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Colossians Remixed: A Review, Pt. 1

A number of years ago I came across a book by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat titled Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. At the time, I didn't pick it up or give it much thought. Recently, however, I was invited to be part of a very small reading/discussion group that plans to read through this work. So, now I have the volume and am reading it and I plan to blog my way through it as far as time allows. I will strive do this in a way that comports with the schedule of our group's meetings, that is, once a week toward the end of every week. This morning we had our first meeting and we just spent a little bit of time discussing the preface, thus, that's where I begin my review.

The preface of this book, which spans only five pages, raised a number of questions for me. Walsh and Keesmaat, who are spouses, begin by exploring the idea of a "remix," which is a word used in the main title. They consider "remixing" to be, at its best, a "revoicing" (7) of an original song in a new context. Applied to Colossians, the idea is that they will help "revoice" Colossians so that it might be heard in new ways for today's readers. The idea of "remixing," I think, is a creative one but the whole notion of revoicing the text actually raises some questions and concerns for me: 1) Does the text really need to be given a new voice? 2) Might a recovery of the original voicing of Colossians be a more worthwhile endeavor? 3) Related to the previous question, at some points it does seem that Walsh and Keesmaat will actually aim to recover the original voice of Colossians, which raises the question of why there needs to be a revoicing at all? For example, they contend that Colossians was "an explosive and subversive tract in the context of the Roman empire" and that "Paul's letter...engenders a similarly alternative way of life in our midst" (7). To the novice reader there are scholarly buzzwords that may go unnoticed here, which are quite important to be aware of. For example, "subversive," "Roman empire" and "alternative way of life" all carry important connotations.

The notion that Paul was subverting the Roman empire with this letter is obviously a clue that we are dealing with a post-colonial hermeneutic. The problem with many such readings, however, is that those who use them tend to find at every corner and under every rock in the New Testament, some relation to imperial subversion. Most of the time these inferences are quite implicit and some exegetical gymnastics must be done to try to draw out such meanings. I'm not sure if Walsh and Keesmaat will take this route but a quick glance at the table of contents seems that this may well be the case. Just as well, the language of "alternative way of life," which is equated with "alternative lifestyle" in today's culture, is often more than a generalization of anti-government but more specifically a reference to the acceptance, embracing and promoting of the gay agenda and lifestyle. It is hard to think that the authors use such language accidentally. Thus, one expects this phrase to function as a "preview of coming" attractions for the rest of the work. We'll see.

In the preface the authors refer to their this work as an "anti-commentary" (7), a descriptor they use to try to distinguish this book about Colossians from other (i.e. traditional commentaries) works on Colossians. Yet, there is more to this term than might initially meet the eye. It seems to me that the "anti-commentary" remark functions also as a means of critique, especially of the academy and academics. They, after all, aren't writing for "religious people like pastors and professors" (8). In short, they attempt to distance themselves and in doing so, seem to treat today's religious institutions and academic institutions as empires that need to be subverted. The irony is that, as they are both products of religious establishments and academic institutions, they are striving to find a way to bill their own work as a critique of these entities; out of the gate they portray themselves as empire subverters. This is their worldview; this is the framework they operate out of. In fact, they go on to say that their own "Christian household" is the "testing ground" for anything they say in this book (9). So, they make it abundantly clear from the beginning that they are on Paul's side and that, like him, they are empire subverters. Perhaps the irony at this point is that many have actually criticized Paul of being pro-Roman empire. After all, isn't Christianity, especially Christianity in the West, much indebted to Paul? Hasn't Protestant Christianity relied on Paul? Isn't Christianity, then, an empire of its own to be subverted? Do Walsh and Keesmaat acknowledge this or does it go unrealized? I suppose I'll have to keep reading to figure that out but I do think that it would be interesting to find them siding with Paul so much, when it is Paul who, in large part, has been a foundation stone for the so-called empire of modern Western Christianity. Again, we'll see.

My biggest concern with the preface, however, is with the authors' comments on page 8 where they repeatedly refer to the "questions that we (Walsh and Keesmaat) bring to the text." They say just after this, "Ours is a cultural, political, social and ecological reading of this text because these are the kinds of questions that our friends and students ask" (8). Now, I'm all for authors laying their cards on the table and contextualizing themselves, I think there is merit in that. However, these types of comments raise major red flags for me. In my view, the work of being a good reader and interpreter of the Bible comes not by bringing one's questions to the text and attempting to mine the text for answers (we call this eisegesis - reading into the text what we want to read into it) but rather going to the text and discovering, wrestling with and attempting to answer the questions that the text raises. You see, there is a major difference between those two things! Going to the text in order to ask very specific questions of it almost always means that one's reading of the text will end up being slanted; it will almost always end up being bent to fit one's agenda. Given the comments by the authors, I worry that in reading this text I will find it to be light on good exegesis and heavy on slanting Paul's words to fit modern agendas. And this, I think, is dangerous. In fact, it is in my view a form of colonialism in and of itself. It can be no different than using the text the way that slave owners did to support slavery in early America. The only difference is that it is working in the other direction. That, however, is not meritorious in and of itself because in the end, it almost always does damage to the text, its interpreters and the church...maybe even society and society's impression of the church.

There is another thing that worries me about this book given the remarks of the preface. In their effort to "seek to hear Colossians anew in our cultural context" (8), the author's say, "Might the Pentagon or IBM or the International Monetary Fund be contemporary parallels to the rulers and authorities that put Jesus on the cross?" This question is very revealing and makes me question the hermeneutical/interpretive foundations of the authors. I wonder if their approach is what I might call "The New Dispensationalism" or maybe "The New Literalism." Why? Well, one of the biggest problems with the Dispensationalist approach to Scripture is that it goes to biblical texts and looks for parallels between what's on the page and today's world (this, as I noted already, is the problem with making the starting point one's own presuppositions, ideologies, questions, etc.). Thus, Dispensationalists find in Scripture references to helicopters and army tanks and governments implanting chips, etc; they draw wild parallels. When Walsh and Keesmaat draw such parallels, it is, in some ways, similar. However, because "empire studies" are the "in-thing" right now, their suggestions don't seem as far-fetched or crazy. I wonder if, in a decade or two from now, such works and their questions will be looked at with the same suspicions that many Dispensationalist readings are today? The search for parallels and one-to-one correspondences, this type of literalism, is typically quite dangerous and damaging to the text. (As you can tell, preventing damage to the text is a chief concern of mine.)

So, when the authors get around to saying that "we would not propose a way of life that we ourselves were not living out" (9), at this point, I'm a little reluctant to be following both their proposals and their ways of living; I'm just not sure at this point that they are the folks I want to be my guides in such matters. Yet, I'm willing to engage their work and give them an ear but I do have concerns. It seems that in the introduction there is quite a bit about N.T. Wright, a friend and mentor to the authors. I think that an acknowledgement of one's influences is a good thing. Yet, it almost seems that there's a little too much about Wright and that this is used to give validity to the book; he receives probably a page and a half of five pages. Wright himself does recommend the text on the back cover and for many, this likely carries a bit of weight. Wright, of course, is a prominent figure in biblical studies and has become something a household name for academics in the field. It is interesting to me, again, that the authors can be so invested in subverting the academic empire and at the same time, borrowing its prestige to lend credence to their work. Again, there's a tension here that just makes me as a reader uncomfortable.

Despite the closing remarks that the authors both long to be part of the empire of Jesus, which "liberates" rather than "enslaves" (11), one has to wonder how self-aware the claims of such folks are when they've been a part of and climbed the ladder(s) of the so-called empire(s) they are critiquing all along? I think that's where negotiating the whole anti-imperial hermeneutic gets quite tricky. It is usually those who've been raised in the so-called empires they are supposedly critiquing that benefit from said empires by selling books, giving public (and oftentimes paid) lectures, etc. How does this balancing act work?

I want to say, as I close this portion of my review, that I realize that this review is probably seen as somewhat negative. I don't like writing negative reviews. But these are all genuine questions and concerns that Walsh's and Keesmaat's preface raise for me. And perhaps the questions and concerns would be welcomed by them. After all, would it be right or just to live in an empire-like context where such a (re)voicing was silenced or muted? So, while I have my concerns and cautions moving ahead with this book and while I think I can anticipate some directions in which they are headed, I will say, as an author myself, that writing a book is no small feat and that these two were able to do so while maintaining a strong devotion to their children is something I do, in fact, find admirable. Kudos to them on that front. I look forward to the possibility of reading and discussing the book in the weeks ahead.