Bit late… bit distracted by a chapter I’m writing on the socioeconomic status of Paul and the members of the early assemblies of Jesus (and the implications of this analysis for various political readings of Paul)… so here we go:
1. Paul and the Roman Imperial Order edited by Richard Horsley.
This is a really excellent collection of essays written by scholars who are extending counter-imperial readings of Paul from various trends in the Roman Empire more broadly to a more detailed analysis of each of the specific locations to which Paul is written. In my opinion, the strongest essays here are those by Robert Jewett (who examines how Paul’s talk about the corruption of nature in Ro 8.18-23 acts as a counterclaim against the imperial assertion that nature had been redeemed via the epiphany of the Caesars), Abraham Smith (who engages in a postcolonial analysis of 1 Thess) and Erik Heen (who reads Phil 2.5-11 in light of the imperial cult as it was specifically manifested at Philippi). Simon Price, who wrote one of the essential texts on this topic (Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor — a must read for anybody interested in this subject) also pens a helpful response to the essays. This is recommended reading.
2. The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Churches Conservative Icon by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
It seems like John Dominic Crossan likes to pair up with different authors and write close to the same things about Paul over and over. Thus, in this book, we find the same material that Crossan and Reed covered in their earlier book, In Search of Paul (and that Crossan had already repeated in God and Empire… seriously, kinda makes me wonder if Crossan is just exploiting this trend to make some cash and boost his brand-status which, given the nature of the subject at hand, would be something of a betrayal). The major additions to the earlier writings are a more sustained analysis of the theopolitical vision of Rome and how Paul counteracts that vision. As usual, however, the points of contemporary application seem a little pale in comparison to what Paul was doing (i.e. there’s more going on here than simply calling contemporary liberal Christians and conservative Christians to get along with each other).
All in all, I suppose that this book would be a decent popular-level introduction to some of the broader themes of counter-imperial readings of Paul. However, for those who are already familiar with this subject, there is nothing new here.
3. Civil War by Lucan.
Lucan was a Roman writer, a friend of Nero’s (for awhile anyway), and this book is his unfinished epic account of the civil war that raged between Julius Caesar, Magnus Pompey, and Cato the Younger in the middle of the first century BCE. What comes through in Lucan’s text is just how appalling and traumatic the civil was was to Roman sensibilities. That Romans were killing other Romans (instead of killing members of other nations) was seen as absolutely immoral and an act that threw all of the cosmos into a state of disorder and chaos. Understanding this helps the reader to see why Augustus was treated as a divine Saviour-figure when he brought an end to the civil wars and reestablished peace (peace being the time when Romans get back to killing other nationalities instead of each other).
Thus, Lucan’s text ends up serving the purposes of the imperial ideology, but there are ways in which it also challenges that ideology. Thus, for example, Lucan’s portrayal of Julius Caesar — as a bloodthirsty, power-hungry, treaty-breaking, immoral tyrant — falls outside of the standard imperial treatments of that personage. However, such criticisms of the imperial ideology are couched in such a way that they rebound back to strengthen that ideology — thus, Lucan writes that all the horrors of the civil war are worthwhile because, at the end of the day, they lead us to Nero who is portrayed as an even greater Saviour than Augustus (this sort of criticism rebounding back to strengthen the ideology of Rome is visible in other texts that have been transmitted by the Roman elite — for example, in Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis the recently deceased Claudius is viciously mocked but the now-regnant Nero is highly praised, as is the deified Augustus).
Recommended reading for those interested in these things.
4. Hope in Time of Abandonment by Jacques Ellul.
Last month I mentioned that I was taking the time to reread a few books that had really jumped out at me when I first read them several years ago. I reread Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved and was surprised by how little it resonated with me (I’ve got a follow-up post I’m almost done writing about that, but I can’t quite seem to express myself at the crucial part of the post and so I’ve been stalled on it for weeks now). I also decided to reread this book by Jacques Ellul as I remember it really kicking my ass in good ways when I first read it about ten years ago. At that time I was burying myself in Moltmann’s writings and Hope in Time of Abandonment provided a very important shift of emphasis in my thinking: while Moltmann emphasises that God is with us in the experience of godforsakenness (the crucified God, etc.), Ellul brings to the fore the reality of the experience of godforsakenness in and of itself.
The book did not disappoint this time around. In fact, I think this really is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Seriously, this is a very rich text. Ellul, more than any other I know, expresses what I take to be our contemporary situation in relation to God. If you only ever read one book I recommend, this would be a good one to choose.
5. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
This is an extremely well written book (that kind that makes me despair of ever being a decent storyteller), and it has been called one of the great American novels. However, it is also the kind of book that makes me completely depressed. What Franzen does is tell the story of a couple and their three children who grow up in the Midwest and end up moving on to other places, people, and things. As Franzen takes his time, shifting his focus through all the characters, he ends up providing a moving and authentic-feeling snapshot of the lives and struggles, joys and sorrows, of the contemporary middle-class. And this is why I find the book so depressing — everybody, no matter how wonderful they are or could have been, is caught in small lives, petty struggles, trapped in shitty circumstances, negotiating stupid family politics to try and keep everybody happy… and it makes me think, “my God, is that all there is? Is this the kind of life we are all bound to live?” Scares the bejeezus out of me (much like Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ series).
Recommended reading (given that others who read this book actually seem to find it quite humourous and not so depressing… it really is very well written).
6. Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger.
I’ve never been a fan of short stories (not sure why that is), but I’ve been enjoying Salinger lately as have a few of my friends and so I thought I would read these stories. All in all they weren’t too bad. Salinger certainly has a way of presenting dialogue that captures how people actually speak (or used to speak). We also see the return of some of the members of the Glass family (written about in Franny and Zooey and elsewhere) and I especially enjoyed the story that dealt with them (“A Perfect Day for Bananafish”). The other story that I liked a fair bit was “Teddy”. Interesting, given the similarities that exist between those stories. Anyway, decent reading.