Colossians Remixed - Immanuel Baptist Church_ Chicago_ IL

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					Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove: IVP,
                                          2004), 256 pages.

                                   Review by Pastor Nathan, March 2007

In this book Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat, a husband and wife pair from the Institute for Christian Studies
in Toronto, give us an excellent example of a postmodern reading of the book of Colossians. Deeply
influenced by the writings of and a personal friendship with N.T. Wright, they attempt to place Colossians
squarely in its first-century context, particularly the context of the Roman Empire. This prevents the gospel
from being understood merely as a timeless set of truths revolving around concepts such as sin, grace, and
faith. Rather, it is a time-bound proclamation of the good news that now Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Reading Colossians this way means it is not just a collection of proof-texts for the divinity of Christ, but is
instead a subversive tract that undermines the socially, economically, and religiously hegemonic empire of
Rome by proclaiming „the kingdom of the Son God loves‟. I think this is a very helpful lens through which to
view not only Paul‟s letter to the Colossians, but also the entire New Testament.

But what does this have to do with postmodernity? The authors introduce us at the beginning of chapter one
to a former student named William. William is the quintessential postmodern (if such a thing were possible).
He was raised in a Christian home, rebelled in college, graduated, got a good paying job in international
finance, and then became deeply disillusioned with the corporate world and values. At this point he returned
to theism. Upon reporting this to Walsh and Keesmaat, he added the caveat:

              “This doesn‟t mean that I‟m reading the Bible on any regular basis, though.”
              “And why is that?” we asked.
              “My problem with the Bible is that as soon as I open it I bump up against the absolute.
         Actually, it is more that the absolute punches me in the face whenever I read this book.”
         (16)

To William, the Bible seems to be promulgating an over-arching worldview – a metanarrative. And
according to Jean-François Lyotard, postmodernity is “incredulity toward all metanarratives.” Any grand, all-
encompassing story is by nature totalizing and history has shown that this type of thinking always results in
totalitarianism. Just look at the utopian metanarrative of Marxism. And how else do you explain the
Crusades? Sometimes the oppression is more subtle such as the intellectual violence propagated by
modernity‟s myth of objectivity or the neo-colonialism of global capitalism, which Walsh and Keesmaat argue
is the predominant empire of the day. The bottom line is that to postmoderns any absolutizing claim is what
Michel Foucault calls a „regime of truth‟… and “regimes defeat their enemies” (103).

This is especially the case with the book of Colossians, at least on the surface. Colossians begins with
some pretty absolutizing claims about Christ – “All things were created by him and for him. He is before all
things and in him all things hold together… so that in all things he might have the supremacy” (1:16-18).
William reads this letter from Paul and says:

         You posit a divine authority that structures and orders the world in a certain way, attribute
         that authority to yourself as author of the letter, wipe out any opposition that suggests
         things might be looked at differently, put clear restrictions on personal and communal life,
         and then top it all off with a divine sanction for patriarchy and slavery. And you want a
         postmodern person at the beginning of the twenty-first century to read this text, learn from
         it and maybe even receive it as divinely inspired Scripture? I don‟t think so! (18)
How do Walsh and Keesmaat answer that? They don‟t deny that Paul is articulating a worldview, that the
Bible provides a comprehensive metanarrative. But they maintain that this metanarrative is different. Upon
closer inspection of the biblical texts in their historical contexts one sees that it is not inherently totalizing.
The Bible itself prevents us from using the Bible as an absolute with which to punch people in the face.
They “discern two such antitotalizing dimensions or trajectories in the biblical metanarrative. The first
consists in a radical sensitivity to suffering which pervades the biblical narrative…. The second consists in
the rooting of the story in God‟s overarching creational intent, which delegitimates any narrow, partisan use
of the story” (107). Christ established his kingdom and defeated his enemy – evil – by self-sacrificial love,
not violence, and the church is called to follow in this pattern of suffering. And Christ‟s kingdom is not
restricted to a certain elite few, but inclusive and open to all peoples. This means that the biblical story is
about “liberation from violently imposed regimes of truth, not a story that legitimates newly imposed slavery.”
And it is “a story with the redemption of all creation as its focus [which] subverts any partisan, self-justifying
co-option of its message” (109).

Here is where empire comes in. Empires are repressive, ideological regimes. The Roman empire in the
first century certainly fit this bill. It expanded through military might. It was built on the backs of slaves. It
captured people‟s imaginations. It mandated Caesar worship. The kingdom of Christ, on the other hand,
spread through self-sacrificial service, undermined the class system, liberated imaginations to dream again,
and invited people to worship a crucified Christ. It promoted an alternative ethic of compassion, kindness,
humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, and love. This is altogether different than the oppressive values
of the empire.

According to the authors, we must have a contemporary hermeneutic that asks, “What are the empires of
today?” and sees how Christ‟s kingdom subverts them. For Walsh and Keesmaat, it is the all-pervasive
empire of global, democratic, free-market, capitalism. The market rules the day. Consumerism holds
people captive. The environment is ransacked and raped in the name of development. Military force is
even used to open markets and maintain economic growth. But such growth only benefits a minority of the
world‟s population – the wealthy and the west (and the benefit is questionable to say the least). Jesus‟
kingdom operates on another plane. And Walsh and Keesmaat get specific on what this looks like –
growing your own food, making your own clothes, teaching your own kids, driving hybrid vehicles, drinking
fair-trade coffee, using cloth diapers (and even washable organic cotton menstrual pads!). Some might
object to their pacifism, egalitarianism, and environmentalism, but much of it is thought-provoking and
appealing, especially to postmoderns who may equate Christianity with white, middle-class, suburban,
Republicanism.

I found the hermeneutical framework of empire and the critique of our culture to be quite beneficial. And
many of the practical points offered were convincing and challenging. One cannot help but be impressed by
their example. In the preface they remark tongue-in-cheek, “Our three children, Jubal, Madeleine and Lydia,
did not have to „suffer through‟ the writing of this book. If they did then the book would in fact lack credibility”
(9). The authors adeptly use the lyrics of people like Tori Amos and Billy Corgan to make astute
observations about the postmodern world we live in. They effectively use the ancient practice of targum to
bring Colossians into today‟s world – re-writing and expanding on the text to speak to today‟s situation, even
naming specific multi-national corporations like AT&T and IBM. Throughout the book they carry on a
conversation with imaginary interlocutors who stop them with objections or for clarification, making for a
unique style of writing and an effective method of communication. They even take the liberties of
constructing hypothetical first-hand accounts of a first century Christian named Nympha (cf. Col. 4:15) that
illustrate how someone might have heard and lived the gospel in the shadow of Rome.

Though Walsh and Keesmaat do not use this term, what they provide is a plausible apologetic to
postmoderns. Yet I have to wonder if in the end it acquiesces too much to postmodernism.
Postmodernism‟s “incredulity toward all metanarratives” is at its core an insubordination toward all authority.
It‟s hyper-modernism in that autonomy of the self is taken to its extreme. And while Jesus‟ reign is unique in
that it is inaugurated and propagated through suffering and is available to all people, it is still a reign that
calls for our unconditional surrender. Submission is a huge part of discipleship. The authors downplay that.
Jesus came the first time in meekness, weakness, and humility not “to be served but to serve, and to give
his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45). But he is coming again with eyes “like blazing fire,” “dressed in a
robe dipped in blood,” and “out of his mouth [will come] a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.
„He will rule them with an iron scepter.‟ He [will tread] the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God
Almighty” (Rev. 19:13-15). This is someone “to whom every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and
under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). Jesus‟ upside-down ethics, radical inclusivity, and ultimate self-sacrifice
doesn‟t exempt us from submission to him; but rather makes him supremely worthy of our utmost
submission.
The kingdom of the Son God loves subverts the cult of Caesar and challenges the dehumanizing power of
the market. But what about subverting the deadly empire of libertinism? This is equally pervasive and just
as enslaving. Millions of people live within brutal mini-empires of self. Their refusal to submit to the
indictment of sin keeps them a slave to it. Their aversion to anything or anyone making an absolute claim
on their life prevents them from knowing the goodness of the Savior who died to free them from their sins of
self-determination, self-sufficiency, self-preservation, self-centeredness, and self-_____.

It‟s all about God. God‟s glory is supreme. And God‟s grace ultimately displayed through the cross is the
chief aspect of his glory. And so his glory is our ultimate good. This is so utterly profound and so profoundly
crucial. His absolute authority and supremacy is not oppressive and dictatorial. It is the epitome of
goodness. And we simply must submit to him. In trying to make Colossians palatable to someone like
William, I am afraid that Walsh and Keesmaat have capitulated too much to the postmodern allergy to
authority.

				
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