Posted by: Dan | June 28, 2008

April & May Books

Unfortunately, I’ve been crazy busy lately, so these reviews (as inadequate as they are) have been delayed. My apologies for any spelling or grammar errors in these reviews. I have yet to reread them in detail (Busy, you know? Did I say I was busy these days?)

1. Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World by John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

I’m still hoping to find the time to write a more detailed review of this book, so I’ll leave this to the side for the moment. Essentially, this book is Stackhouse’s attempt to find a ‘third way’ of being Christian today. Therefore, Stackhouse formulates a way of being Christian that eschews the poles of triumphalism and sectarianism, while actively, but ‘realistically’, seeking the greatest possible good in the world in which we find ourselves. To be honest, I’m pretty conflicted about what Stackhouse has to say. For example, he uses the language of ‘realism’ to argue that perfection is impossible and so we must accept some compromise in order to attain to the limited good we are able to achieve. Hence, amongst other compromises, he argues in favour of ‘just’ forms of violence and war. In terms of accepting violence, Stackhouse and I completely disagree with each other as I believe that — short of some sort of massive divine act of affirmation — violence is never an option for Christians. Therefore, this makes me want to refuse Stackhouse’s understanding of ‘realism’. However, when I think of my own approach to some things, and other non-violent approaches of which I have spoken approvingly (say, for example, those in Europe who lied and deceived the authorities in order to harbour Jews during WWII), I have realized that there is also some ‘compromise’ involved in these things. Thus, for example, I have absolutely no problem with lying to authorities in order to save a life; but I have major problems with taking a life in order to save another life. Consequently, Stackhouse’s argument would suggest that I have created an arbitrary distinction amongst two actions that are both compromised. Very interesting. I haven’t yet determined where to go with this. However, I’ve met with Stackhouse to discuss his book, and will hopefully meet again with him in the near future, so I’ll save further thoughts for later.

2. Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology by Jurgen Moltmann.

This book, which functions as something of an introduction to theology, is actually the conclusion to Moltmann’s “contributions to systematic theology” series. Although other theologians tend to deal with method and other traditionally prolegomenal matters at the beginning of their contributions, Moltmann argues that such things are best left to the end, after one has spent several years (or decades) exploring these things. Method, Moltmann suggests, is something that emerges as one actually does theology, not something that can be predetermined. Further, is is only after that work has been done, and those years have gone by, that one can comment on the various foci and emphases that determine the work of other theologians.

So, this book is broken into four main parts plus an epilogue. In part one, Moltmann asks, “What is theology?” wherein he explores the significance of one’s own Sitz im Leben/locus theologicus. He works through the relationship of theology to one’s experiences, to the church, to the university, to atheism, and to other faiths. Ultimately, Moltmann argues that God is the centre of theology and the theolgians is most defined by his or her “passion” for God. Significantly, Moltmann means “passion” in both senses of that word — God is both the torment and the delight of the theologian. From here, Moltmann wishes to draw attention to three aspects of Christian theology: its historicity, its reasonableness, and its natural-ness. The historical aspect of Christian theology must be emphasised because it is grounded in the biblical narrative, the reasonableness of Christianity must be understood in solidarity with (and not over against) Christian hope and love, and the natural-ness of Christian theology is, itself, that natural-ness that is revealed by God.

In part two, Moltmann goes on to clarify some of the key concepts that are central to his first break-out book, Theology of Hope, and which ocntinue to run through his work. He explains his use of the terms like ‘promise’, ‘covenant’, ‘hope’, and ‘future’, which are all a part of his broader ‘hermeneutic of hope’, which seeks to ‘interpret God’s promise, out of which the awakened hope makes men and women creatively alive in the possibilities of history’. This then leads Moltmann to conclude with some reflections on various theological epistemologies.

In part three — probably the part that I found most exciting, although I really enjoyed the whole book — Moltmann explores various streams of liberation theology, from the perspective he brings given his own locus theologicus. Thus, he explores ‘black theology for whites’, ‘Latin American liberation theology for the First World’, ‘Minjung theology for the ruling classes’, and ‘Feminist theology for men’. Throughout, Moltmann is concerned to discovers ways in which both the oppressed, and the oppressor are able to overcome the dehumanization that occurs amongst all parties, when oppression is operative (this particular emphasis has always been one of Moltmann’s strengths — which is quite apropos given that Moltmann writes as a German survivor of WWII).

Then, in the final chapter of this section and, IMO, the best chapter in the book, Moltmann poses a series of ‘unanswered questions’ for liberation theologians. Here are the questions that he asks:
(1) If praxis is the criterion of theory, what is the criterion of praxis? In response to this, Moltmann argues that it is Christ, and the discipleship of Christ crucified (who is also not present in the poor, the sick, and the children), who must be the criterion for praxis, and for the praxis of justice supported by liberation theologians.
(2) If the crucified people are to redeem the world, who then redeems the crucified people? On this point, Moltmann suggests that the liberation theologians are simply adding to the burden of the poor — not only are they burdened with the consequences of our sins, they are now also burdened with being made the agents of our salvation. The people, Moltmann argues, must be called to ‘break their chains and throw them away’; they should not be called continue to bear the sins of the world.
(3) If the goal of liberation is to make the people the determining subject of their own history, what is the goal of that history? In other words: if the goal is liberty, what is liberty for? Moltmann argues that liberty ‘must have as its goal justice, peace and the integrity of creaiton, in expectation of the coming kingdom of God’.
(4) Does liberation theology lead to the liberation of the poor and women from Christian theology? Given what we now know of Christianity’s complicity with forces of colonialism, imperialism, and oppression, Moltmann wonders if liberation theology risks leading people away from Christianity back to pre-Christian forms of religion.

In part four, Moltmann returns to a (perhaps the?) dominant theme in his own work: the Trinity. Here he discusses his reasons for focusing upon this theme (its political significance, its rootedness in a theology of the cross, and ways in which he has been influenced by Orthodox theology). He then reiterates some of what he has said about the historical nature of our understanding of the Trinity, before going on to explore a more spatial understanding of the ‘broad place’ of the Trinity. Hence, Moltmann’s prior, more eschatological, understanding of the Trinity, are filled out by an understanding of the Trinity as a ‘home’ defined by perichoresis. He then relates this to the person’s of the Trinity, to our experiences of the Trinity, to our relationships with one another, and our relationship to society more broadly.

Finally, in the epilogue, Moltmann concludes with some thoughts on the relationship between theology and science.

All told, this is a really excellent book and a fantastic introduction to Moltmann’s own thinking, as well as to the thinking of some other, complementary streams in contemporary theology. Usually I find books that deal with matters of method, and other prolegomenal issues to be rather dry and, well, boring, but this one was anything but that. Damn good.

On another note, it was also interesting to read this book at the same time as Stackhouse’s book as they nearly polar opposite approaches to the voices they choose as dialogue partners. Stackhouse is quite comfortable in prioritising white, middle or upper class intellectual men as his primary dialogue partners (i.e. those who are like Stackhouse) whereas Moltmann chooses to prioritise dialogue with those who are different than him. It makes for some interesting comparisons.

3. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri.

There are a lot of reasons why this is a really good book but let me be as clear as possible from the start: this is a really, really good book. Indeed, of all the ‘post-Marxist’ theorists I have been reading lately, I would recommend Hardt and Negri (H&N) as a starting point because they are able to saw, with great clarity, what many others say much more obliquely (notably Deleuze and Guatarri, but also Zizek and Baudrillard). If one reads H&N, one will be able to more readily understand the discussion that is going on in these circles.

That said, the primary thrust of H&N’s argument is that the new global form of ’empire’ is found within the politico-economic institutions of global capitalism. Their ultimate goal is to be able to resist this empire, but they emphasise that we must be certain of the nature of the empire we are resisting if we are to be effective. Hence, they argue that the Nation State has now been marginalised within the global context, and efforts that focus there are misguided. In order to make this point, they provide a captivating historical overview that spans from the middle ages up until the present, and focuses upon the ways in which sovereignty is maintained even after the shift from the plane of transcendence to the plane of imminence (i.e. while the plane of transcendence was used to control the masses in an earlier era, the movement into the plane of imminence is one that has the potential to overthrow the powers-that-be; therefore, the powers-that-be must renegotiate the socio-political sphere in order to maintain their sovereignty).

H&N offer a convincing analysis and criticism of the way things are. However, they are hesitant to offer much in the way of solutions, as they believe that such solutions will only be found ‘at ground level’ as the multitude (H&N’s multi-faceted alternative to codified ‘people’ created and controlled by the nation state) continues to assert itself against all forms of sovereignty. Indeed, they argue that it is the resistance created by the multitude that is the driving force of history, for, if things were left up to the power-that-be, they would ensure that everything stays as it is. Therefore, it is the multitude which is responsible for each new mutation in sovereignty, and it is the multitude, H&N suggest, that will ultimately be responsible for destroying empire as we know it.

Okay… hmmm… this reviews doesn’t sound nearly as exciting or stimulating as the book is, so don’t let that throw you off — you should read this book.

4. Social Aspects of Early Christianity by Abraham J. Malherbe

Malherbe, along with E. A. Judge and Gerd Theissen, is one of the key foundations for current sociological readings of the Pauline letters. Such readings were largely inspired by Adolf Deissmann’s classic Light From the Ancient East. In that work, Deissmann argued that Paul, his companions, and the churches he helped birth, were firmly rooted amongst the poor, uneducated, lower classes of Graeco-Roman society. Due to Deissmann, and others like Karl Kautsky and his Foundations of Christianity, this became the dominant sociological reading of the Pauline letters. However, Malherbe, Judge, and Theissen, all challenged this position, and have created a new consensus. They have convincingly argued that Paul’s churches had members from a range of social locations. Although the majority may have been poor and had little status, they have demonstrated that there were currently wealthy and relatively influential people in Paul’s churches and, in particular, in places of power in those churches.

Thus, in this book, Malherbe seeks to demonstrate that Paul would have been a person of relatively high status, with a level of rhetoric and an awareness of Greek philosophy, that demonstrates a level of advanced (i.e. privileged) education. Consequently, he seeks to demonstrate that Paul was drawn to people at a status level similar to his own, who then became the leaders in the local churches. Further, due in part to Paul’s social position, Malherbe argues that Paul was largely a political conservative who trusted in the social structures of power.

In my own opinion, Malherbe, Judge, and Theissen are correct to point out the mix of status levels in Paul’s communities. In this regard they offer an helpful corrective to Deissmann et al. However, I’m not convinced that Paul had such high status, nor am I convinced that Paul wanted those with high status in society to also have that high status within the church. Further, we should not forget that, although there was a minority of people in Paul’s churches who had relatively high status, there still were no members (that we know of) who came from the elite ruling classes, and the vast majority of members were still those with little status, who lived in poverty, performing labour work (a type of work despised by the aristocratic members of society — something those of us with a bourgeois Protestant work ethic should keep in mind when we read what Paul has to say about working with one’s hands!).

Even less convincing is Malherbe’s portrayal of Paul as socially Conservative. However, I’ll hold off commenting on that in detail, as I’m writing a thesis on that topic.

5. Paul: A Jew on the Margins by Calvin J. Roetzel.

I’ve got to say that Roetzel has been growing on me. I worked my way through the relevant sections of some of his earlier writings as a part of my thesis research (and felt mostly ambivalent about what he said), but this book certainly stands out, and seems to mark a self-acknowledged turning point for Roetzel himself.

This is how Roetzel explains the shift, his title, and his thesis:

I have come to see Paul more and more as a marginal Jew who stood on the boundary between religious convictions and cultural commitments that strained in opposite directions… He was marginal… in a double sense. He was pushed to the margin by his critics in positions in power, and he was able to exploit that location as a scene of radical possibility. But his life on the margin possessed a[nother] dimension… He was absolutely convinced that God had assigned him, like Jeremiah, to his location on the margin.

In exploring this type of marginal and ‘radical’ Paul, Roetzel roots Paul firmly in apocalyptic thought, for it is apocalypticism that especially gives to the margins the space for radical, even revolutionary, possibility. However, unlike other apocalpytic thinkers, Paul stresses the need to love and missionally engage with outsiders (rather than simply withdrawing and waiting for the destruction of those outsiders). Thus, Roetzel writes: ‘In a world in which oppressive inertia holds sway, apocalypticism envisions change — radical, dramatic, revolutionary, even convulsive change’. But in all of this Paul, due in part to his embrace of his own marginality, stresses a theology of the cross that counters any theology of glory, or any over-realised eschatology. Thus, Roetzel concludes: ‘Paul’s convictions and fertile mind combined to exploit that location to articulate a vision that was so daring and so demanding that it was soon compromised, and yet it remained in these seven occasional letters to subvert the very compromises made.’

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed this book very much. It is pregnant with (mostly) unexplored implications for how we live today as Christians.

6. Social Distinctives of the Christians in the First Century: Pivotal Essays by E. A. Judge, edited by David M. Scholer.

Although I mentioned Judge above, in my comments on Malherbe, I should highlight that, although they agree on some things, they completely disagree on Paul’s relationship to society at large. While Malherbe sees Paul as a fairly high status defender of the status quo, Judge sees Paul as a social radical, who is trying to create subversive communities within the cities of the Roman Imperium. Thus, in these essays Judge explores a number of topics: the way in which the Christian associations were a genuine alternative to the ‘family values’ that were the conerstone of the empire, as well as an alternative to the impotent voluntary associations that existed in Paul’s day; the way in which Paul deliberately eschews the relatively high status he possessed in an act of ‘radical self-humiliation’; the way in which Paul conflicts with Jewish and Greek ideals; the way in which Paul subordinates individual rights to the needs of others; the way in which he engaged in an ‘head-on personal assault on the status system which supplied the ideology of the established order’; and so on and so forth.

Judge really does seem to be ahead of his time in a lot of these essays, so it is good to see his insights bearing fruit in our time.

7. Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology by Dieter Georgi.

In this book, Georgi explores the way in which Paul understands God’s sovereignty, as well as the way in which that understanding impacts the kind of Christian politics practiced in the name of that sovereignty (yep, as you’ve already guessed from this one sentence, this is also a damn good book, and one that had me hooked from start to finish).

Given, Georgi notes, that God’s power and rule always had a political dimension in the Old Testament, it is not surprising to find that this carries over in the New Testament, in the lives of first century Jews. Further, Paul was rooted in rather radical streams of Second Temple Judaism: apocalypticism, Jewish missionary theology, and Gnosticism (well, two out of three isn’t bad!). However, this too is unsurprising, for, as Georgi states, ‘radicalism to the point of intellectual and political rebellion was not an invention of Jesus or his followers. It is the heritage of the Jewish Bible’.

However, Georgi argues that Paul rethinks all of these things in light of the fact that Jesus has been revealed as the Messiah and the Lord who presides over the order ordained by God. This, then, continues to have significant political and communal implications, and leads Paul to shape ‘collective alternatives to the ongoing community of the people of God’. In particular, Paul begins to shape communities that offer an alternative to the order, and power structures, found within the Roman empire. In making this point, Georgi provides a thematic, and rhetorical overview of Paul’s epistles, demonstrating the ways in which Paul is countering imperial ideology (i.e. Augustan theology). This overview (a stimulating read!) leads Georgi to conclude that Paul is not simply engaging in ‘passive resistance’ but is in fact engaging in active resistance — ‘an act of political aggression’ — which is precisely why Paul was charged with treason.

As I stated above, I really enjoyed this book. Another one that seems ahead of its time.

8. Travels in the Skin Trade: Tourism and the Sex Industry by Jeremy Seabrook.

For whatever reason, the location of Thailand (which is the focus of Seabrook’s book) seems to have dominated much of the mainstream press’s attention to the subjects of the sexual exploitation of children, human trafficking, and sex tourism. Granted, things seem to occur on a larger or more public scale in Thailand, but we need to remember that there is nothing going on in Thailand that isn’t also occuring in our own backyards (this is certainly true of the two cities I know well — Vancouver and Toronto — and I am sure it is also true of most other urban centres around the world). For this reason, I have tended to stay away from reading more detailed reports on Thailand, and have been trying to read literature that addresses what is going on in other places of the world.

However, I ended up picking up Seabrook’s book (in a free bin), and am glad that I did so. He brings a couple of comparatively unique emphases to his take on this subject. First of all, he continually links issues of sexual exploitation, trafficking, and sex tourism to the broader economic realities of global capitalism. He also emphasises the role that (predominantly American) military operations and bases have played in developing the sex trade in Thailand, and other Asian countries. This is an important emphasis because it causes us to begin to see some of the ‘big picture’ issues that surround sex work. It distances the subject from the question of personal vices, or morals, and reveals the broader systemic structures that undergird these things. Secondly, Seabrook’s approach is somewhat unique because he listens to voices on both sides of the issue. That is to say, her interviews women, children, and those who work on their behalf, but he also interviews a good many of the johns who go to Thailand. It was especially interesting to hear these men speak of how they understood what they were doing. Frequently, there was an interesting reversal, wherein the men saw themselves as victims (giving women or children money, and then feeling betrayed when it turned out that the women wanted more money!), and there was a continual justification process, wherein everyone involved rationalized what they did (this was true even of the pedophiles Seabrook interviewed — those who slept with thirteen year olds despised those who slept with eight year olds, and so on and so forth).

So, all in all, this book was an quick and interesting read. It is mostly full of interviews, and never goes into too much deal on the broader issues, but it would be a helpful primer for any who are interested in learning more about Thailand’s history with sex tourism.

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