Posted by: Dan | March 5, 2008

February Books

Well, as expected, my cover-to-cover book reading has been rather limited this month given both my focus on my thesis research and my desire to read some longer books this year (hence, I’ve been very slowly working my way through Marx’s Grundrisse and Green’s NICNT commentary on The Gospel of Luke over the last few months). However, these are the books I managed to finish last month:

1. Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History (revised edition) by Oscar Cullmann.

This was a book that I began to read for my research and ending up reading all the way through. In it Cullmann lays out his now famous (and now widely accepted) thesis that the Christian understanding of time is one that views history as divided between two ages which, due to the Christ-event, now overlap. Hence, over against Schweitzer’s ‘consistent’ (or futurist) eschatology, Dodd’s ‘realised’ (present) eschatology, and Bultmann’s existential (ahistorical) eschatology, Cullmann posits an inaugurated but not-yet consummated eschatology, wherein Christians negotiate the tensions between the ‘now’ and the ‘not-yet’ (it is in this work that he first utilises he famous example of the time between D-Day, and V-Day — the decisive battle has been won, but the final victory is yet to be accomplished).

I found this to be an excellent book for several reasons. First of all, I fully agree with Cullmann’s understanding of time and history shaped around the Christ-event. Secondly, Cullmann emphasises the fact that the new creation is a cosmic event, encompassing all of creation, and he thereby affirms both embodied human existence (for more on Cullmann’s emphasis on the bodily nature of the resurrection cf. Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament). Third, Cullmann stresses the missional aspect of this understanding of time, wherein the Church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, now takes part in the ongoing inauguration of God’s new creation in the present moment. Fourth, I think Cullmann’s reflections on the imminence of Christ’s parousia are quite useful — over against many scholars who argue that Paul was expecting Christ to return in his lifetime, and who thus go on to argue that the early Church then had to contend with the embarrassement of ‘the delay of the parousia‘, Cullmann argues that Paul was certain that Christ would return, was longing for Christ to return in his lifetime, but had no certainty, or ‘calendar reckoning’ for when this return would be. Hence, he argues that Paul was indeed teaching an ‘interim ethic’, but precisely the sort of interim ethic that continues to apply today (and not an interim ethic that we can then discard, as many scholars argue) because we continue to live in that interim period. Fifth, Cullmann’s understanding of the Powers is very useful. He emphasises that the Powers must be understood as both the civil authorities (the secular Greek meaning of the term exousiai) and as angelic powers that stand behind, and operate through, the civil authorities (the understanding of the powers often demonstrated in Jewish apocalyptic literature). I think that this both-and is vitally important for how we interpret Paul’s understanding of the relationship that Christians are to have with the State (Cullmann develops this view more in The State in the New Testament).

To be honest, much of what Cullmann said reminded me of N. T. Wright, both in what Wright has to say about eschatology (in The New Testament and the People of God and in Jesus and the Victory of God) and in what Wright has to say about resurrection, new creation, and the mission of the Church (in The Resurrection of the Son of God, Surprised by Hope, and Simply Christian). It seems to me that much of the core of what has made Wright (in)famous (regarding these topics) was already stated by Cullmann fifty years ago. I was, therefore, a little surprised, when I went back to Wright’s books, to discover that Wright harldly engages Cullmann at all and only passingly (and negatively) mentions Cullmann’s The Christology of the New Testament. I’m not sure why this is. Anybody care to ask the good bishop for me?

2. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church by Paul Louis Metzger.

I may have come to this book with higher expectations than I should have, but I was a little disappointed after reading it. Essentially, if you have read John Perkins and William Cavanaugh, you will have already read what Metzger lays out in this book — a vision of the Church as a theopolitical community capable of overcoming race and class division through the presence of practical love (found in reconciliation, relocation, and redistribution) and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. However, Metzger, as an Evangelical, does add to Perkins and Cavanaugh by mapping some of the ways in which the American Evangelical movement has lost its way, and by offering some suggestions as to how that community can get back on track (here he largely follow the analysis provided by Noll and Marsden).

Of course, it should be noted that Metzger is essentially restating what scholars like Perkins, Cavanaugh, Noll, and Marsden, have said, but restating it in a way that makes these scholars accessible (and hopefully exciting) to a general Christian audience. Hence, my disappointment in the book mostly stems from my own misunderstanding of what Metzger was trying to accomplish!

I do, however, have one deeper point of (potential?) disagreement with Metzger. It seems to me that Metzger still falls into an unhelpful sort of stewardship model (the sort criticised by Kelly S. Johnson in her fantastic book, The Fear of Beggars) when he deals with the issue of material distribution. This also points to what I see as a deeper problem in Metzger’s book — the way in which he focuses on consumerism rather than on capitalism. By focusing on consumerism, I think that Metzger fails to account for how truly insidious capitalism is — he seems to be saying that the problem is not capitalism, but what we do with it, and I think that this fails to get to the core of the problem. That said, let me return to the issue of stewardship ethics, by providing a lengthy quote. Metzger writes:

Free-market capitalism is very good at making money, but is not very good at distributing it. Christians, on the other hand, have been called to redistribute our wealth, talents, and goods. While Jesus never said that we should embrace poverty, he did tell the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and give all the proceeds to the poor (Luke 18.18-30). But it is important to point out to young Christians who are passionate about helping the poor that we cannot give to the poor if we have no resources to redistribute. We should embrace redistribution, not poverty. Following John Wesley, we should make all that we can, so that we can save all that we can, so that we can give away all that we can.

IMO, there are a couple problems with this way of thinking. To begin with, this ‘Wesleyan’ way of thinking is precisely the sort of thinking that was, in a signicant way, responsible for the rise of capitalism. Secondly, the type of charity that results from this way of thinking is often a top-down form of condescension. Thirdly, one’s focus becomes on making money in order to be able to give some to the poor, when there are many other ways in which one can give to, and be among, the poor that do not involve much money at all. That is to say, the notion that we, must go about making money in order to help the poor is one that is entirely false, and is itself a part of the mythic perpetuation of capitalism (as Peter Maurin once said, and as those like George Muller demonstrated, ‘In the history of the saints, capital was raised by prayer’). Finally, what Metzger fails to work through in regards to journeying with the poor, is the issue of solidarity. Yes, Metzger does mention solidarity a few pages earlier, when he argues that the Christian community must engage in “solidarity with society at large” because “Christ himself was all about solidarity”. However, IMO, he fails to see how his model of redistribution is one that is unable to succeed in attaining solidarity because, if one is spending all of one’s time working and saving in order to be able to give to the poor, then chances are that one is actually spending very much time in community with the poor. Hence, the issue is not one of romanticising poverty, but of recognising that true solidarity eventually leads us to the point of embracing poverty ourselves.

3. Les Justes by Albert Camus.

It has been a long time since I did any reading in French. However, after our friend Dany visited last month (cf., I received the gift of a few French novels and so I decided to begin with this short play (translated into english as “The Just Assassins” but a more literal, and better, translation would be “The Just Ones”). I’ve always love Camus (La Peste remains one of my favourite novels), and this play did not disappoint. Herein, we see a group of revolutionaries struggling with issues of justice, violence, sacrifice, love and hope(lessness). A great play, and probably the first play that I have truly really enjoyed reading (whereas when I read Shakespeare, Beckett, Williams, and Miller, I always found myself thinking ‘I’d probably like this a whole lot more if I was watching this as a performance’).

I don’t know what it is about the French literary philosophers (Camus, Sartre, Voltaire) but they have a way of expressing things with a profundity, brevity, and poignancy that I have yet to find elsewhere. And Camus has such a way with words. Here are a few notable quotes:

C’est cela l’amour — tout donner, tout sacrificier, sans espoir de retour.

La liberté est un bagne aussi longtemps qu’un seul homme est asservi sur la terre.

Annenkov — Il dit que la poésie est révolutionnaire.
Stepan — La bombe seule est révolutionnaire.

Damn, why do quotes always sound so much better when they’re in French?


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