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Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire Paperback – November 4, 2004
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"An inventive and relevant way to look at the text of Paul's letter to the church at Colossae. The unusual structure and style that Walsh and Keesmaat use accomplishes their goal of explaining Colossians to the 'post-modern' generation. The dialogue, narrative and philosophy sections are engaging and keep the reader from being bogged down with technical language." (Text, Community & Mission (textcommunitymission.wordpress.com), November 9, 2008)
"This is a bold (and at times controversial) work." (Relevant, December 2007)
"This book is a challenge to think in kingdom terms and values and reach out to people trapped between modernism and postmodernism." (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, December 2005)
"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 Pennsylvania)
"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)
"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)
"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)
"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)
"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)
"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, N.Y.)
About the Author
Brian J. Walsh serves as the Christian Reformed Church chaplain to the University of Toronto. With Richard J. Middleton, he wrote The Transforming Vision and Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (both IVP). He is also the author of Langdon Gilkey (University Press of America, 1992) and Subversive Christianity (Alta Vista College Press, 1994).
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The idea for Colossians Remixed began with Walsh's simple question to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright about the latter's commentary on Colossians: "So what?" (8). What is the point of pontificating on a two thousand year old book if you cannot make it applicable to today's twenty-first century, postmodern audience? Thus began Walsh and Keesmaat's journey to find the thread tying the first century context to the twenty-first. According to Walsh and Keesmaat, that thread is empire.
Walsh and Keesmaat (hereafter W&K) argue that just as the first century Christians lived in the heart of a worldly empire, so today Christians find themselves in a new world empire. They describe the common characteristics of empires as being
"(1) built on systemic centralizations of power, (2) secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control, (3) religiously legitimated by powerful myths and (4) sustained by a proliferation of imperial images that captivate the imaginations of the population." (58)
W&K find all four of these characteristics true not only of first century Rome, but also of the twenty-first century empire of "global capitalism" (65). While any historian could list the ways the ancient Roman empire fits in with the four characteristics above, it is a bit more difficult for the modern observer to see how the global capitalistic empire measures up. Thus, W&K spend Part One, "Context Remixed: Colossians and Empire," describing this new empire.
According to W&K, Generation X-ers are caught between a postmodern ideology that welcomes diversity and denies all absolutes and a cybernetic consumerist ideology that strives to promote the latest and the greatest. While many think of Gen X-ers as anti-materialistic, W&K argue that this generation actually gravitates quite naturally toward the materialistic world. In fact, W&K find some striking bonds between these two ideologies: whereas in the consumerist world one is free to pick and choose one's style, wardrobe, electronic equipment, etc., so in postmodernism one is free to pick and choose one's own beliefs, morals, and values. Just as the latest styles and trends are always in flux, so also is truth. One is free to create herself into whoever she desires to be. Only, according to W&K, here's the catch: we aren't free. The empire of global capitalism has systemically established its influence and power over our lives; it has stolen our dreams and replaced them with its own commercialistic images; it has hypnotically indoctrinated us with the myth of endless progress; and in order to secure its influence in our lives and in the world, it has established economic and military control of unprecedented proportions.
In order to understand the implications of living in this modern empire, W&K paint as vivid of a picture as they can of the imperial context in which Paul originally wrote, combining various genres--narrative, historical fiction, dialogue, essay, and even targum--to accomplish this end. They argue that Christianity is just as counter-cultural (or counter-imperial) today as it would have been in the Roman world. Thus, according to W&K, the Colossians in our Bible is as much a subversive political tract as it is an otherworldly theological treatise, and it should be read that way today.
One of the biggest difficulties many Gen X-ers have with the Bible is the impression it gives of dogmatic, absolute truth. In Part Two, "Truth Remixed: Contested Imaginations," W&K argue just the opposite. They argue that while the ancient Roman and modern capitalist empires takes imaginations captive and molds them into its own way of thinking (e.g. Caesar is All, bigger is better, etc.), Colossians subverts these controlling mindsets by offering a different story that awakens the imagination. Any empire knows that in order to control a people, one must control their imagination. This is done by making people forget their history, by erasing their story, and by instilling a new regime of truth. A regime of truth is any prevailing, controlling ideology or worldview that boxes in the imagination. All empires must use them, because they are the bases for control. An imagination is the ability to tell a different story, and thus to live and produce fruit outside the confines of the established regime of truth. Thus, according to W&K, the Bible (and Colossians specifically) is not another regime of truth, but rather, it serves to "engender an alternative imagination that subverts the rule of idolatry and sets us free to bear the fruit of the gospel in every dimension of our lives" (144). Truth becomes "not a correspondence between ideas and facts," but a covenantal, incarnational relationship (130). W&K then proceed in Part Three, "Praxis Remixed: Subversive Ethics," to describe how this understanding can produce fruit in our lives today by subverting the imperial values with a liberating, counter-cultural Christian ethic.
Like any attempt to update an old classic, Colossians Remixed has moments that capture the essence of the original in a profoundly insightful, fresh way, and moments that leave one nostalgically longing for the original in its original form. Though presented in a readable fashion, W&K are no pushovers in their exegetical skills. Thus, their ability to make Colossians come alive in the original context of the Roman Empire displays both impressive hermeneutical ability and creative skill. This is perhaps most poignantly presented in their historical-fictional narratives of Nympha and Onesimus. In reading W&K's epistle from Onesimus to Paul, one is struck by the shocking way in which Paul's message of the gospel turns the social structures of Roman life upside-down. Likewise, the story of Nympha's trial vividly illustrates the true subversiveness of the Colossian Christological hymn. Through these narratives, as well as other presentations in the book, W&K make their point loud and undeniably: Colossians was truly a subversive text.
The jump from Colossians subverting the Roman Empire to Colossians subverting today's empire is a bit more difficult to make. Yet, here too W&K do a convincing job. By establishing the four common characteristics of all empires, they are able to portray Western consumerism as the empire of all empires. However, because Western consumerism is not quite as well defined as Roman Imperialism, W&K spend much of the book equivocating between different meanings of the modern empire. In some passages, they seem to be discussing a general Western consumerist ideology; in other passages they focus more on the corporate-capitalist world; while in still other passages they refer directly to American economic and political practices. While these three understandings are clearly inter-related, at times it is difficult to nail down precisely who or what W&K are talking about. Thus, while their overall analysis and diagnosis of the current situation is quite defensible, they sometimes resort to one-sided caricatures of more nuanced situations in order to prove their point. For example, without any references to support their statements, W&K dogmatically assert that
"the U.S. administration was willing to go to war against Iraq under the false pretenses of 'weapons of mass destruction,' supposed connections to Al Qaeda and 9/11, and the 'liberation' of Iraq... A war-mongering empire should find no support from a community that worships the Prince of Peace." (182)
While I agree with this statement and believe their point about Christians promoting peace admits a world of turmoil is well taken (and serves as a strong, much-needed corrective to much of today's evangelical, pro-war rhetoric), their argument is weakened a bit by the rhetoric they employ.
Notwithstanding a few overstatements on their part, W&K diagnose the contemporary climate quite well in light of their reading of Colossians. But describing a problem is one thing; prescribing solutions is another. Here Colossians Remixed gets mixed reviews. For in parts One and Two, W&K argue adamantly against absolutes that hit one in the face, yet in certain sections of Part Three, that is precisely the impression one feels: being hit in the face with absolutes (only now the absolutes are not prescribed by Paul, but by two twenty-first century interpreters of Paul). For example, in their discussion of an ecological ethic, they ask, "Is [the issue of baby's diapers] a matter of Christian integrity? Yes, it is. Christians committed to ecological restoration and peace will want to put cloth diapers on their baby's bottom..." (197). In this single instance, they have alienated a good deal of their well-meaning Christian brothers and sisters who do not hold similar convictions of excrement disposal. In keeping consistent with the relational nature of their reading of Colossians and their understanding of truth, it would seem that they would desire to describe how their imaginations are cultivated and worked out in the world, and then invite others to express their imaginations in ways they see fit to promote shalom. Instead it sometimes feels as if they are trying to encourage imagination on the one hand and tell others how their imagination should play out on the other.
In the final analysis, then, this remix of Colossians allows Paul's music to be heard to previously tone-deaf ears, and for that it accomplishes much. While W&K's rubric of subverting the empire offers a deeper understanding of the contemporary situation in the materialistic West as well as the original context in Colossae, there are still a few spots in this book where Paul might not be able to recognize his own song.
The basis thesis is that in the letter to the Colossians, Paul (or deutero Paul, although the authors sidestep this controversy) was transmitting a strong anti-imperial message. "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God [and therefore you, Caesar aren't]." "Through him all things were made ... whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers [get it, Casear? You are not only subject to the true Lord of all, you are his creation]" "In him all things hold together [and so we don't need your Pax Romana]" "In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell [so no, Caesar, you are not divine]"
They then apply the letter to the 21st Century. The parallels are striking. As in the time when the letter is written, one nation has acquired hegemony over the known world. As in that time, the world power is full of hubris. As in that time, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. As in that time, military might is being used to dominate the less fortunate. As in that time, our true god (the one we confess with our actions) is not the creator and covenant God of Israel, but rather the false god of economic security and unlimited growth (i.e., Mammon).
"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?"
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