley, while also holding onto the more “orthodox” elements of the Christian faith (something that those who present a “radical” Paul often seem to want to dispose of). Were I to teach a course on Paul, this would be required reading; it is an excellent book.

2. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul by Wayne A. Meeks.

This is a classic in the realm of New Testament studies and so, given my thesis topic, it was only a matter of time before I worked through it. As the title suggest, Meeks is exploring the social context of Pauline Christianity as we know of it through the New Testament. Thus, he examines six spheres: the urban environment of Pauline Christianity, the social level(s) of Pauline Christianity, the nature of the Ekklesia, governance within the community of faith, the role of ritual to the early Christians, and “patterns of belief and patterns of life” in the Pauline churches.

Although Meeks’ study is now a little dated (it was first published in 1983), and the socio-rhetorical study of the New Testament has exploded a lot since then, I found a great deal of valuable contextual information in this book. In part, I think that this book has become a classic precisely because Meeks is so hesitant to draw firm conclusions where no firm conclusions can be drawn. Unlike many, Meeks is willing to live with tensions and uncertainties, noting possibilities, rather than pushing a particular agenda. Thus, the Paul that Meeks’ presents is an interesting blend — in some ways he ends up being far more radical and explicitly counter-cultural than the Paul of “social conservatism,” and in other ways he ends up being far more conservative than the Paul that others like Elliott and Horsley (or even Crossan) present.

3. The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James S. Jeffers.

Although this book is intended for a more general audience than other socio-rhetorical commentaries on the New Testament that I have recently read (cf. Meeks or deSilva), I found this book to be a very helpful (although somewhat dry) overview of the social, cultural, and political environment of the New Testament era. Jeffers doesn’t assume that his audience has much familiarity with the issues he presents and so he takes the time to explain all the basic categories and terms (as I was reading Jeffers, I found myself wishing that I had refreshed myself on these things before I read Suetonius last year). I think that Jeffers wants to be comprehensive without being overwhelming and, in my opinion, he accomplishes that task rather well. This book won’t be the most exciting thing you read, but it is useful for grasping the basic background of early Christianity.

4. New Tasks for a Renewed Church by Tom Wright.

First of all, if you’ve read Simply Christian and a few other books by Wright (say The Crown and the Fire and The Climax of the Covenant), then chances are that you’ve already heard most of what is said in this book (although this book was published, in 1992, before a lot of Wright’s other material. I really don’t know why it never caught on the way that Wright’s other stuff has; in fact, I think that it is out of print now). However, I don’t mind reading the same thing more than once when it comes from Wright. I actually like to keep him in my rotation so that he can increasingly impact the shape of the lenses through which I view the world.

Within this book, Wright examines (then) contemporary changes within both cultural (which Wright argues has been increasingly overrun by paganism) and the Church (which Wright argues has been experiencing a variety of renewal movements that need to be brought together — Wright identifies eight renewal movements: renewal of worship and spirituality, of Christian unity and ecumenicism, of social justice, of healing ministries, of critical thinking, of biblical study, of lay ministry, and of charismatic movements). Furthermore, Wright argues that the Church is now living in a post-Christendom era, and is deeply in need of some “spring cleaning,” as she has also become compromised by the paganisms of our culture.

Thus, Wright argues that the contemporary Church must do what the early church did: find out where the pagan gods and goddesses are being worshiped and find ways of worshiping Jesus on the same spot (he then explores how Christian today can do that in relation to Mars, Mammon, Aphrodite, Gaia, Pantheism, Bacchus, and “Idols of the Mind,” like the various dualisms that are prominent today). What I found especially important about Wright’s form of engagement in this part is the way in which he focuses upon holding together both cross and resurrection, and both “evangelism” and “social justice.”

Wright then concludes his argument with a meditation upon the Trinity, a doctrine that emerged when the early Church was battling with paganism, and a doctrine that must be re-explored if we are to confront paganism with a truthful vision of God today. He ends by asking these questions, which I believe are just as urgent today as they were in 1992:

The choice before the church must therefore also be made clear. Are we to compromise with paganism, to assimilate, to water down the distinctives of Christian faith in order to make it more palatable, to avoid the slur of being enemies of the human race? Are we to retreat into dualism, into the ghetto, into a private ‘spiritual’ religion which will assure us of an other-worldly salvation but which will leave the powers of the present world unchallenged by the Jesus who claims their allegiance? Or are we to worship the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and to find in that worship a renewed charge, a renewed sense of direction, and a renewed hope for the task?

5. Conscience and Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelations 13 in Light of the Second Coming by William Stringfellow.

Having read Stringfellows’ An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land a few years ago, I came to this book with fairly high expectations.

What Stringfellow sets out to do in this book is “to affirm a biblical hope which comprehends politics and which transcends politics.” By doing this, he is exploring the “elementary link” between ethics and eschatology, because, Stringfellow argues, hope now “means the imminence of judgment.”

Now then, given the ways, in which much of Stringfellow’s other works on politics relied on the way the “State” is presented in Revelation (and Rev 13, in particular), he pays special attention here to Ro 13 but, rather than arguing that the two passages can be made to fit one binding principle, he argues that there is no coherence between the two passages. He writes: “Instead of proposition or principle, the biblical witness offers precedent and parable.” Thus, he concludes that any ethical system that is “settled and stereotyped” is both “dehumanizing and pagan—that is, literally, unbiblical.” In this way, Stringfellow allows for a real tension to exist between Rev 13 and Ro 13.

However, in order to negotiate this tension, Stringfellow raises the issue of “vocation,” and he argues that Ro 13 points to the proper vocation of human political authority, while Rev 13 describes the profound distortion of that vocation that has occurred since the fall. Thus, he concludes: “If ROMANS may be said to designate legitimate political authority, REVELATION may be said to describe illegitimate political authority.” However, before we go on to use the legitimacy described in Ro 13 to support contemporary powers, Stringfellow problematises the question of legitimacy, asking: legitimate to whom? legitimate when? legitimate in what way? by what standard? and so on and so forth. Consequently, he concludes that obedience to political authorities cannot be based upon appeals to legitimacy (or upon appeals to Ro 13). Unfortunately, when Ro 13 is used to make contemporary authorities legitimate, thereby inspiring Christian obedience, Stringfellow argues a “Constantinian comity” occurs that reverses the apostolic precedent of juxtaposing the Church and political authority.

Stringfellow then explores the idea that obedience to contemporary authorities is necessary in order to maintain a sort of Order that is better than anarchy. Unfortunately, Stringfellow argues, this argument fails because it is so conditioned. In actuality, no political authority has been able to achieve functional order, and prevent anarchy (“anarchy” is understood as “disorder, dysfunction, chaos, confusion”). Thus, when Stringfellow looks at America, he does not find order, he finds anarchy. Of course, Stringfellow concludes, calling such anarchy “Order” is precisely the “blasphemy” that is condemned in Rev 13.

Ultimately, Stringfellow argues, issues of conscience and obedience in relationship to political authorities, concern Jesus’ Lordship, and involve both his coming and his coming again. Thus, it is necessary to realise that both advents are political, and they are politically decisive for Christians. Thus, Stringfellow argues that: “The message which the life and witness of the church conveys to political authority… always, basically, concerns the political vigilance of the Word of God in judgment.” Therefore, Christians must recover the sense of the imminence of Jesus’ return if they are to live humanly in the world today — this is the vital role of hope in Christianity. Furthermore, Stringfellow argues that this “political vigilance” will lead the Church to be a political advocate for those who are victims of the rulers of this age, and this means that the Church must always be located “at the interstices of political tumult and controversy.” In this way, the Church can truly become a “holy nation… the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations.”

For the most part, I very much enjoyed this book (which is, perhaps, why I spent so much time reviewing it here). The only issue I had with Stringfellow is the way in which he reads Ro 13. I think that, within Ro in general, and Ro 13 in particular, there is room for a much more “subversive” understanding of that text.

6. Mythologies by Roland Barthes.

This book was a quick read, and was quite fun. Herein, Barthes explores various aspects of pop-culture, in order to reveal the ideology present in such seemingly apolitical events as advertisements for soap, the presentation of Romans in film, the world of wrestling, or the elements of a striptease. However, Barthes is not simply exploring events, he is interested, most of all, with language. Thus, he engages in semiological analysis of language in order to “account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature” (this mystification is why Barthes refers to these events as “Mythologies”).

The most interesting part of this book is the essay entitled “Myth Today,” which is something of a critical reflection upon the various cases that Barthes has examined in the rest of the book, and upon the methodology that he has employed. Myth, Barthes argues, is a type of speech, a mode of signification. Hence, myth is a blend of semiology — which is a science of forms, studying “significations” apart from their content — and ideology — which involves history and “ideas-in-forms.” Therefore, what is especially interesting about myth is that it is a “second-order” semiological system, it is not a language but a metalanguage. In this way myth transforms ideologies into the “natural” state of being in the world or, as Barthes says, the way in which myth “transforms history into nature” (for example, myths that propound the ontological/moral/intellectual/physical superiority of men over women make patriarchy the natural state of affairs in the world). Consequently, Barthes argues that myth is best described as “language robbery,” it takes our “first-order” semiological system, imposes another layer of meaning upon that system, and then makes that “second-order” appear natural.

From this rather technical study of myth, Barthes goes on to describe the way in which the bourgeois ideology (of capitalism) has become naturalised within the Western world (and Barthes’ France, in particular). The bourgeois, Barthes argues, have conquered precisely by become invisible (and, therefore, natural). Thus, Barthes writes, “flight from the name ‘bourgeois’ is not therefore an illusory, accidental, secondary, natural or insignificant phenomenon: it is bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world” (of course, the fact that any of us — myself included — would feel at least a little embarrassed to use the term “bourgeoisie” in any discussion today, seems to strengthen Barthes’ conclusion — although see the quote from Eagleton, below, for a different perspective). Consequently, by making historical ideologies “natural,” myth “depoliticises” speech. Thus, to counter myth, Barthes argues that political language must be affirmed, and such language is found in the language of “man [sic] as producer” the language spoken “wherever man [sic] speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image.” Of course, Barthes notes that this form of language is also open to appropriation by myth, but he argues that such myths are much more “poverty-stricken” than other forms. Actually, it is this part of Barthes’ argument that I find least convincing — I think Barthes’ Leftist views are just as susceptible to “mythological” criticisms as views from the Right. As Lyotard would say, every view is, inescapable, its own “small story,” and neither is less mythological, or more natural, than the other (at this point it may be worth while to recall Derrida’s comments on “logocentricism,” and the way in which it impacts both language and our critical study of language).

7. After Theory by Terry Eagleton.

This book was so good, Eagleton writes with such a wonderful, witty, and cutting voice, that I hardly know to write about his book in a way that does it any sort of justice. You’d be much better served reading this book yourself, I highly recommend it (in particular to people like Witherington — see the link above — who could learn a bit more about marxism from people like Eagleton).

In this book (and excellent book to read after Barthes, by the way), Eagleton argues that the socio-political concerns that dominated literary and postmodern theory in the last half century, have most come and gone. As Eagleton says:

Postmodernism seems at times to behave as though the classical bourgeoisie is alive and well, and thus finds itself living in the past. It spends much of its time assailing absolute truth, objectivity, timeless moral values, scientific inquiry and a belief in historical progress. It calls into question the autonomy of the individual, inflexible social and sexual norms, and the belief that there are firm foundations to the world. Since all of these values belong to a bourgeois world on the wane, this is rather like firing off irascible letters to the press about the horse-riding Huns or marauding Carthaginians who have taken over the Home Counties.

Consequently, given the rise of a new global narrative (that of capitalism, along with the “war on terror”), Eagleton argues that “the style of thinking known as postmodernism” may be coming to an end (after all, Eagleton notes, postmodern theory assured us that grand narratives were a thing of the past — further, he notes has cultural theory has mostly stagnated since the beginning of the 1980s, and “radical combat” has given way to “radical chic,” as the “dissident mind” has been “darkened”). Therefore, cultural theory faces a fresh challenge. Rather than sticking to tried and true issues, theory, says Eagleton, must “break out of a rather stifling orthodoxy and explore new topics, not least those of which it has so far been unreasonably shy.”

This, then, is what Eagleton does for most of the book as he explore the topics of truth, virtue, objectivity, morality, revolution, foundations, fundamentalism, death, evil, and non-being. Although cultural theory has become increasingly disenchanted and pessimistic, Eagleton urges theory to “think ambitiously once again,” not least because the powers of capitalism, and their wake of massive destruction, are certainly thinking ambitiously. Now, by exploring these topics, Eagleton does not leave the legacy of cultural theory behind (Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Barthes, Foucault, Williams, Irigaray, Bourdieu, Kristva, Derida, Cixous, Habermas, Jameson, and Said, all appear on the first page, and many of the voices, and others, are continually engaged — both explicitly and implicitly — throughout this text). However, Eagleton has learned from these, and others, in such a way that allows him to go where they were often unwilling, or unable, to go.

Of course, by mentioning these topics, I have not said what Eagleton had to say about each of these things. Suffice to say that what is says is articulate, provocative and, I think, quite inspiring. Read this book.

8. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

I still found some time to read a little fiction this month, and this book came to me highly recommended. It is a wonderful story of friendship, the dreams, passion, and self-absorbed nature of youth, the intervention of life, and the joys, sorrows, and endings that come with age. Really a story of everyday life, I found this book to be a wonderful read (perhaps because I am increasingly confronted with my own insignificance, and the everyday nature of all of our lives?). Highly recommended.

9. 5 People who Died During Sex: And 100 Other Terribly Tasteless Lists by Karl Shaw.

Ah yes, this book was a gift from my oh-so-lovely wife, and it made for some fascinating “toilet reading” (not for the faint of heart, I’m sure Chris Tilling will be rushing out to get this one!). One of my favourite sections was “Ten Thoughts on Shakespeare,” which begins with Voltaire (“This enormous dunghill”) and ends with King George III (“Is this not sad stuff, what what?”). I couldn’t agree more.

Interestingly enough, Jean Danielou, the noted Catholic Cardinal and theologian, was listed as one of the five who died during sex. Apparently he died in 1974 on the footsteps of a brothel in Clichy (the red-light district of Paris — a place I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago). The police explained that the 70 year-old Cardinal was on his way to (*ahem*) “comfort” a twenty-four year-old blond prostitute (“in an official capacity only”).

10. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley).

If one were to read only one Batman comic, this would be it. Of course, those that care already know that this book (along with Watchmen) pretty much revolutionised the genre of comics (and those that don’t care are thinking “who reads comics, anymore?”). Good fun (comics are best when they’re dark — which is why I didn’t enjoy any of the Spiderman movies), and a nice break from pretty much everything else.


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