catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 13 :: 2006.06.30 — 2006.07.14


A call to subversion

Colossians Remixed is the long awaited commentary that Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat have poured themselves into for several years. Fans of Walsh's work have seen early versions of some of this at his webpage. Others, knowing of their love for and deep insight into Holy Scripture (Sylvia got her Ph.D. under N.T. Wright and he often mentions her insight in his lectures), will not be surprised that they are doing a book of biblical scholarship. They have always maintained that a Christian way of life, a socially-transforming worldview, must be rooted in and shaped by the Bible. No legalistic or simplistic Biblicists, though, they are fully aware that living out of (into?) a biblical vision takes renewed, communal attention to complex matters of understanding the Bible in its original sociopolitical and religious context. And they know as well that we must engage the hugely contested questions a bout interpretation.

Colossians Remixed is a book which reads the biblical text in context and analyzes the world—consumerism and the role of mass media, globalization, postmodernism, the massive reality of the suffering of the poor, the savaging of the land, contemporary angst and social disquiet, idolatries and ideologies—to create a living, experimental interpretation of the ancient text. They insist (and make the case persuasively) that this book of the Bible can nurture a subversive resistance to the forces of the idols of our time. In other words, it is significantly informative about the Bible and seriously but creatively committed to bold proclamation of the good news that emerges from the text.

When taken in by the vision of the Bible, and this epistle particularly, we find that we don't have to live the way we do, we don't have to go along with the values of the dominant culture, we can live out a spiritually-rich, countercultural way of life. This whole-life vision of the reign of God that they help us see comes from the whole flow of Scriptures and from that first century letter. They tell us we can, in the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection.” This is the kind of reading that will change forever the way you view the Bible. And this, of course, is a good thing. A very good thing.

Those who have read Brian's four powerful sermons in Subversive Christianity will appreciate why Walsh and Keesmaat insist that we need a new understanding of the Bible, and why they feel such discontinuity between genuinely biblical faith and the ways of modern and postmodern culture. Themes of being in exile—expressed with more biblically potent texture, I think, than Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens and more culturally-specific than Brueggeman, whose work on exile is fundamental—abound in Subversive Christianity. (How could it not? Much is taken from Jeremiah!) But, like that earlier book, in Remixed there is talk of hope, as well. We can dare to dream that things can be otherwise! God will bless and guide us into new and sacrificial ways. We can find habits and practices that enable us to deeply be guided by the biblical text. These themes pervade the Colossians study.

Still, it isn't all vision and hope. They insist on a close and careful reading of the text, and they call us to pay attention to the Old Testament echoes which would surely have been implied by Rabbi Paul. They work hard to exegete responsibly. (Brian, in fact, told me he hopes that the debate that will surely be engendered by this book will be mostly about their work with the text of the epistle.) To help make their provocative case more clearly—that Colossians is a subversive tract inviting resistance to the Empires, Roman and American—they include another view in the book. That is, a guy comes around, his voice written in italics, who joins in from time to time to challenge and argue with the authors, pressing them on matters of their philosophical assumptions and their exegesis of the passages. This device is a stroke of genius (perhaps born of necessity as they've learned in years of conversations, teaching and leading retreats that it is not easy to get folks to understand their Bibles in the political ways they are suggesting.) Their ongoing dialogue with this straight-arrow interlocutor is very helpful as they answer his good questions. In this, they serve the reader, anticipating some of the sidebars, tangents, and concerns that many may have.

Other voices show up in Colossians Remixed, voices of postmodern and post-Christian friends, students, and neighbors. These are folks who, importantly, are not fictional, and Brian and Sylvia pay attention to them. Besides being biblical scholars, worldview advocates, teachers, writers, social activists, home-schoolers, and cultural critics, they are evangelists. They want to “make disciples” and their missional perspective is evident. They want these alienated young adults and jaded postmodern disciples of Foucault and Derrida to hear and believe the gospel.

Walsh and Keesmaat truly want seekers to be found by God. They want a vibrant, reforming and healing way of life to be known. They want serious attention to be given to Bible study, and they long to see God's people actually live out a counter-cultural and refreshing, healing, embodied witness—a city on a hill that cannot be hidden—that would engender deep conversation and make plausible the counter-intuitive claims of Christ. Such a community would find its place in the grand Story of the unfolding plan of God. Such a community would be hopeful that God intends to bring restoration and change, but would first need to struggle to be subversive of the dominant values/principles/assumptions. As is often said, the Hebrew prophets both denounced the idols and announced the plans of God. Colossians, explained and interpreted by Keesmaat and Walsh, does the same.

A book like this—serious, evocative, fresh, informative and formative — is right for our times. We are living in a time of Empire, a time, many have said, not dissimilar to the first century, AD. In this tragic year of our Lord, perhaps nothing could be more urgent than a rediscovery of the original power of these letters of Paul, which the church has declared to be God's Word. Are they such to us? This book offers the challenge.

A final word on Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. I am not alone in raving about this book, they are not the only ones working out this kind of perspective, and for the record, I don't gush over it just because I like them personally. Some of the best folks writing these days have added their support, which I trust you will take to mean that this is, indeed, a major contribution for those of us who love the Bible. Here are some blurbs from the back cover. (Yep, that's me in there with all these big-wig scholars and important Kingdom people. Ha!) Thanks be to God.


Reviews & Endorsements for Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire:

"What would Paul say to contemporary Western culture? Well, it might just look like this. Walsh and Keesmaat have written one of the most creative and exciting books to emerge from the current interface of biblical, cultural and political studies. Bringing together serious historical study of Colossians and the urgent questions of our time, they entertain as well as educate with verve, wit and surprise as well as scholarship and in-depth cultural analysis. Paul recognized that living under a global empire posed particular challenges for Christians in the first century. This book compels us to engage with the equivalent questions we face in the twenty-first."

—N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and author of the multivolume work Christian Origins and the Question of God


"Brian and Sylvia are phenomenally wise, profoundly formed by their immersion in biblical language, astutely aware of the pains and anxieties of residents in postmodernity, and outstandingly alert to the dangers of enculturated Christianity. This is a brilliant book—using multimedia of imaginative stories, probing conversations, alternative readings. Their targums alone are more than worth the price of the book because they make the Bible come alive with its deepest referents to Israel , to the community at Colossae and to our world, caught as it is in the throes of the empire."

—Marva J. Dawn, author of Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society and Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God


"Colossians Remixed is a book I've been waiting for eagerly; it's a tasty sample of postmodern engagement with a biblical text. It will provide a fascinating and readable entry into Colossians—and deeper into the essential message of Jesus and Paul. And in the process, it will expose readers to evocative and challenging new ways of reading and interpreting both Scripture and our culture."

—Brian D. McLaren, pastor and author of A New Kind of Christian


"In my nearly twenty-five years of book selling I have seen few books which can rival Colossians Remixed for its sheer Christian audacity, its deep desire to be faithful in reading the Word in light of the burning questions of our time. Readers will be sure to be stunned—pondering, reacting, struggling with this fresh take on Scripture, as they are led to good insights about how to live out a transforming discipleship. If this proposal is taken seriously, the Bible will be heard anew, lives will be changed, and God will be pleased."

—Byron K. Borger, Hearts & Minds Bookstore, Dallastown, Pennsylvania


"After they did all of their exegetical homework, these authors decided to let the book of Colossians touch our lives in the contemporary world. Well, Colossians will never be the same again; neither will the reader. Whereas Colossians usually sits innocently at the edge of the New Testament, this book shows how it becomes front and center for readers amid an empire that manages all of globalization. The book makes clear what a difference there is when the text is given Spirit-led imagination."

—Walter Brueggemann, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary


"Walsh and Keesmaat expertly bring the ancient world of Colossians and the contemporary world of North America crashing together, and the result is dynamite. Rich, provocative readings of Scripture combine with penetrating, trenchant analysis of culture. Insights from a plethora of sources (exegetes, philosophers, musicians) are expressed in a readable, conversational style. A culturally subversive ethic is persuasively put forward for Christ-followers in our age of empire. Not exactly a commentary, this book is much better. Colossians Remixed is an explosive tract for our times. Take up and read."

—Steven Bouma-Prediger, Jacobson Professor of Religion, Hope College


"This book is a Molotov cocktail lobbed into the midst of contemporary biblical studies and the American empire. It is full of illuminating exegesis of Colossians, rooted in solid knowledge of the Old Testament background and the first-century Roman imperial context of the New Testament. Its most helpful—and controversial—feature is that it demonstrates how a faithful reading of Colossians addresses head-on our contemporary idolatry of consumerism and the postmodern suspicion of truth that characterizes our culture."

—J. Richard Middleton, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York


"This creative and intellectually stimulating understanding of Colossians offers both a fresh reading of the letter in its first-century setting and a provocative attempt to challenge the cultural elites of the twenty-first century with Colossians' worldview. Not all will agree with its hermeneutical approach or its political positions. Everyone, however, will benefit from thinking with the authors about the ways in which the church has become captive to the dominant culture and the ways in which the dominant culture has too quickly dismissed the church."

—Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Professor of Divinity, Samford University


"A gripping, powerful and penetrating interpretation of Colossians for the third millennium! Based on responsible scholarship, enlivened by a discerning imagination and fired by commitment to Paul's gospel, this reading of Colossians by Walsh and Keesmaat is an outstanding contribution to the church's task of conceiving Christ rather than global consumerism as sovereign in our world. At the same time, it is a provocative stimulus to the church's mission of living out that alternative sovereignty in a community of compassion resistant to the forces of coercion from within and without."

—Andrew T. Lincoln, Portland Professor of New Testament, University of Gloucestershire

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