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April & May Books

Well, overdue as usual, but better late than never.  Pardon the typos; I’ll edit later.
1. Paul, Poverty and Survival by Justin J. Meggitt.
Over the last one hundred years, the study of the socioeconomic status of Paul and his churches (including the members therein) have moved from an ‘old consensus’ to a ‘new consensus’.  The ‘old consensus’ is represented by the likes of Karl Kautsky and Adolf Deissmann who proposed that Paul and his churches were representatives of a revolutionary community arising from the proletariat — the poor and oppressed masses of the Roman empire.  For awhile, this argument gained a great deal of credibility amongst scholars — hence, the language of ‘consensus’.
However, this consensus was challenged more and more as time went on, until scholars like Abraham Malherbe, and (most especially) Gerd Theissen began to gain a wide reading and convinced many that Paul was actually a person with relatively high status and wealth (given his Roman citizenship, his ability to travel, his mention of wealthy supporting patrons or patronesses, and the way in which he is said to have rubbed shoulders with some influential people) and so Paul’s churches were now understood to contain a mix of people — some poor, some rich, some influential, some not.  Indeed, even within this mix, it was proposed that the rich and influential few were actually likely the ones responsible for leading and sustaining Paul and his churches.  This, then, became a new consensus — one that continues to operate today.
It is this consensus that Meggitt challenges and, in my opinion , actually refutes (scholars like Robert Jewett, Peter Oakes and Neil Elliott have been convinced by Meggitt’s thesis, so I’m in good company here!).
Meggitt convincingly shows the way in which current proponents of the ‘new consensus’ tend to rely upon out-dated arguments that do not factor into consideration our increasing knowledge of the Roman empire, and the socioeconomic milieu of Paul and his churches.  Instead seeing Paul as a person with relatively high status and wealth and instead of seeing Paul’s churches as relying upon a wealthy and influential component, Meggitt argues that Paul and his churches were poor — living mostly at or just above or below the subsistence level (i.e. damn poor!) — and devoid of influential members.  Consequently, Paul and his churches are able to survive because of their reliance upon a radical and concrete network of economic ‘mutualism’ (most powerfully demonstrated by Paul’s focus upon the Collection).
Of course, all of this has significant implications, not only for how we understand Paul, but for how we might  go about following in Paul’s footsteps today.  I suspect that these implications are a large part of the reason why Meggitt’s book has been ignored in certain scholarly circles.  Just as with other ‘political’ or ‘counter-imperial’ readings of Paul (although all readings of Paul are political!) those who hold power and influence find it easier to ignore Meggitt than to recognize his work and engage him.
2. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) by Bart D. Ehrman.  New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Many thanks to Mike from The Ooze Viral Bloggers for this review copy!
This is my first time reading a book by Ehrman (although I did reflect upon his debate with N. T. Wright on the theme of suffering [see here]).  He is quite articulate and, despite what his (largely Evangelical) critics have to say, he comes across as a gracious dialogue partner.
This book is largely dedicated to explaining (at a popular level) the ways in which an historical-critical reading of the Bible problematizes a good many (popular level ) assumptions about the Bible as a sacred text.  Thus, Ehrman highlights matters related (a) historical and theological contradictions between various books in the New Testament; (b) the authorship of the various NT documents; (c) an alternative understanding of the ‘historical Jesus’ (over against C. S. Lewis’ understanding of Jesus as a ‘liar, lunatic, or lord’, Ehrman presents Jesus as an apocalyptic Jewish prophet, who never made any claims to be divine — and whose earliest followers also never understood him as divine); (d) matters related to the formation of the canon; and (e) the influence of latter voices — especially the ‘proto-Orthodox’ church — upon the formation of Christianity and the ways in which the Bible is mis/read.
In all of this, Ehrman isn’t doing anything particularly new — nor does he claim to be doing anything new.  Rather, Ehrman is simply following in the footsteps of the Jesus Seminar, and continuing to get that message out.
For the most part, I didn’t find Ehrman’s book to be too troubling (as ‘Conservatives’ might) or too exciting (as ‘Liberals’ might).  I have already accepted a lot of what Ehrman is saying — there are contradictions in the Bible, the Christian tradition has always been marked by conflicts and competing views on pretty much everything, and so on and so forth — but, as Ehrman says many times, the acceptance of these things hasn’t really disturbed my faith.  Certainly it has problematized my own relationship to my faith tradition(s) and my Scriptures, but my faith was never grounded in any of the things that Ehrman (mostly rightly) wants to deconstruct.
That said, there are some places where Ehrman’s argument is fairly weak.  For example, Ehrman argues that contemporary readers should not try to coordinate the different accounts found in the four Gospels.  To do so, Ehrman writes, is to create a fifth, completely fabricated, Gospel.  Instead, we should simply read each Gospel on its own, and let is say to us, what it wishes to say.  Now, I’m all for reading each Gospel on its own in that way, but to read the Gospels together — even to step towards a ‘fifth Gospel’ — isn’t such a bad thing.  Indeed, Ehrman does precisely this himself!  He, too, engages in some historical reconstruction and speculation, postulating a certain series of events around some of the Gospel stories (like Judas’ betrayal of Jesus).  Thus, Ehrman creates his own (historical-critical) fifth Gospel and ends up doing precisely what he urges others not to do.
To pick a second example, we could look at the way in which Ehrman gets around commenting on the miracle stories in the Gospels.  Historical criticism, he argues, cannot speak about the so-called miracles because miracles, by definition, fall outside of historical-critical discourse.  Now, there is something a little humourous going on here.  Ehrman is, in fact, playing a game with definitions.  First, he defines historical criticism as the study of past events based upon ‘the relative probability that they occurred’ and then he defines miracles as events that are virtually (if not actually) impossible, and therefore almost never occur.  So, if one’s study is based upon the relatively probable, one cannot comment upon the almost impossible.  Now that’s a well and good… accept if we employ a different definition of a ‘miracle’!  I see no reason why a miracle must be defined by the likelihood of it happening.  If we do that, then we can’t so easily skip over the miracle stories.
To take a third example, Ehrman claims to be representing scholarly opinion on the matters under discussion, but he seems to be woefully unaware (or deliberately ignorant?) of the ways in which discussion of these matters has developed since, oh, the early nineties.  In discussing the Christology of the early disciples, Ehrman seems to present a position that has been, if not refuted, then significantly challenged, by the likes of Larry Hurtado.  The same goes for Ehrman’s discussion of the authorship of the Gospels — has he really not heard of Richard Bauckham’s recent book on this subject?  Yet, Ehrman simply repeats old arguments without developing them to address new (and rather devastating) challenges.  So, while Ehrman claims to be teaching members of the public ‘secrets’ that have been kept from them, it seems like he is keeping a few secrets of his own!
Anyway, all that to say that I enjoyed this book — it was a quick read and it let me see what is going on in other areas of discussion (while also reminding me of some debates that I have mostly avoided) — even if I didn’t always agree with it.
3. Evangelicals and Empire. Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo. Edited by Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel.  Forward by Nicholas Wolterstorff. Afterword by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008.
Many thanks to Robert at Baker Academic for this review copy — I usually stay away from books that are compilations of essays, but I was very keen to read this one!
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s collaborative works on the current empire of global capitalism and the multitude that is (and can) rise up to confront it, are two of the most interesting books I have read over the last few years.  Consequently, I was quite excited to discover this collection of essays written in response to Hardt and Negri.
However, as with any collection of essays, the material is rather hit and miss.  I was a bit disappointed by the degree to which some authors engaged Hardt and Negril.  Jim Wallis, for example, doesn’t engage Hardt and Negri at all, nor does he say anything that differs much from what he has said a thousand times before (was he just included in the collection because he is a big name right now [I noticed that Wallis’ essay is a reprint of a piece first published in 2003]?).  I was also a bit disappointed with, um, how dull some of the essays were (notably Corey D. B. Walker’s piece).  To write dull responses to Hardt and Negri is surely a betrayal of their project, which is anything but dull!  Worst of all, however, was the elitist and dictatorial bullshit penned by John Milbank.  His essay is only useful in that it provides us with an illustration of everything that Hardt and Negri stand against (as they should).
There were also some essays that would have excited me quite a bit in the past, but which now seem to be of questionable value.  In this regard, the essay by James K. A. Smith stands out the most.  What Smith does is argue that Hardt and Negri’s criticisms of empire are insufficient because they are operating with a (libertarian and value free) conception of freedom that is intimately connected to empire.  Therefore, Smith proposes that we return to a more Augustinian conception of freedom as teleological and bound to the common good.
Now this is all well and good (apart from Smith’s participation in recent acritical appeals to Augustine… who, it should be noted, wasn’t afraid to wield power in a dictatorial and death-dealing way, regardless of what he wrote about ‘freedom’ and ‘the common good’), but where does this end up leading us?  Does Smith’s lovely conception of freedom end up making Smith more free than anybody else?  Does it lead Smith to engaging in any sort of concrete liberating activity?  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the answer to both of these questions is ‘no’.  Smith, despite his lovely ideological angle on these themes, continues to be just as deeply immersed within the disciplined and disciplining industry of the Academy — he remains rooted in close proximity to places of status and privilege, and continues to perpetuate the structures and systems of a society that is anything but free.  Indeed, it seems to me that — even if Negri’s thinking on freedom is flawed — at least he has been far more committed to a liberating praxis (and, it should be noted, has paid a much greater price in his pursuit of both freedom and the common good).  So, if the proof is really in the pudding, then there must be a fundamental flaw in Smith’s way of thinking.  Either that or Smith doesn’t actually believe what he himself says.
Anyway, these points of criticism aside, there were also half a dozen excellent essays in this collection, most notably those by Mark Lewis Taylor (on empire, ethics and transcendence), Amos Yong and Samuel Zalanga (on empire and multitude in relation to pentacostalism, North America, and Sub-Saharan Africa), and Mario Costa, Catherine Keller and Anna Mercedes (on theopolitics and love in the context of empire).  These were fascinating engagements that took Hardt and Negri seriously while also extending or challenging their writings.
All in all, a pretty decent collection of essays.
4. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism by Alain Badiou.
I found this book to be an absolutely fascinating reading of Paul.  Badiou may be misreading Paul on multiple points, but I think that he gets a lot correct and, even more intriguingly, I find that he perfectly accurately describes the reason why I, myself, am a Christian.  Apart from the (apocalyptic) Event — which, for Paul, was his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus — being a Christian doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
That personal note aside, Badiou reads Paul as a revolutionary anti-philosopher, who sets out to overturn both Greek wisdom and Jewish law (which, by the way, makes Nietzche Paul’s rival not his enemy), and bears witness to the Event, in order to form a new subject that bears both truth and liberating power.  This subject then, continues to exist as a revolutionary against all the structures of this world, in order to be an agent of the new.
Now that all sounds rather dry and perhaps a wee bit ho-hum, but the truth is that this is an exceptionally interesting book that deserves to be read not only by those who are interested in contemporary French philosophy, but also by those who are interested in studying the New Testament.  (The truth is that this is the last book review I’m writing in this post and I’m too tired to go on about it in detail!)
5. Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard.
In this book, Baudrillard spends quite a bit of time developing and illustrating his thinking regarding society, simulacra, and nihilism.  Personally, I found the first and last chapters (‘The Procession of Simulacra’ and ‘On Nihilism’) to be excellent, but the rest was a bit more mixed.
Inhe first essay, Baudrillard develops his thinking on our current post-spectacular society — the society of the simulacra.  I refer to this as ‘post-spectacular’ because it seems to me that Baudrillard is drawing on Debord’s thoughts on the society of the spectacle (wherein all relationships are mediated by images) but also pressing beyond Debord in his understanding of all images as simulacra — copies without originals — and all relationships as simulations (wherein one feigns to have what one does not have).  Thus, Baudrillard traces the following phases of the image:

  1. it is the reflection of a profound reality;
  2. it masks and denatures a profound reality;
  3. it masks the absence of a profound reality;
  4. it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

He then comments on these phases and writes:

In the first case, the image is a good appearance–representation is of the sacramental order.  In the second, it is an evil appearance–it is of the order of maleficence.  In the third, it plays at being an appearance–it is of the order of sorcery.  In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.

Thus, then, leads to something of a total crisis of representation and the collapse of metaphysics and (access to) meaning.  Therefore, we mass produce simulacra — which cannot even be called ‘illusions’ because ‘the real is no longer possible’ — in order to hide the fact that ‘the real never was’.  All we have are simulacra and simulation.
No wonder, then, that Baudrillard is left with the embrace of nihilism.
6. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy.
Because I happened to be reading this book at the same time as Sigrid Undset’s trilogy set in medieval Norway (see 7 & 8 below), I was struck by the thought that McCarthy could well be writing contemporary fairy tales.  Undset reminded me of how people used to tell stories about evil kings who would live in the mountain and kidnap the daughters of the local farmers, and so on.
I thought of this because McCarthy’s story is about a homeless and not altogether right in the head fellow (‘a child of God much like yourself perhaps’) who lives on abandoned farms and then in a cave (in the American South), and who haunts the locals much like a troll or the old mountain king.  I don’t want to say too much so as not to spoil the story, but I continue to be captivated by McCarthy’s narrative voice — quite literally, I find his writing to be entrancing.  Just as with The Road, I ended up reading this (small) book from cover-to-cover in a single day.
I would be interested in hearing more of what others think of McCarthy.
7 & 8. The Wreath and The Wife by Sigrid Undset.
These are the first two books in Undset’s trilogy about Kristin Lavransdatter.  The are set in Norway in the 14th century, and tell the story of Kristin — from childhood to old age — and all the people around her.  Because I am currently reading the third book, I save my remarks about this series until next month (when I should be done).

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  1. What’s the title of the Milbank response to empire? Is it the essay he wrote post 9/11? It is reprinted in the new collection of political theology. Anyway, I thought that piece was excellent and in it the criticism of Empire was pretty fair I think, so I think this must be a different text.

  2. I continue to enjoy your fascinating reviews of fascinating books that need reading.
    I’d like to question your attack on Smith though. For your critique to really work, you have to demonstrate how more than one of those who criticize Hardt/Negri are privileged and expand a bit on how Hardt/Negri have made personal sacrifices to live by what they espouse – otherwise it comes across as just random. (I’ve never heard of them before now, so I don’t have the context to understand.)

  3. Cool list. I just picked up Badiou’s Paul book recently. I’m reading Logics of Worlds right now as part of my Badiou kick. It’s a bit of a strange read; he insists that he is describing objects without any reference to a viewing subject, yet it is quite obvious to me that everything he says is dependent on exactly that sort of transcendental ego. I’ll hold off on that judgment for now, because I can’t imagine the guy making such a huge blunder.
    When I do read the Paul book, I’d be up for an exchange of ideas based on it, if you have the time for that sort of thing. I’ll read it much sooner if you’re interested.
    As for McCarthy, Child of God is the only McCarthy book that I haven’t loved. I did end up in a vicious circle of I’m-not-enjoying-this-so-I’ll-read-faster-and-less-attentively-and-so-enjoy-it-less, so maybe a second read would change my opinion.
    For my money, Blood Meridian is far and away his finest novel, outpacing No Country, the Road and the Border Trilogy. Select paragraphs from BM left me satisfied and exhausted the way sex does.

  4. Patrik:
    My problem with Milbank’s essay (‘Liberality vs. Liberalism’) isn’t so much his criticism of Empire as his proposed solution. His criticism is mostly okay, his solution is not at all okay.
    As far as I can tell, Smith lives the life of a relatively privileged academic. Negri, on the other hand, has lived in exile and been imprisoned because of his commitments to resisting Empire.
    Yeah, I remember reading your review of ‘Blood Meridian’. I think it will be the next McCarthy book that I read.
    I would also be down for some sort of exchange or dialogue on Badiou’s book about Paul. Just let me know what you have in mind. I reckon I’m a bit more familiar with Paul, but I’m certain that you have a much better understanding of Badiou, so maybe we could bring this different perspectives to bear on the topic at hand.

  5. On Smith:
    I question holding any one person’s life as a test for the validity of an argument written in an essay. If the essay has truth in it but doesn’t necessarily translate to the truth in the author’s life I would not discount the truth of the essay. The history of philosophers and theologians whose life choices are, shall we say, not quite righteous should not lead us to discount all that they have written.
    At best it is tricky to judge who is living a better life which is a position that I find uncomfortable. It isn’t that the life of an author sheds absolutely no light on the text, it may have some factor in accepting the ideas but I do not think a rigorous evaluation of a text relies solely on the authors lifestyle as an example of the truth that they claim.
    On McCarthy:
    My two favorite books are The Road and Gilead. McCarthy fulfills the role of the barren wasteland that life is without meaning which I resonate with. Gilead is the secured and nearly boring life of the righteous that compliments wisdom and religious ritual. But McCarthy is the more starkly poetic and the more striking. The Road is my favorite but The Crossing comes close in its utter despairing in its main character (especially if you finish the Trilogy). Yet with all the it’s environs of meaninglessness, Cormac still has good guys and bad guys and compelling narratives that invokes value and virtue and the question is, “how the hell does he cull so much meaning out of such a bleak worldview?” I only have a very incomplete answer. In The Border Trilogy, Outer Dark and The Road at least there is one person or (in The Crossing) animal that propels the lead characters into a world (in the Zizek sense – a cohesive understanding) and gives them an undeniable purpose. I see this as Badiou’s Event and the way the characters interact in the novels it really is a type of irrevocable Apocalyptic Event that forever shapes them and the way they experience life. It is always a faint light in the darkness of the books but it is made all the more compelling because of its weakness.
    Sorry for the long comment, I guess I had a lot to get off my chest.

  6. Halden:
    I agree. Damn good trilogy. I actually picked it up because somebody had mentioned it in a comment on your blog some time back, and this was my first chance to get around to reading it.
    Your comment has inspired me to write another post on why there is no such thing as disembodied truth. More to follow.
    Right, I knew that about Hardt. That’s why, in the part of my post when I made this point, you will notice that I only mention Negri. That was deliberate.

  7. Read the Badiou text as part of a “new perspectives on Paul” course this spring. Rich stuff! I think our discussion circled around trying to pin down what it would mean to relate to an event you are anticipating (but hasn’t “happened” yet), and that Badiou’s telling of the story of Pauline Christianity necessarily involves a subsequent falling away from faithfulness to the event that Badiou doesn’t address well enough.
    I agree though, the book has a better description of the beginning of faith than I’ve come across elsewhere.

  8. Dan,
    After stumbling across another review of Evangelicals and Empire and remembering this one, I’m even less convinced by your critique of James K.A. Smith.
    First, you describe him as dissenting from Hardt and Negri because they operate with a “(libertarian and value free) conception of freedom.” Then you blast Smith because his “lovely” concept of freedom isn’t making him more free or leading him to engage in “concrete liberating activity.” Maybe he’s a hypocrite, as you suggest – or maybe he has a different understanding of freedom and liberty than you do, as he suggests, which leads him to different actions! If so, he could still be wrong, but then he would not be a hypocrite.
    Second, your punchline is that Smith “remains rooted in close proximity to places of status and privilege,” unlike Negri. But this seems to only come up because you dislike Smith’s critique. All the other contributors, many of whom are obviously “relatively privileged academic[s],” avoid any mention of their lives – even though by your logic their privileges should equally invalidate their more positive appraisals.