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If Not Empire, What?: A Survey of the Bible Paperback – December 1, 2014
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If Not Empire, What? is an enormously refreshing alternative. The authors present a robust, impassioned argument that biblical scripture is to be understood from the get-go as "resistance to empire," where empire means a self-enriching system working through economic and military power at a global level. This is an up-front and declared interpretive principle, and one borne out in multiple readings taking us through the whole Christian biblical canon from Genesis to Revelation. But underlying this principle is one even more exciting. It is the fact of the bible's writing as a long historical self-criticism and self-deconstruction in which the compositional moment and situation are as important as the text itself. In this connection the sixth-century experience of Exile played an absolutely pivotal creative role in the bible's final meaning.
Perhaps the great example is Genesis: placed strategically at the beginning of the whole book, it was written by "Israelites living in Babylon under Persian rule." These people told stories that "portrayed their ancestors as flawed and YHWH as a god who subverts conventional notions about how the world works." As preface to the bible it is meant to condition everything after it and the arc of its own storyline flies like a bird from violence to forgiveness.
The logic in the bible then leads unfailingly to the nonviolent cross and its simultaneous revelation of core human violence and the possibility of love. The very fact of this long-arc and impossible logic suggests a transcendent guiding force. For all those seeking to read the bible from the p.o.v. of its compositional--and therefore anthropological--story, rather than a magical textual surface, If Not Empire, What? is an invaluable resource. The bible, rather than being fetishized as a print-out of God's arbitrary and violent ego-mania, becomes an algorithm of human transformation--one that is itself the true revelation of a G-d of love.
Necessarily with a survey of something as big as the whole bible there are bound to be differences on detail and emphasis. One thing I would have liked would have been a greater stress on resurrection--as itself a definitive victory over empire and its most feared instrument, death. However, the method which Stoner and Friesen use just of itself leads to that kind of reflection. To understand the bible as a long struggle against violence, overturning its final power in human life, is itself a hermeneutic of resurrection. Written in sturdy straightforward layman's terms, I cannot recommend this book too highly.
The authors lead us on an informed journey through the living wrestling match called Scripture. Head-on, they face often-ignored texts, obvious controversies, paradoxical passages, allegorical and mythical insertions, and the vagaries of the most engaged and truthful prophets.
In place of an external religious event that somehow happens to us, the authors invite readers into a vibrant living faith that transforms us as we join a communal transformation that ultimately revitalizes all that exists. They return to us the often-forfeited truth that, as all we can do is act, so ethics must again become for us socio-political engagement.
Thus, as Jesus gifted the Kingdom of God among us, so it can only come to fruition among us. Yes, in spite of who and what we often are.