Posted by: Dan | September 6, 2008

August Books

[Not yet edited — sorry!]

Well, I actually finished these reviews in a fairly timely manner.  Hooray for me.

1. Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphorby Yung Suk Kim.

 In this, the third book of the recent “Paul in Critical Contexts” Series from Fortress Press, Yung SukKim is interested in presenting us witha Pauline vision of community that is far more open to diversity, and far less limited by boundaries, than many other more traditional readings of Paul.  Thus, Kim argues that it is Paul’s opponents at Corinth who are pushing for a very narrow vision of unity, whereas Paul is pressing the Corinthians to recognise and affirm the diversity that is embraced within the body of Christ.

Now, the term ‘the body of Christ’ is one that is very important to Kim in this book and, rather than seeing that term as synonymous with the word ‘ekklesia’, and thereby simply another title for the institutional church, Kim argues that Paul’s understanding of ‘the body of Christ’ refers to the practice of ‘Christic embodiment’ — the ‘body of Christ’ should be understood as a way of living, individually and communally, that is modelled after the crucified Messiah (Kim argues that it is only in the later Deutero-Pauline epistles that the meaning of ‘body of Christ’ is changed and institutionalised [Jonas, if you read this, perhaps this is a way of resolve our thoughts on ‘the people of God’ vs. ‘the Church’?]).

I find this interpretation to be quite interesting and exciting, but I felt sort of let down by the way in which Kim then applied this understanding of Christic embodiment by focusing almost whole-heartedly on ‘diversity’.  It is disappointing to see a concept with so much potential being used to simply reaffirm contemporary liberal-democratic values.  Surely the implications of this line of thought are much deeper than this!  (To be fair to Kim, Kim does mention how Paul’s understanding of this Christic embodiment was formed within the context of his radical relational acts of solidarity with the oppressed of his day, but Kim never really seems to urge a similar form of solidarity in our day.)

There are to other areas of Kim’s book that I find troubling.  First, Kim is so driven by his desire to shift our focus from unity to diversity, he never really deals concretely with the notion of boundaries around the community of faith.  Rather, boundaries are presented in a very negative light, and so Kim never spends time on situations that would seem to require boundaries — such situations are never recognised or addressed.  In my opinion, this seriously weakens his argument (not in relation to Christic embodiment, but in relation to his call for diversity).  Second, I found Kim’s source material to be a little odd.  Kim does engage biblical scholars, but he doesn’t seem to engage the most influential commentaries on 1 Corinthians (Matthew first pointed this out on his blog), instead Jacques Derrida seems to be his primary dialogue partner.  Now let me be clear, I’m not opposed to scholars engaging in inter-disciplinary work — far from it, I wholly affirm this endeavour and think that most scholars should be inter-disciplinary (my own thesis is a blend of biblical studies, theology, social theory, economics, and philosophy!).  However, when a scholar chooses to write on a particular topic — like Kim does on 1 Corinthians — then it is good to know the key material related to that topic, before you draw in alternative sources.

So, all told, I think Kim has made an important contribution with his understanding of ‘the body of Christ’, it’s just that his application falls a little short.  Truth be told, this is often the case with biblical scholars, and it is certainly true of my favourite New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, so Kim is in good company here.

2. Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens by Bruce Winter.

This book is Winter’s study of how the early Christians approached politeia or public life (the Greek word politeia, usually translated into English as ‘politics’, is usually left untranslated in this book, because the word politeia is broader than our contemporary understanding of politics, as it encapsulates the whole realm of public life).  In particular, Winter is interested in showing that the early Christians were a civic minded group (and not a sectarian association), who wanted to seek the welfare of the city — a concept found both in the Old Testament and in Graeco-Roman literature.

Now, what is particularly interesting to me about Winter’s arguments is that he demonstrates that the early Christians could be both civic-minded and subversive, all at the same time.  Let me explain how this works.  In the society of Greco-Roman cities, the welfare of the city was largely dependent upon the benefaction of wealthy patrons and was, therefore, an outworking of the patron-client relationships that existed at that time.  To a certain extent, the wealthy benefactor would act as the patron of the city — providing food or games or building projects — and the city would respond as a faithful client — bestowing honours upon the benefactor through public recognition, inscriptions, perhaps an honourary statue, that sort of thing.  Thus, Paul calls upon Christians to at as benefactors in the realm of politeia.  However, Paul calls upon all Christians to act as benefactors, and this is the subversive element.  For, according to Winter, this means that Christians cannot simply accept client status, and live off of the benefaction of others.  Rather, they must be more proactive and learn how to benefit the broader community.  Thus, Winter asserts:

The secular client must now become a private Christian benefactor… when this social change was introduced into new Christian communities, it must have been the most distinctive public feature of this newly-emerging religion in the Roman East.

Of course, as Winter notes, the ultimate outworking of this would be “the abolition of the patronage system”!  Further, in a society wherein people were constantly driven to defend or increase their own status and honour, this would produce a community with an altogether different focus — the well-being of others.  Therefore, Winter concludes:

The Christian social ethic… can only be described as an unprecedented social revolution of the ancient benefaction tradition.

3. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change by Bruce Winters.

In this book, Winter posits a very interesting thesis question: given the time that Paul spent in Corinth (18 months according to Acts), why didn’t he address the seemingly commonplace issues that he deals with in 1 Corinthians?  After all, it would make sense for Paul to have already addressed these things.  Yet, apparently, he did not.  Therefore, Winter posits a second question: What happened after Paul left Corinth that brought these issues to the fore in new ways?

Winter’s response to this question is summarised in the subtitle of this book: the Corinthians came up against some significant social changes, and the pervasive, and persuasive, secular ethics of the community in which they lived.  In particular, after Paul left Corinth, three things occurred: (1) a rapid rise in the prominence of the imperial cult; (2) the Isthmian games received a new location resulting in new benefits for citizens at Corinth; and (3) there were severe grain shortages.  Consequently, what Paul is doing is presenting a Christian alternative the the ingrained Romanitas of the Corinthian colony, which leads the Corinthians — including the church at Corinth — to respond these changes in a way that Paul finds distressing.

Winter then uses this insight — coupled with his thorough understanding of Greek language, Roman culture and the Corinthian context — to systematically work through the issues presented in 1 Corinthians, and I found interpretation of things to be exciting and enlightening.  To take just one example, Winter relates 1 Cor 8.1-10.21 to the recent establishment of the imperial cult on the federal level, and its close relationship to the Isthmian games.  As part of the celebration of these games, Roman citizens at Corinth were invited to feasts hosted by the President of the Games, in honour of the imperial cult.  There would likely be great social pressure to attend these elitist festivities.  Therefore, the challenge Paul is facing from some at Corinth, is that they are seeking to justify their privilege, and their presence amongst thoseof higher status, by arguing that there is really only one God and that idols are nothing (and that, therefore, one can take part in meals related to the imperial cult).  Consequently, Paul’s response is that these Christians have been blinded by their rights as Roman citizens (and it is these rights that Paul that Paul seeks to limit — not ‘Christian freedom’ per se).

I definitely recommend this book.

4. Walking Between the Times: Paul’s Moral Reasoningby J. Paul Sampley.

Nijay Gupta recently reviewed this book on his blog (see here) so I won’t repeat what he has already stated quite well.  I will, however, re-emphasise that Sampley, like many others, is absolutely correct to root Paul’s ethics in eschatology and apocalyptic Judaism.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that Sampley really understands the subversive nature of Paul’s apocalypticism (and apocalypticism in general) and so, in my opinion, this leads him to come to some faulty conclusions.  In particular, Sampley argues that Paul’s supposed faith in an imminent end of the world is expressed in a social conservatism, which leads to quietistic and spiritual (i.e. disembodied) approaches to issues like slavery, work, possessions, and the governing authorities.  Now, if Sampley truly understood apocalyptic literature, and that which gives birth to apocalyptic literature, than he would see that it is anachronistic to pair this spiritualised social conservatism with apocalytic Judaism.  Therefore, to pair the two together, as Sampleydoes, requires some sort of defense or justification — a defense Sampley  does not offer (no doubt because he misunderstand apocalypticism).

5. Pauline Partnership in Christ: Christian Community and Commitment in Light of Roman Lawby J. Paul Sampley.

In this study, Sampley is interested in exploring how Pauline partnership in Christ builds upon the partnership of consensual societas in Roman society and law. 

In Roman society, the consensual societas was a partnership wherein partners each contributed something to the association with a view towards a common goal.  Hence, these stand out because they are united around a common goal (and not a common background, family, or social standing), and because partners were treated as equals.  However, the consensual societas also tended to be fragile and fleeting due to a lack of regulations, due to the influence of greed, and due to the fact that they ended once the common goal was achieved.

Therefore, noting how language related to the consensual societas is found in Paul’s letters, Sampley argues that Paul uses this model as a part of his community-building (although he also recognises that this is not an all-pervasive model for Pauline communities), but is faced with the challenge of how to overcome the issues that tend to put an end to this type of association.  In resolving these issues, Sampley argues that Paul both introduces new members into the established partnership (an unprecedented innovation) and draws upon other models of interaction in order to maintain the community of faith.

This book provides some information that is useful for painting a complete picture of what the Pauline communities were like, and how they related to their own time, but it seems to me that all the key points could be stated in a much shorter article.

6. Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon by Matthew Woodley (many thanks to Mike Morrell of the Ooze for this review copy).

This book ended up being a real delight to read.  In fact, it produced a mini-revival in me and touched me a lot more than a good many things I’ve been reading these days.  I actually found myself putting this book down, mid-paragraph, in order to pray, sing hymns or spend quiet time with God (the only other authors I’ve found that really do this to me with any consistency are von Balthasar and Nouwen… so Woodley has joined a pretty elite group!).

You see, I’ve been growing tired of simply speaking about God, and all these related topics, in language that is limited to ‘academic’ circles.  Increasingly, I am interested in learning how to communicate the insights gained in academica, within a broader context.  I am interested in this change for a few reasons. First, it is something that I need to time when I preach at my church.  Given that most of the members of my church are street-involved, and given that many members have various mental illnesses, how a preach a sermon is obviously very different than how I write a paper.  This is not to say that some of the insights or wisdom is lost in the proclamation of the Word to another audience.  Far from it, the insights are retained — there is no ‘dumbing down’ — but the words are modified and the method of presentation is altered.  Second, I have noticed that commentators on this blog will sometimes say things like, ‘now I’m not really an academic, so I’m not sure if what I say will make sense…’ or ‘I don’t usually comment because I’m not as educated as you or other people here…’ and I am tired of making readings feel as though they are stupid.  Because they are not.  The fact of of the matter is that many of these readers are actually probably smarter than me, or have excellent insights to offer… it’s just that academics create a language that ends up excluding and intimidating others.  So, those of us who are interested in participating in genuine dialogue within both the Church and the world (and thereby seeing the fruits that genuine dialogue can bear) must learn to modify our means of communication.

Woodley does exactly this.  he speaks of desire and discipline in ways reminiscent of Deleuze or Hauerwas and his disciples; he speaks of brokenness like Nouwen and Vanier; and he speaks of solidarity and ‘demolishing ghetto walls’ like liberation theologians.  But he does all of this in a clear and straight-forward way based not upon his readings of theologians, philosophers, and critical theorists (although he is certainly not ignorant of thesethings), but upon his engagement withthe Church Mothers and Fathers, and with the tradition of holy fools one finds within the Church — fools like Saint Francis, Saint Seraphim, Paul, Moling, Jesus, Mary Slessor, and many more.

Now, like many popular-level pastoral books, Holy Foolsis fairly anecdotal but, unlike most anecdotal books (wherein I usually skip the bulk of the stories to get to the point the author is making over and over), I found Woodley’s use of narrative to be both effective and interesting.  These are great stories, not just Sunday School illustrations.  Further, even the personal stories Woodley tells of his own movement from stale, status-oriented middle-class Christianity to holy folly, are useful and I think they help the reader to open up to what Woodley is saying.  Perhaps the author has discovered something of the charm that holy fools exhibit towards those they love — even as they call those people to alternative ways of living!

Having said all that, I should probably actually say something about the structure and content of this book.  Woodley structures this book around four awakenings: (1) awakening to a life of compassion (which involves subverting self-righteousness and demolishing ghetto walls); (2) awakening to a life of vulnerability (which involves ‘receiving the gift of tears’ and engaging our own brokenness); (3) awakening to a life of discipline (which focuses on discipline, prayer, and humility); and (4) awaking to a life of spiritual passion (which involves living with joy, walking with discernment, and partaking in a broader movement of holy folly).

I highly recommend this book.

7.  In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Zizek.

I believe that I am turning a corner with Zizek.  This is now the fifth book I have read by him and, what do you know, he is beginning to make a lot more sense to me.  Now this could be the result of any number of things — perhaps he has begun to write more coherently, perhaps I have begun to think more incoherently, or perhaps I have gotten a better grasp of the things about which Zizek writes — but I am quite happy with this, and it is making me appreciate what he has to say more and more all the time.  Perhaps this is why this book is my favourite book of his thus far (it is also the longest one I have read by him, coming in at almost 500 pages).

Although Zizek has a lot to say in this book about a lot of things (I feel sorry for anybody who is assigned to review Zizek’s books so, if a person like Terry Eagleton can’t do a comprehensive review [see here] then I don’t feel so bad about my ramblings!) the main focus of this work is to review moments in history that now seem like tragedies based upon horrible manipulations of good intentions — tragedies like Leninism, like Heidegger’s involvement with Nazism, like Mao’s cultural revolution, and so on and so forth.  In exploring these moments, and other causes we now consider ‘lost’, Zizek persistently argues that there was something truly good, revolutionary, and redemptive involved in the occurance of those events.  In particular, Zizek is interested in returning to ‘messianic’ politics which seek the universal liberation of mankind by employing a mixture of solidarity and terror — the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’!  (You can see why Zizek is considered so provocative!)  Of course, he has much to say about this, and much more to say on other topics as he engages those from Lacan, Laclau, and Badiou, to Robespierre, Stalin, and Mao, but this book is never boring, and Zizek seems to be getting better at explaining the terms that he uses (which is quite the relief — perhaps he realised that nobody knew what the hell he was talking about half the time!), so I highly recommend this book.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I think I’m going to bite the bullet and read The Parallax View (which is said to be his magnum opus).

8. Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot.

I thinking I might be starting to change my mind about the value of reading plays.  After studying Shakespeare for five years in highshool — and concluding English departments were crazy for making us read works that were intended to be either viewed or performed (especially when there is so much good English literature out there) — I had decided that I didn’t want to ever read another play.  But then I read Camus’ wonderful play, Les Justes… and then I read Waiting for Godot… and now I’ve read Eliot… and I think I’ve changed my mind (who knows, maybe I’ll go back and read some more Shakespeare!).

Murder in the Cathedralis a wonderful bit of poetic prose (think of something like the voice of Michael Ondaatje in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid or of the voice of Timothy Findley in The Warsand you’ll know what I mean).  It is about the return of Thomas Becket to Canterbury in the 11th century and his subsequent murder by three knights acting on the desires (if not the explicit order) of Henry II.  In order to tell this story, the play is based upon Greek tragedies, employing a Chorus, and rooting religion and ritual in cycles of purgation and renewal.  A short but pleasant read.

9. The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher: A Novelby Rob Stennet (many thanks to Mike Morrell from the Ooze for this review copy).

Any book that is compared to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Douglas Coupland (comparisons made both on the back cover and by the author himself in an interview included at the end of the book) is setting the bar pretty high in terms of the expectations those comparisons create in the reader.  Unfortunately, this book doesn’t come anywhere close to clearing that bar.  Like nowhere close.

It’s too bad.  I tried to like this book, even though I’m immediately suspicious of fiction authors who need to be published by a Christian company — Zondervan in this case.  After all, quality fiction is quality fiction, and dealing more explicitly with religious themes never stopped a good book from being published by mainstream publishers.  So, the problem is that I’ve just read too much high quality fiction to be able to enjoy this book (one of the things I secretly really like about myself is the amount of quality ‘classic’ literature that I have read… but I guess that’s not a secret anymore… and I mention that here because it’s possible that I didn’t enjoy this book because I’m too much of a snob when it comes to fiction).  Regardless, the storyline was weak, the funny parts weren’t funny, the characters were superficial, the type of Christianity presented (and affirmed by the author) was repulsive, and so on and so forth.  Hell, the best part of the book was the opening quote from Vonnegut, but if you want to read that, I suggest you go and read Mother Night.

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Responses

  1. “I am interested in learning how to communicate the insights gained in academica, within a broader context.” I applaud this!

    As to Kim´s thesis, I´m not at all convinced. I believe the church should have clear boundaries, and that the “post-modern” efforts to get past this in the NT is futile. (1 Kor 5-6 for example). I think that community without boundaries isn´t community. You can only feel a hug that closes at some moment. I also think Paul uses the “metaphor” (?) of the Messiah´s body clearly to refer to the people in the corinthian church. (“You are…)

    Regarding “institution”, I think the early churches wasn´t an institution, and that neither should it be today. (I´m with Viola on that one…)

  2. I agree with you regarding the importance of boundaries, and of practicing discipline within the Church. So, I disagree with Kim’s seemingly boundary-free Church… but I do think he might be onto something with what he says about ‘body of Christ’ vs. ‘ekklesia’. So, in Corinth, when Paul refers to some as the ‘body of Christ’ (“You are…”) Paul is doing this because these people have engaged in Christic embodiment.

    As for your other objection, regarding potentially oppressing the poor by disciplining them in the same way as the confessing members of Christ’s body, yes, that would be oppressive. But that is not what I have in mind. With the crucified members I think more in the terms of invitation.

    That said, I see how this (and your other thoughts… as well as JT’s thoughts) could poke all sorts of holes in my argument… so I’m revisiting my thoughts on this topic, and exploring the idea of the people of God/body of Christ, being something not limited to the Church. Thanks so much for the discussion. Good times!

  3. Dan,
    I’ve been thinking about reading some Zizek. Do you have any recommendation about which book to start with?

  4. Bradm: I would recommend Lacan in the “How to Read” Series. It introduces the reader to one of the key influences on Zizek and, more importantly, it introduces the reader to the ways in which Zizek employs Lacan. Plus, it’s interesting… and short!

    But, then again, I’m not really a Zizek expert or anything, so you might want to ask around.

  5. Dan. I´m very interested in hearing what you come up with. I will also myself continue to ponder about whether the poor belongs to God´s people, which is a new thought to me. Maybe one could think about the status of non-confessing poor in roughly the same way as disciples of Jesus who lacks a confessing church/community/the Spirit (Acts 19)…

    Another thing that might not have been clear. I´m a universalist, so I believe everyone will finally be included into God´s people.

  6. Thanks for these reviews Dan… I have ‘Seek the Welfare of the City’ on my desk at the moment so I’m looking forward to giving it a read. I have to agree that ‘After Paul Left Corinth’ is helpful & fascinating. I’m also in agreement that it’s a good thing when ethics is understood as ‘rooted in eschatology & apocalyptic judaism’ – I don’t recall whether I’ve read anything by Sampley or not – perhaps I should give him a read.

  7. […] On Journeying with those in Exile Part I and Part II […]

  8. Dan:

    Thanks for reviewing The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher. As the editor on the project, I’m certainly disappointed that you didn’t like it, and a little frustrated at the stereotypes of Christian publishing that you perpetuate, but, hey, that’s the beauty of free blogging.

    As a lover and reader of quality classic literature myself, I’d be interested in hearing about what led to your conclusions on plot, characters and the like.

    Well, here’s hoping that some of your readers won’t believe that this book could be THAT bad, and buy a few copies to see for themselves. So far, statistically, I think they’ll end up liking it.

    Andy M.

  9. Of course, I meant I’d be interested if you emailed me. No need to post further on your dislike of the book on your blog. :)

    Andy M.

  10. Andy,

    I have no issues with Christian publishing. In fact, most of the books I own are from Christian publishers.

    My problem is with Christian fiction, which (much like Christian music) tends to be of a consistently lower quality than that which one can find elsewhere (of course, this is not universally true, but it is an unfortunate trend).

    As for my readers, I’m never concerned with whether or not they BUY any given book that I review. My recommendations are solely related to READING a book (note, dear readers, that you don’t have to buy every book that you read!).

    Anyway, the follow who provided me with the review copy, told me that I could be competely honest in my reviews, and that he was not interested in pimping my blog to boost book sales. He knew how my book reviews worked (having read some of the 300+ ‘reviews’ I have done on this blog) so, while I don’t mind posting your comments (that’s the beauty of free commenting!), I’d appreciate it if you didn’t use this as a venue to pimp your books.

    I mean, if you wanted to generate genuine discussion about this book (and not simply increase sales), wouldn’t you want me to post my more detailed thoughts on this blog, instead of asking for a private email?

  11. Dan –

    I wasn’t interested in pimping, as you say it, just responding to your review with an invitation for dialogue and recognition that yes, you can be completely honest in your reviews. I also don’t believe it’s disingenuous to offer a simple one-on-one conversation versus a public dialogue.

    I can’t argue with your view of Christian fiction as a whole; I do argue with going into every fiction book published by a Christian publisher as suspicious. Crap is published all the time by everyone.

    Andy M.

  12. […] I read Holly Fools by Matt Woodley and was happily surprised by how good it was (see my review here).  Consequently, I came to this book (another popular-level book) with expectations I would not […]


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