A New 21 Century Theology?

When I started this project of Net Prophets six weeks ago I set out my purposes. I wanted first to compile the resources from prophetic voices available in video on the internet for understanding the Christian faith. After that I wanted to then distill those resources to give what I perceive to be the direction (or at least A direction) of twenty first century religious thought.

The first part would be quite easy, though time consuming. It would involve lots of searching the internet and recording the results. So far I have posted lists of videos available for four of my selected ‘Net Prophets’: Borg, Spong, Crossan, and Brueggemann. I have ten more in process and have found myself spending hours compiling and watching the videos. [Update July 2015: I currently have 20 Net Prophets.]

However, in one of Bruegemann’s talks he recommended a couple books to follow up what he had been talking about. They were “Galatians Re-Imagined” and “Subversive Meals” That led me again onto the internet, but this time it was to Amazon. I’m a bit conflicted about supporting the monopolistic bent of Amazon. But I love it for the information on books it provides. So I thought I would take a break from videos and do a little poking around, beginning with the two books Bruegemann had recommended.

If you’ve look at books on Amazon you likely have also discovered how much you can learn about a book there. Typically, it includes a couple paragraphs from the publisher to tell you what the book covers and perhaps a couple sentences on the author or authors. It often has several blurbs from other scholars recommending the book. If they are some of your favorite writers, then, all the better for judging the book. Additionally, there are usually a number of reviews to learn not only more about the content, but also whether others have found it helpful. Finally, and often most helpful, it lets you click on the book icon for getting a sample of what is inside the book.

Overall, there is enough to give you a pretty good idea about the book. Certainly enough for me to begin to develop what my seminary professors called an annotated bibliography.

So I looked at the information on the books Brueggemann recommended.

Galatians Re-Imagined: Galatia is not a geographical area, it is an attitude of dissent. The “Law” Paul talks about is the law of the Roman Empire. Don’t obey the expectations of Rome. Kahl brings to this insightful reading of Galatians a deep knowledge of the classical world and especially of Roman imperial ideology. The first wave of scholarship on the Roman imperial context of Paul’s letters raised important questions that only thorough treatments of individual letters can answer.”

     Subversive Meals examines the Lord’s Supper within the sociopolitical context of first-century Roman domination, and concludes that it was an anti-imperial praxis [process]. The Roman meal supported the empire’s ideology, honored Caesar and the gods, reinforced stratification among the masses, and upheld Rome’s right to rule the world. The Christian meal, on the other hand, included hymns that extolled Jesus as Lord, prophecies that challenged Rome’s ideological claims, and letters–read aloud–that promoted egalitarianism and instructed believers on how to live according to kingdom of God principles. Hence, the Christian banquet was an act of nonviolent resistance.”

Hmmm… Both refer to the Roman Empire as the setting for their study. It doesn’t sound like the take on the Empire I remember from earlier New Testament studies. In those, the empire was seen as a positive factor. In those earlier writings the author saw ‘Rome’ as a peaceful political entity which provided good roads that made it easier to spread the Good News across the civilized world. And there were common languages, Greek and Roman, which made it easier for a bi-lingual Paul to preach the Gospel far and wide.

But these new two books pointed to a darker side of the Empire. They speak to what the everyday political and social climate was like living under the might of the Roman emperors. The author of “Subversive Meals” refers to it as “the sociopolitical context of first-century Roman domination”. Brueggemann, one of the earlier writers on this theme, set the stage for this empire perspective of the Bible. As an Old Testament scholar he came at the issue through the history of the Jews who, not only lived under the sword of Rome, but who had experienced the heavy hand of first the Egyptian pharaoh and later succession of empires: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman.

We find this same approach in John Dominic Crossan In God and Empire he contrasts the Empire with Jesus’ message. “Crossan reveals what the Bible has to say about land and economy, violence and retribution, justice and peace, and, ultimately, redemption. In contrast to the oppressive Roman military occupation of the first century, he examines the meaning of the non-violent Kingdom of God prophesied by Jesus and the equality advocated by Paul to the early Christian churches” 

Sighting over the fence posts of Brueggemann’s and Crossan’s interpretations of Old and New Testament we can see one more of the videos in-line with the same thought. I haven’t put it on the blog yet, but it is the third lecture by the teacher-preacher, Robin Meyers. In his Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School his presentation is called “Faith as Resistance to Empire”, and he places the Gospel then- and now- in opposition to empire.

I don’t know how many more of my Net Prophets I’ll find proclaiming the same perspective on the Gospel. But, taking a respite from video watching, i decided I would look to see if there were other books, like the two Brueggemann recommended, that place the Good News responding to the socio-political realities that first century Christians had to respond to and live their lives out in the midst of. It is certainly not a perspective that the present day church sees as relevant. We seem to be pretty much ‘at ease in Zion.’

I recalled my time of study on the Doctor of Ministry at seminary. It was in the days when only the seminary library had access to a computer for making searches. In order to search data bases you had to give the computer key words for which to search. ‘Key words’ wasn’t academic enough, so they had another term, ‘descriptor’. You put in two or more descriptors separated by an ‘and’. The computer would then spit out a long sheet in dot matrix with your result. Ah, the old days.

So I worked to come up with two sets of descriptors here. On one side I thought of terms like, Bible, Church, theology, Jesus, Paul. On the other I thought of Roman, Empire, domination, subversive. Then it was back to making searches on Amazon using my descriptors

I’m still doing searches, but the results to date have given me 40 separate titles. I expect to get more as I come up with more descriptors. Most of these books are a re-look at the Bible or particular books of the Bible from this new perspective, through the realities of empire. As the blurb for the book on Galatians says, “The first wave of scholarship on the Roman imperial context of Paul’s letters raised important questions that only thorough treatments of individual letters can answer.” Of these 40 books, about 90% of them have been published in the 21st century, indicating that this is a new wave of Biblical understanding.

Interestingly, one of the latest of these books is a reaction against this new perspective, which they term ‘Empire Criticism.’ This new wave has not yet hit many of the clergy, let alone the people in the pews. But this book, “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not”, is ready to build a sea-wall against it before it even hits the shore. By reading the Amazon info on the book and reading the blog of one of the authors one discovers why. The writers are conservative evangelicals who see Christianity involved with individual decision and worry that church members might get a perspective of the Gospel wider than seeking to have ‘Jesus in my heart’ or a ticket to heaven. It’s not that a personal decision is unimportant to the Gospel, but is that the main focus of the Bible?

Christianity is not completed by having Jesus in one’s heart. Any more than it’s completed by having the right theology in one’s head, whether conservative or progressive. Before we were called Christians we were called ‘People of the Way’. We are called to live the life of the Kingdom that Jesus claimed is now present. Living in that Kingdom is done over against the Empire that pervades our lives and tries to convince us there is no other power or truth than the power and truth of the Empire. But “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Is this the outline of a new Twenty-First theology? If so, what would it be called?

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