Posted by: Dan | October 3, 2008

September Books

Surprisingly, given how busy everything has been, September was still a decent month for reading. There are some really good books on this list (in my opinion, anyway!).

1. Rituals and Power: The Roman imperial cult in Asia Minor by S. R. F. Price.

In any political or ’empire-critical’ reading of Paul there are two books that always get mentioned — The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus by Paul Zanker (which I am currently reading) and Rituals and Power by Simon Price.

Upon completing Price’s book it is easy to see why it is so widely referenced and why it created a paradigm shift within studies of the Roman Empire (this is apparent in the reviews offered on the back of the book… I’ve never seen such glowing reviews, wherein scholars confess to having their own minds changed because of the authors arguments).  What Price does is demonstrate the ubiquity and importance of the Roman imperial cult within Asia Minor, thereby making it impossible for modern readers to treat this aspect of Graeco-Roman society as some sort of tangential aside.

Price’s central thesis is that the Roman imperial cult became the means by which cities in Asia Minor where able to accept subjection to an authority external to the traditional structures of the city (hence, the Roman ruler is slotted within the framework of traditional cults of the gods). Thus, we see the imperial cult as a nexus of religion, politics, and power. We also see an important give-and-take dynamic occurring between ‘Greek’ populations, and the Roman rulers, wherein the cult is often initiated and developed by the Greek cities, and only then controlled and routinized by the Roman rulers.

Of course, there is far more detail in Price’s richly rewarding study (of everything from Hellenistic cities, imperial festivals, architecture, images, and rituals) and I would strongly recommend this book to any reader of Paul’s letters. After reading this book, there can be no doubt that the imperial cult was a fundamental aspect of the society in which Paul lived and wrote his letters and must be factored into our readings of him.

2. Philippians: From People to Letter by Peter Oakes.

Thankfully, Peter Oakes is one of those who takes the imperial cult, and the Graeco-Roman context of Philippi, very seriously in his study of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. As the subtitle implies, Oakes first builds a model of what Philippi might have looked like in Paul’s day, and then he builds on this to try and build a model of what the church in Philippi might have looked like. This then leads to a rewarding and exciting reading of Philippians focused upon a call for unity under economic suffering.

After spending some time tracing the development of Philippi as a city and then as a Roman colony, Oakes argues the composition of the population roughly breaks down in this way:

  1. Service Sector (artisans, bakers, fire wood collectors, and others working at a subsistence level): 37%
  2. Slaves: 20%
  3. Colonist Farmers: 20% (who, being second or third generation by the time of Paul’s writing, wouldn’t necessarily be amongst the elite, although some of them would have been living a little above the subsistence level)
  4. Poor (those living below the subsistence level): 20%
  5. Elite: 3%.

This then breaks down into a population that is 40% Roman and 60% Greek.

From this model, Oakes argues (rather convincingly) that the church of Philippi would then be composed of the following members:

  1. Service: 43%
  2. Slaves: 16%
  3. Colonist Farmers: 15%
  4. Poor: 25%
  5. Elite: 1% (Oakes notes that there is no indication of any elite members at Philippibut he does not want to exclude the possibility of them altogether).

Thus, the church would be 36% Roman and 64% Greek.

From here, Oakes lays out four key elements of life at Philippi: the centrality of agriculture, the relatively modest size of the city, the ethnic and social profile of the city and, most importantly, the ’emphatic Roman domination’ of the colony. This was a colony wherein the Romans owned almost all of the land, monopolising the wealth and the status, while the Greeks were economically dependent on the Romans.

From this model, Oakes then turns to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and argues that it is structured around the themes of suffering and unity. Oakes thesis is that conversion to Christ has caused the Philippians to suffer economically and, given that the largest segment of the church was probably living at the subsistence level, any economic loss would be devastating. However, for the less vulnerable in the congregation, association with Christians, and with Christ, seems to be resulting in a loss of honour… which could rapidly develop into economic loss as well. Therefore, this economic suffering results in a call for increased unity: ‘what the Christians would need to do in order to survive is to enter into a new set of economic and other relationships among themselves’. This would require ‘substantial’ economic rearrangement, which would carry additional risks for the wealthier, more established, parties involved.

Consequently, Paul offers himself as a model to the Philippians, in his surrender of privilege, his willingness to suffer for the sake of the gospel, and his concern for others. Thus, the model Paul offers of himself would probably encourage the lower members of the congregation, and disturb the more well established members.

Of course, Paul’s model of himself is a mirror of the model of Christ offered in Phil 2.5-11.  However, to properly understand this passage Oakes argues that we must first understand the relationship between Christ and the Emperor. Noting the political overtones of language related to ‘citizenship’, ‘salvation’, and power, as well as the political idea of the ruler providing an ethical model to imitate, Oakes argues that the Philippian audience would naturally think of imperial messages when listening to the recitation of this passage. This is strengthened by several other connections: that (a) Christ (like the emperor) is given universal authority; (b) that authority is granted; (c) that authority is granted by a competent body; (d) that authority is granted for a reason; (e) that authority is granted for the same reasons that the emperor was granted authority (demonstrated victories, intimate connections with the rulers or the gods, universal agreement, and moral qualities such as a demonstrated concern for others and a lack of self-interest); (f) universal submission connected to the saving of the world; (g) the granting of high names; (f) the application of the title ‘Lord’; (g) and the role of the leader to define the ethics embodied by the people.

Thus, Paul responds to the issue of suffering and unity in Philippiby offering Christ as a paradigmatic example, over against other examples (like the emperor and the standards he upheld). That is to say, by moving from being like God to being like a slave, Christ went from one extreme of status to another — and so the Philippians should be willing to following in his footsteps out of their concern for each other. In particular, those of higher status, must be willing to provide economic assistance to those of lower status, even if this results in a loss of status. For this, the Philippians will be rewarded because their leader has already been victorious (and so, just as parties aligned with victorious emperors or generals would share in the gains of those victors, so also the Christians are promised a share in the gains of Christ). Thus, Oakes writes:

On both these issues [suffering and unity] the key practical point is likely to be that the Christian has grown up thinking that following society’s imperatives is the right thiing to do and the safe thing to do. Although they will be keen to follow Paul’s calls, the pressure of these social imperatives will be very great. For Paul to present Christ as the one who outdoes the lord of the political and social sphere seems a very appropriate rhetorical strategy…

If Christ has replaced the Emperor as the world’s decisive power then we are no longer in the established Graeco-Roman social world. Instead of a world under the high-status man, whose Roman Empire has commanded the hardening of an already stratified Mediterranean society into stone, the world is under a new lord whose command is [to imitate him] and who enjoins [self-lowering and loss of status]. The lord even exemplifies these things. The whole basis of Graeco-Roman society is done away with.

Furthermore, the result of this is a new confidence, and a new understanding of status, which ‘de-marginalises’ the Christian community.

Thus, I think that Oakes successfully defends his thesis. This is an exceptional book, and I would highly recommend it.

3. In the Steps of Paul: An Illustrated Guide to the Apostle’s Life and Journeys by Peter Walker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

A big thanks to Chris Fann from Zondervan for this review copy!

For a long time, I was fairly blind to the importance of visuals for our understanding of Paul. I used to think that books like this one — full of photos — or tours of the cities Paul visited were a bit over the top, reflecting our cultural shift from the word to the image, from the intellect to the experience, and so on.

However, the more I am convinced of the importance of visual elements within Graeco-Roman society (after all, most of the population wasn’t literate!) the more interested I have become in exploring those visual elements (city layouts, architecture, sculptures, coins, inscriptions, and so on). The more one tries to understand a person like Paul, the more important it becomes to immerse oneself, as much as possible, into all areas of Paul’s life. Really, it was a basic act of snobbery to think that books with pictures are for first year students (or non-professionals), whereas books full of text (say even Greek text! Ooooo!) were for the more advanced. Good grief, sometimes I really am embarrassed by myself.

Therefore, I was delighted to receive a review copy of In the Steps of Paul by Peter Walker. Although I may take issue with Walker’s dependence upon Acts, and some of the ways in which Walker presents Paul and his theology, this is a beautiful reference book full of historical and geographical details. The book is structured to follow Paul’s travels chronologically from city to city (although Paul visited some places more than once, so there are some inevitable breaks in this chronology). Each chapter begins by telling the story of Paul within that location, goes on to provide a list of key dates and events related to that location (extending both before and after Paul), and then concludes with a section describing the location as a visitor might encounter it today (a handy guide for those who might actually travel to these places). Personally, I am most grateful for the tables with key dates and events for each city (and for the Roman Empire as a whole) as I was thinking I needed to develop something like that for my own research… so this has saved me a lot of time. I was also grateful for the maps provided for each city (because, you know, city plans are often an important ideological tool). Oh, and the photos are beautiful. All in all, an enjoyable book.

4. Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping our World by Vinoth Ramachandra.

This book has received a lot of high recommendations — both from the international array of scholars represented on the back of the book, and from other bloggers I respect (like Halden and Christian). So, despite my far too long list of ‘books to read’, I decided to bite the bullet and jump into this book.  As the reader might guess, based upon my recent references to Ramachandra, I am very glad that I did so. Subverting Global Myths is impressive in both its readability and its erudition.  It certainly made me want to read Ramachandra’s earlier book, Gods That Fail.

Within Subverting Global Myths, Ramachandra explores six areas of public discourse today — terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science and postcolonialism (the chapter on myths of postcolonialism alone is worth the price of the book) — and offers a profoundly historically-informed perspective.  For, as Ramachandra reminds the reader, without that historical perspective, we cannot properly understand these things.  Unfortunately, the dominant ethos of contemporary capitalism is profoundly anti-historical, so it is no wonder that so much of what Ramachandra writes might strike the reader as something new.  Thus, for example, those lacking this historical perspective will find themselves shocked by what Ramachandra has to say about events in Afghanistan, whereas those who have been reading the writings of our more historically-informed Marxist or anarchist friends, will find themselves nodding along (the chapter on Afghanistan, and myths of terrorism, reads like a chapter out of something by Chomsky… which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned and, who knows, may even give Chomsky some more credibility in Christian circles).  Consequently, it is no wonder that Ramachandra describes his book as ‘an invitation to journey with the author in heretical subversion of the present reality in order to make way for another.’

What I found especially enjoyable about Ramachandra’s book (apart from the historical perspective already mentioned) is the way in which he doesn’t really appear to have any allegiances to any particular party-lines or movements.  Rather, although he is aware of much that has been written by these various parties (in politics, cultural theory, and theology), he comes across as a thoughtful and sincere person, trying to think and live Christianly within the contemporary global context.  Ramachandrareally doesn’t seem like he his grinding any particular axes in his writing.  Consequently, he is both a refreshing read and a challenge to all others who have drawn their own lines in the sand and have been working on building up the barricades (I might include myself in that group).

5. Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne & Chris Haw (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

A big thanks to Chris Fann from Zondervan for this review copy!

This book surprised me.  After The Irresistible Revolution, and given the subtitle of this book, I was expecting a book that mapped out some of the concrete details of the community living practiced by Claiborne and Haw.  I was expecting a more detailed follow-up to some of the things Claiborne mapped out in his previous book.

Instead, what we have in the first two-thirds of Jesus for President is a political and empire-critical reading of the biblical narrative and the experiences of the early Church, with only the final third devoted to an eclectic account of what some ‘ordinary radicals’ are doing in the world today.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this kind of project… I was a little disappointed but that’s only because I came to the book with the wrong expectations.  I was expecting something of a sequel to The Irresistible Revolution and instead I got the prequel — a project focused on ‘renewing the imagination’ instead of a project focused on the details of action.

Of course, I suspect that this sort of prequel is necessary for a good many people.  Many (or most?) North American Christians haven’t ever read or considered Scripture from a perspective that is critical of Empires — many have never read the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Daniel Smith-Christopher, John Crossan, Ched Myers, Warren Carter, Walter Wink, Klaus Wengst, Brian Walsh, and a host of others who have written on this theme — so this sort of introduction to this perspective can be invaluable.  Besides, even for those (like myself) who are familiar with these authors, it is always worthwhile to read a review of the biblical narrative from this perspective (after all, paradigm shifts occur from repeated readings, not just from a first read).

What one gains from this overview of the biblical narrative is a clear and consistent call to a form of Christian politics that sees the Church as an alternative community (think polis), modeling new creation realities to the world in which she finds herself.  Thus, ‘the greatest sin of political imagination’ is ‘thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today.’  Again:

A curious politics is emerging here: the early Christians weren’t trying to overthrow or even reform the empire, but they also weren’t going along with it.  They were not reformists offering the world a better Rome.  They offered the dissatisfied masses not a better government but another world altogether.

And, just to be clear on what the authors are saying, this ‘other world’ is not the ‘pie in the sky’ of heaven, but ‘another world’ here and now.

As for as my own interests, I found the last section, although a little disjointed and not entirely helpful (for transitioning the reader from where she is to where she is wanting to go) to be the most interested.  It is in this section that we find a series of ‘snapshots of stories, reflections, and practical expressions of the peculiar politics of Jesus today.’  It is here we read about Christians exploring alternative and clean forms of energy and housing, about Christians who grow their own food and make their own clothes, about Christians living in community with the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the imprisoned, about Christian acts of nonviolence and peacemaking, about Christians sharing economically with one another (check out Christians who help pay for health care, or the notion of the relational title), and so on.  Thus, this section ends with a call to newness in all elements of our life together: we need new celebrations, new language, new rituals, new heroes, new songs, new liturgy, new eyes, and new holidays.

The book itself concludes with a series of appendices illustrating some of these things and also dealing with some problem areas (available on the book’s website).

However, as I stated with my hopes for this book, and implied above, I also found this section a little disappointing.  While it may inspire the imaginations of some readers, it also provides those readers with little assistance in making these transitions in their own lives.  Thus, we may have a bunch of people who love this book, and who feel inspired by it, but who do not know how to proceed and develop in these directions.  The results of this could either be a bunch of pseudo-radicals (i.e. those who feel radical because they read the book… even though nothing changed in their own lives) or a bunch of guilt-ridden well-intentioned Christians (who want to change but don’t know how).

My hope, then, is that those like Claiborne and Haw, or other representatives of the ‘new monasticism’, will go on from here to write a much more practical action-oriented book, mapping out how they themselves made this transition, what lessons they learned along the way, and so on and so forth.

6 & 7. The Becoming of G-d by Ian Mobsby (already reviewed here) and The emerging Church by Bruce Sanguin (already reviewed here).

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Responses

  1. Hey Dan…I have a question for you…and I’m asking you because I respect your opinion on this. You are one of those rare scholarly folks who also puts his theology into deep practice.

    You write: “My hope, then, is that those like Claiborne and Haw, or other representatives of the ‘new monasticism’, will go on from here to write a much more practical action-oriented book, mapping out how they themselves made this transition, what lessons they learned along the way, and so on and so forth.”

    For the past couple years, I have grappled with whether or not to do just that. When I launched Jesus Manifesto, it was to signal my desire to write a book of the same name that focused on 1/3 reimagining and 2/3 creative praxis.

    But I’ve never become comfortable with the idea of writing a book. My issues are with how commodification of radical ideas works in our culture (which produces pseudo-radicals), with how the publishing industry works, and the over-crowding of the “radical” publishing industry with 30 year old educated white men.

    What’s your take on this stuff? I feel like I’m qualified and able to write a book…and have even been approached by publishers and agents. And yet…I can’t let myself just do it. Most folks just shrug at my concerns and say I should just do it. I feel confident that you understand the issues that I’ve raised more than enough to speak into my life a bit on this one. Does such a book need to be written?

    I’ve considered editing a book that does this that draws in a diverse group of writers.

  2. Hey Mark,

    Good to see that you have given this some thought. I think I can understand some of your discomfort with this topic, but the fact is that somebody needs to knuckle down and write more of the detailed ‘how-to’ or ‘this is how we did it, and this is what we learned along the way’ sort of book. I mean, anything you write on this topic — whether imaginative or practical, whether in book form or online — can become commodified, marketed, and co-opted. (Here I am reminded of a remark made by Marcuse after he became famous. He stated: “I’m very much worried about this… At the same time it is a beautiful verification of my philosophy, which is that in this society everything can be co-opted, everything can be digested.”)

    I have a feeling that peeps in the new monastic scene aren’t writing the sort of book I am wishing others could see, because they find it more tedious or boring to write that sort of book. Still, a book on that subject is far more urgent than a book that focuses on renewing the imagination — we’ve got plenty of those books now.

    That said, I think that a collaborative effort would be really great. To get representatives from the various communities to write a chapter on how they came into being, and lessons they’ve learned along the way (or something like that) would be pretty rad. Besides, it seems to me that a collaborative effort might go a long way to addressing your other concerns.

    Just my two cents.

  3. Thanks for your response…I’ll chew on it.


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