Posted by: Dan | August 28, 2008

June-July Books (overdue as usual)

[Pardon the typos and grammatical errors, I pounded these off, and haven’t yet had time to proof-read.]

1. The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire by Neil Elliott.

Ever since reading Liberating Paul, I’ve been wondering when Elliott would get around to following the trajectory he laid out in that book (way back in 1994). Of course, I was willing to be patient given that Elliott doesn’t publish as often as some because he is so involved in community-building and justice work. Personally, I think that any New Testament scholar should be doing this sort of thing (otherwise how much have they really understood Paul or Jesus?) but, then again, maybe that’s just my own bias. Or maybe not…

Anyway, when this book was published as the lead volume in the new “Paul in Critical Contexts” Series from Fortress Press (which, by the way, looks like an excellent series), I jumped on it… and I wasn’t disappointed. I mean, really, read this book. Elliott does such a good job of reading Romans in light of empires (both past and present) that I almost gave up on my own research (he makes a lot of connections I was working on, but makes them better than I did).

What Elliott does is engage in a thematic reading of Romans with constant reference to Roman ideology and, in particular, the ways in which the themes in Romans are themes in Roman ideology. Hence, Elliott demonstrates how Paul takes those themes — themes of justice, mercy, piety, and virtue — and radically reworks them in light of Christ.

As he engages in this reading, Elliott builds on the work of James C. Scott (famous in biblical studies for his work on ‘hidden transcripts’) and develops a very useful method for discerning hidden transcripts (lest we simply find ‘hidden transcripts’ everywhere and use this as a way of avoiding what any given text appears to say). Thus, he explores public transcripts, as well as hidden transcripts of both the powerful and the subordinate, so that we can learn to recognise any elements of these within Paul’s letters.

What emerges from all of this is a Paul who is an active and prophetic voice, helping us to discern our way, as Christ-followers, in the shadow of empires dominated by Sin and Death.

2. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission by Davina C. Lopez.

I found this, the second Paul in the “Paul in Critical Contexts” Series, to be a captivating read. Building on the insights of both empire-critical readings, and the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul, and noting the ways in which proponents of these groups have shed new light on our (increasingly political) understanding of Paul’s use of words like ‘Saviour’, ‘Lord’, ‘gospel’, and ‘parousia’, Lopez argues for a new understanding of Paul’s talk of ‘the Gentiles’ and ‘the nations’ (ta ethnes). In particular, Lopez argues that, rather than seeing Paul as Apostle to the Gentiles (understood primarily in terms of racial divisions), we must see Paul as Apostle to the conquered nations (understood primarily in subversive political terms).

In order to arrive at this conclusion, Lopez surveys the way in which imperial Roman propaganda — in literature, sculptures, coins, architecture, and inscriptions — represented the nations. In this regard, Lopez finds a gender-critial reading of the evidence to be most useful. For the most part, I agree with what she does here, although I sometimes think she overstates her case. However, I don’t think that these overstatements invalidate the force of her argument, I simply think that they might cause her to lose her audience in other, more Conservative, circles (but, then again, perhaps Lopez never had any interest in retaining that audience anyway).

After this survey, Lopez then explores how Paul talks about his mission amongst the nations, using similar imagery and language, but in a counter-imperial manner. Hence, Paul wants to unite members of all the conquered nations — Jews, Greeks, barbarians, Galatians, Spaniards, etc. (i.e. Jews and Gentiles) — within a subversive solidarity movement, intent upon restoring justice, which refuses to accept the hierarchies and divisions encouraged by imperial Roman ideology (I told you this was captivating!).

3. Paul Between Synagogue and State: Christians, Jews, and Civic Authorities in 1 Thessalonians, Romans, and Philippians by Mikael Tellbe.

I have been reading a lot of material on the socio-political context in which Paul lived and worked, but this book really surprised me and stood out more than a good many in this field. For those who are familiar with some of these things, I would compare it, and it’s significance, to Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity by David A. deSilva.

Unsuprisingly, given the title, Tellbe explores the tripartite relationship between Christians, Jews, and civic authorites, paying special attention to the Pauline communities in Thessalonica, Rome, and Philippi. Tellbe’s hypothesis is that attaining “socio-political legitimacy” was a pressing need for Christians in Paul’s day. That is to say, if early Christianity could fall under the umbrella of Second Temple Judaism(s), as a religio licita (a legal religion), official condemnation and persecution could be avoided. However, when Jewish communities felt as though Paul — a known troublemaker — was too subversive, they would have seen this as a threat to their (precarious) legal and peaceful status. Consequently, they often sought to distance themselves from Paul and the early Christians, and wanted to demonstrate that this movement was not, in fact, a part of Judaism. Hence, Tellbe argues that Paul’s conflict with ‘the Judaizers’ wasn’t necesarily a conflict between ‘Christians’ and ‘Jews’ but rather a conflict between Paul’s call to subversive and coslty political living, and those Christians who wanted to take on Jewish badges in order to avoid persecution. Thus, on the one hand, Tellbe presents a Paul who is offering an alternative narrative and political vision to that on offer by Rome and, on the other hand, Tellbe presents us with Christian congregations that are (naturally) scared to follow through on Paul’s radical demands, and who, therefore, would rather slide under the radar.

What can I say? I am convinced. This is a damn good book, and I’m surprised I haven’t seen it referenced more often.

4. The Satyricon and The Apocolocyntosis by Petronius and Seneca.

I found this Penguin Classics two-for-one deal at a used book shop near my work, and find both pieces to be amusing and useful. Actually, the fact that I found them to be so amusing concerned me a little — either I’ve become a total nerd, laughing at classical satires, or these authors were genuinely funny… it’s just that I never realised how funny they could be, before spending so much time reading about the Graeco-Roman milieu, during the first century.

Perhaps a rapid summary would be useful. The Satyricon is a fragmentary text notorious for its sexual cotent, and was written by Nero’s “Arbiter of Elegance” and close friend (whom Nero later forced to commit suicide) Gaius Petronius. However, there is a lot more to this text than what might find within the story pages of a dirty magazine. It is a Menippean satire (which were known for mixing prose and verse, humour and philosophy. Hence, it is a commentary on Roman life and morals, but it stands out because it refuses to take any moral stance of its own, and aesthetics, or ‘taste’, constantly undercuts all moral discourse — even as this ‘taste’ itself, is undercut by irony.

However, it is interesting to note that, while Petronius mocks almost all the characters who pass through the pages of his story, he especially targets ‘social climbers’ or those who would be experiencing ‘status dissonance’ — for example, slaves who had been freed and gained a great deal of wealth are especially attacked. Hence, undergirding this text is support of Roman order, piety, and values, for what Petronius regularly mocks is the influence of ‘new money’ over previously established laws and systems of justice and religion (we see this even more in Juvenal, but that will have to wait until my post on August books). Furthermore, there is also an ongoing affirmation of the Roman ideology of (merciful!) conquest running through this text. Hence, we see that even seemingly ‘subversive’ texts, when written by members of the elite, often end up being superficial criticisms the end up affirming the powers-that-be.

Finally, I found two other major points of interest: (1) the extent to which alternative religious gatherings were associated with sexual debauchery (and this prevalent attitude must be significant for Paul’s comments on matters related to sex); and (2) the ongoing significance given to members of the imperial cult (and, just as importantly, the way in which the imperial cult is especially useful to those who are interested in climbing the social ladder — again, this is significant for our understanding of the challenges faced by the early Pauline communities).

Like The Satyricon, Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis is a satire — indeed, it is a satire mocking the recently deceased Claudius, Caesar (‘Apocolocyntosis’ is a play on the word ‘Apotheosis’ and refers to the ‘Pumpkin-ification’ of Claudius, rather than the ‘Deification’ thereof; meaning that Claudius didn’t turn into a god, he turned into a ‘Pumpkin-head’) — but it is written in such a way that it both affirms the glory of Rome, and even of the imperial cult (the deification of Augustus is never questioned). Furthermore, this work would have helped Seneca gain favour with Nero, the new Caesar, as it praises the new regime, while mocking the one that just passed. Hence, we see again that seemingly ‘subversive’ texts, when written by the elite, actually affirm more than they criticise.

5. Six Prayers God Always Answers by Mark Herringshaw and Jennifer Schuchmann (already reviewed).

6. No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays by Jon Sobrino.

Of the Latin American liberation theologians, whom I try to engage regularly, Jon Sobrino is rapidly becoming my favourite. This is an outstanding collection of essays and, were I ever to teach a course on liberation theology, I would probably make this required reading (for the basics, I would suggest Introducing Liberation Theology by Boff & Boff, but for sheer excitement, inspiration, and challenge, I would suggest this book).

Within this collection of essays, Sobrino engages in a critical reflection upon the fractured and divided state of our world of late capitalism — a world divided between the rich and poor, between those who live opulently and those who are denied the basic elements of human life, between victimizers and victims — in order to explore how salvation and humanization can be accomplished today. Sobrino’s fundamental assertion — which is reinforced by the voices of his constant dialogue partners, Ignacio Ellacuría and Oscar Romero, dear friends whom Sobrino outlived when he narrowly escaped being assassinated a couple of decades ago — is that salvation, humanization, and our hopes for truth, justice, and new creation, are inexorably connected to the poor and the marginalised. As such, Sobrino’s voice rises like the cry of the wounded, full of hurt and urgency, but — because it is the voice of one who has found salvation amongst the poor — it also resounds with faith, hope, and love for all.

This explains the title of this book, which is an English rendering of Sobrino’s Latin phrase: extra pauperes nulla salus. Of course, this phrase is a play on the classic Christian saying: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (‘no salvation outside the church’). However, far more than being a simple and provocative play on words, Sobrino’s phrase functions as an absolutely crucial corrective and exposition of what we mean when we say that there is ‘no salvation outside the church’. That is to say, the poor, as the crucified members of Christ’s body today, are the people of God today, just as much as the confessing members of Christ’s body (who have traditionally claimed a monopoly regarding the ‘Church’ and ‘the body of Christ’). This point, one that is commonly made by liberation theologians, is one that I now whole-heartedly affirm. However, it took me a couple of years to get to this place, so I’m willing to be patient with others!

For, ultimately, there is know way of knowing the profound truth of Sobrino’s phrase, unless one has decided to journey intimately with the poor, and has opened one’s self to being saved in that process. Thus, Sobrino’s essays function as a challenge to those of us who are comfortably situated amongst the well-off, the powerful, the comfortable, and the victimizers. However, more than being a challenge, Sobrino’s essays function as an invitation. An invitation to salvation, to life lived honestly and passionately, and to communion with our Lord. ‘Come, join us,’ Sobrino might well say, ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’

7. The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.

You know, when everybody you read (in certain circles) ends up referring to a certain text, it’s probably a good idea to read that text… which is why I sat down to read Society of the Spectacle (it is mentioned pretty much across the board by the ‘continental’ or ‘post-Marxist’ philosophers, and has been called the Das Kapital of the 20th century). I wasn’t disappointed.

It seems to me that Debord traces the social development of capitalism, and notes how our focus has shifted from being, to having, to appearing (the spectacular). The results of this transition are many, and mostly negative. Caught in the realm of the spectacular, we lose our hold upon the historical, leading to a society that is missing historical agents who are capable of engaging in genuine action (i.e. a society totally dominated by the Powers-that-be). However, we frequently are not even aware of this fact because we are so absorded in the Spectacle and in fulfilling the pseudo-desires it plants within us, which drive us to meet the pseudo-needs that are constantly created by the agents of capitalism (for the spectacular, as Debord reminds us, is firmly rooted in the economic). The result of this is that need itself has been turned against life (where life is understood both as the directly lived experience, and as that which is creative, good, just and true).

Consequently, in order to find our way out of this realm of representation, Debord argues that we must combine the theorist with the activist within the class that is capable of dissolving all other classes — the proletariat. That is to say, our hope is found when we combine our thinking with our doing, within a community of those on the margins of society (of course, this then sets the stage for one of the major crises of post-Marxist philosophy: who are the proletariat today? If this class has vanished, what social location, and what social group, hold the keys to our salvation?).

Now, I don’t know how much sense this makes to those who might be unfamiliar with Debord or this stream of philosophy, but I hope it whets the reader’s appetite for more. This book isn’t an easy read, but it is certainly rewarding.

8. What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. Interviews with David Barsamian by Noam Chomsky.

It had been awhile since I read any Chomsky, and this book caught my eye in the airport last month so I picked it up and thought I would update myself on some of what is going on around the world (after all, Chomsky’s more recognised works — Manufacturing Consent [with Hermann] and Necssary Illusions — tend to focus on global events that were occuring in the ’70s and ’80s). Not surprisingly, everything is still pretty messed up. That’s the problem with reading authors like Chomsky. It’s like opening up Pandora’s box — once you let this information out, there’s no going back, and the world will never be the same again. So it goes.

Anyway, this book is a collection of interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007, and covering issues related to Latin America, the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ways and means of effectively protesting current practices of power. I found his comments on the Mercosur trade area to be especially interesting, given the significance Naomi Klein gives to this development in The Shock Doctrine. This, I think, is something I will try to follow in more detail. However, the chapter I found most interesting was the one entitled, “The United States Versus the Gospels”. This chapter talks about British and American imperialism in Latin America, and talks about American opposition to liberation theology. Allow me to quote at length:

The crime of liberation theology was that it takes the Gospels seriously. That’s unacceptable. The Gospels are radical pacifist material, if you take a look at them. When the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, he shifted it froma radical pacifist religion to the religion of the Roman Empire. So the cross, which was the symbol of the suffering of the poor, was put on the shild of the Roman soldiers. Since that time, the Church has been pretty much the church of the rich and powerful–the opposite of the message of the Gospels. Liberation theology, in Brazil particularly, brought the actual Gospels to peasants. They said, let’s read what the Gospels say, and try to act on the principles they describe. That was the major crime that set of the Reagan wars of terror and Vatican oppression. The United States was virtually at war with the Catholic Church in the 1980s. It was a clash of civilizations, if you like: the United States versus the Gospels.

9. White Noise by Don DeLillo.

I don’t know if my tastes are changing or if DeLillo is better in smaller doses, but I really enjoyed this book (which surprised me because I didn’t enjoy Underworld nearly as much — although I think the mean difference between the two books is that White Noise has a more traditional narrative structure and voice, whereas Underworld is more stream-of-consciousness, and ‘postmodern’). This tells the story of a fairly average American family — Jack, a chair in ‘Hitler Studies’ at a small college, and Babette, his fourth wife, as well as the television and the radio, and various combinations of kids — in a fairly average American small town that, by random chance, happens to undergo an ‘airborne toxic event.’

Now, what I liked about this novel is hard to put into words, precisely because so much of what I liked was in DeLillo’s tone, and in that which lingered unexpressed behind his recitation of lists, or descriptions of events. It seems to me that this book captures our fundamental bewilderment regarding the world in which we find ourselves. Yet this bewilderment is mixed, both with a numbness that covers it, and a sorrow that lies beneath it. Somehow DeLillo manages to capture all of this (and now I understand why one of my English Lit friends kept telling me to read this book!).

10. Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome.

This booklet is a wonderful collection of photographs taken by, and stories told by, residents of the downtown eastside (DTES). It also contains a brief history of the DTES, written by a local member of parliament, and a history of the PIVOT legal society — which is the society that created this book. Every year, PIVOT gives out cameras to people who live in the DTES and they hold a photography contest. The photos are displayed in an art gallery, and the winning pictures are made into a calendar. It’s a pretty rad idea, and this is a pretty rad book.

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