June Books

Well, I was hoping that Reno might write back regarding my response to his article about “the preferential option for the poor,” since I emailed him a copy of what I wrote and invited him to dialogue.  Unfortunately, he has not responded (despite the fact that my article now appears twice on the first page of google search results for “r.r. reno”).  Regardless, when I did my May book reviews, I promised to do two posts before writing more reviews and those are now completed.  Here, then, are the books I read in June.
1.  Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman.
In many ways, this was a a groundbreaking book when it was first published almost one hundred years ago.  In it, Berkman, who was imprisoned for shooting a (literally) murderous corporate boss bent on busting the organization of labour in the United States, reveals the extent of the abuse and corruption found within American prisons while also speaking about other forbidden subjects like homosexuality within the context of prison.
Initially, Berkman isn’t a very likeable character.  Because he views himself as something of a martyr and political prisoner who laid down his life for a cause on behalf of “the people,” he looks down on other criminals as leeches on society.  When other labourers disagree with his actions, he wonders if they deserve the death penalty.  When some speak of homosexuality, he considers such practices disgusting and inhuman.  And, although he says he is acting in solidarity with the working class, when working class people wish to speak with him (like on the train when he is on the way to shoot Frick), he would rather pretend to read than have any actual interactions.
It is interesting, then, to see how his positions on all these issues change and mature during the years he spends in prison.  He learns true solidarity.  He learns to empathize with other inmates and realizes criminals are not the problem but that social structures (and prisons) are the problem, and he develops some truly deep feelings for other inmates (he even shocks himself to discover that he would be thrilled to have the opportunity to kiss one particular fellow).  It was good to see Berkman’s character develop, although I can’t say he ends up being completely likeable… he still comes across as something of a pompous ass… the sort of fellow you don’t really want representing movements for life-giving change…
Still, I found this book to be a fascinating study and I would consider it to be recommended reading.  Furthermore, lest anybody think that Berkman’s prison experience is far different than the experiences of contemporary inmates — abusive authorities, the pimping of prison workers as cheap labour for corporate interests and so on — one only need to read something like this article to recall that things aren’t much different today.
2. The State of Exception by Giorgio Agamben.
One hears a lot of talk about the notion of “the state of exception” due largely (as for as I can tell) to a resurgence of interest in the writing of Carl Schmitt.  Given the ways  in which it is frequently employed, I wasn’t sure how much I was going to get from this book by Agamben, but I’m very glad I read it.  For some time I’ve been thinking that the next piece of writing I want to do is a more detailed study of Paul, the Law, and the anarchy of grace (continuing the trend of those who read Paul’s references to “the Law” as including reference to the Laws of society and not just some sort of Jewish religious Law) and texts like this one are very relevant.
One of the things I found interesting as I was reading this book is thinking about the ways in which anarchism differs from the Law.  Of course, anarchists are in/famous for rejecting the Law but, given that the Law itself is based upon the state of exception, I was wondering if it is the anarchists who are actually the true legalists.  This may be so in some ways…
Anyway, this is recommended reading.
3. Zettel by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I should confess that I often find Wittgenstein more difficult to understand than other philosophers.  Perhaps this is because I’m reading truncated pieces from journals that were never published in his lifetime, perhaps it’s because he really is harder to understand (although I wonder about that since I’m working through Being and Time write now and feel that I understand it better than this collection…), perhaps it’s because he really isn’t going on about anything all that fascinating in this text.  I’m undecided.  I do believe that Wittgenstein has played a significant role in my own development — in my understanding of language and in my own thoughts on meaning — but I can’t say that this particular text moved me very much.
4. The Laxdaela Saga.
Well, I continue to chip away at the Icelandic sagas.  I can’t say I enjoyed this one as much as the previous ones.  It felt a bit more choppy and haphazard in parts, although the last half that developed around a prophecy related to one woman and the four husbands she would have in the course of her life was pretty good. Regardless, I continue to find it fun reading literature from worlds that died a long, long time ago.  It also makes me grateful for modern amenities… indoor plumbing, central heating, anesthetics, antibiotics… life ain’t so bad these days.  Back in the day, those were some tough mothafuckas.  Men and women (and that’s one of the things I like about the Icelandic sagas — the female characters are just as strong as the male characters).

5. A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body by Lauren Weedman.
I stumbled into this book one day when my wife was going through some of the thing she had in storage.  I didn’t even notice the title — just picked it up and started reading (which made her ask me if I was going through “another lesbian feminist phase” when she noticed what I was reading… long story).  Anyway, Weedman is highly praised as a comic — she worked on The Daily Show, a reviewer calls her the next David Sedaris only better, and so on — but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.  I suppose I’ve worked with too many people with personality disorders to find it funny to read about somebody who strikes me as displaying characteristics of being borderline.

May Books

I promise that I’ll write at least two other posts before I get to my next set of book reviews… although they’re not really proper reviews… and not everything mentioned is a proper “book.”  Regardless, here’s what I got for May. [Proof-reading to follow later… sorry… can’t be bothered right now.]
1.  Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Graeco-Roman World by Bruce W. Longenecker.
One of the areas of New Testament that is developing strongly, and in some exciting ways, is the study of the socio-economic status of the members of the early assemblies of Jesus.  About until the last ten or fifteen years, that area of study seemed to be a bit stagnant — those let Theissen, Meeks, and Malherbe had done a fair amount of work that turned into a fairly unquestioned dominant paradigm.  THe resurgence of counter-imperial readings of the New Testament began to question this consensus and then in the last decade a number of important works have appeared — Meggitt’s somewhat reductionistic but still significant study, the thoughtful articles of Friesen, Oakes’ study of class and status at Pompeii during the NT period, and then this book by Bruce Longenecker appears and, in my opinion, delivers the final blow to the dominant position these matters.  I think that Remember the Poor deserves to be just as paradigm-setting as The First Urban Christians (Meeks) or The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity (Theissen).
In this book, Longenecker establishes that concern for the poor was one of the primary actions associated with the Pauline Gospel (and with the spread of the Jesus Movement more generally), that the poor were prominent within the early Pauline assemblies, and that this concern for the poor was one of the more attractive elements in the spread of the Jesus Movement, given that Graeco-Roman society tended not to exhibit the same depth of charity (or, more properly, economic mutuality).
Like Oakes (in Reading Romans in Pompeii), Longenecker demonstrates the importance of the differences that exist between various populations of poor and less-poor people.  Thus, he continues to further the nuancing of earlier descriptions of social status in the Roman Empire that tended to lump large groups of people together in a manner that was less conducive to the study of specific communities at specific times (cf. Meggitt’s Paul, Poverty, and Survival).  As he does this, Longenecker relies upon the “Poverty Scale” crafted by Friesen (and then updated by Friesen and Scheidel), although he provides it with the more appropriate name of an “Economy Scale.”  However, Longenecker is more optimistic than Friesen and, given that the scale provides a spectrum of percentages that may compose any given population, Longenecker places a higher percentage of people towards the upper ends of the scale.  I remain unconvinced by this move (it is largely undefended, as Longenecker acknowledges) and prefer Friesen’s numbers, which place more of the population toward the bottom of the scale.
That said, this is really an exceptional book and one that should be recommended reading for all who are interested in the study of Paul.  It’s definitely in the running for my “book of the year.”
2.  Selected Lives by Plutarch.
I’ve really come to enjoy reading the various Roman histories.  Although some of the same material is covered by a number of authors, I appreciate the diversity of perspectives and the different voices employed.  Thus, to me, Suetonius reads more like an official record.  Virgil reads like Scripture.  Tacitus is particular good at adding subaltern voices into his histories, and Plutarch is great for providing multiple perspectives on the same story within a single text.  Thus, for example, he recounts the famous story of how Romulus and Remus were said to have survived by suckling from a wolf.  However, he also mentions that the word for a female wolf was also a term applied to women who “gave their bodies to men” indiscriminately.  Plutarch further notes the the wife of the slave who carried Romulus and Remus away to abandon them was known as one such woman.  Thus, he posits that the twins were possibly saved, not by a wolf, but by the slave family that took them in and disobeyed the orders they had received to kill the children.
Another reason I’ve enjoyed these histories are some of the little gems one discovers within them.  For example, I learned the origins of the tradition of a newly married man carrying his bride over the threshold of their home.  Back when Rome was first founded, it was mostly populated my male misfits, outcasts, and outlaws.  In need of increasing their numbers, the Romans went to the Sabines and carried away( and raped), a number of women, thereby gaining families for themselves.  Thus, began the Roman tradition of carrying a bride over a threshold — this act commemorated the initial abduction (and rape) of the Sabine women.
Anyway, all that to say that I enjoyed reading Plutarch and would recommend him to any NT folks, or others who are interested in this era.  Another point of interest in reading him was the way in which Augustus was portrayed in the biographies of folks like Antony or Brutus.  It’s a good counter-representation to the image of Augustus circulated by most others.  Often, in Plutarch’s account, Augustus doesn’t come off looking much better than any other despot.  Furthermore, Plutarch reminds the reader that Brutus actually defeated the army of Augustus (then Octavian) at Philippi, and Augustus was only saved because he fled his camp and because Antony overthrew Cassius (and later overthrew Brutus).  No wonder this battle is not mentioned much in the Augustan ideology!
3-4.  Agricola and Germany by Tacitus.
Having completed the Annals, I figured I would continue to chip at Tacitus.  I’m glad I did as I both enjoyed these texts and found them to be useful for my own research.  As I mentioned above, one of the things I enjoy about Tacitus is the way in which he permits subalterns to speak — and to speak in the ways in which I imagine subalterns would speak — within his texts.  Thus, for example, in Agricola (a biography Tacitus wrote about his father-in-law, primarily focused upon his time governing Britain), one reads of rebels giving voice to the observation that Romans simply employ the rhetoric of peace and justice in order to engage in a rapacious task of robbing and enslaving others.  Essentially, a good number of these folks (and it is surprising how many of them exist in Tacitus’ texts) are engaging in a counter-imperial or post-colonial deconstructive reading of the Roman ideology.  Furthermore, in Germany, Tacitus provides an example of the more democratic form of rule that existed amongst peoples who were considered, by Rome, to be uncivilized barbarians.  Thus, Tacitus writes that minor decisions are made by the chiefs while major decisions are made by the whole tribe.  Furthermore, Tacitus observes how the chiefs have authority, not because they possess an unquestioned power, but because of the respect they have gained in the community.  Even with this respect, the people are still able to disagree with their chief, and the chief would be required to listen to the voice of the people.  Thus, Tacitus notes how the task of bringing “civilization” to others, was little more than a trap sprung to enslave them.  Here, he is worth quoting at length, as the tactics he mentions are employed just as much today (say, for example, with the First Nations peoples in Canada).

For, to accustom to rest and repose through the charms of luxury a population scattered and barbarous and therefore inclined to war, Agricola gave private encouragement and public aid to the building of temples, courts of justice and dwelling-houses, praising the energetic, and reproving the indolent. Thus, an honourable rivalry took the place of compulsion. He likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the “toga” became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude (Agricola, 21).

I suppose that this would be a fine example of the “hidden transcripts” of the elite mentioned by James C. Scott.  Texts written that lower the guard, cut through the ideology, and speak a little more honestly as they are not intended for non-elite ears.
5-6.  On Mercy and Octavia by Seneca.
Two short texts by Seneca, the first an essay written early during Nero’s reign when Seneca was optimistic about the possible peace, justice, and Golden Age, Nero might bring to earth; the second a play written after that optimism had shattered and Nero’s tyrannical impiety had begun to unveil itself (in the elaborate murder of his mother, for example).
The essay on mercy is a pretty important text, given the role that mercy (or clemency) played within the ideo-theology of Rome.  It provides an important insight in subjects like mercy, the law, and mercy as a form of “justice beyond the law.”  Thus, the practice of mercy creates a “state of exception” but should also only be practiced by the emperor who is akin to the gods and who, therefore, is best suited to be the giver of life to others.
The play about Nero’s first wife, Octavia (whom he murdered so that he could marry his lover, Poppaea… whom he later kicked to death while she was pregnant… and then made her divine after she was dead), is interesting because it is a text quite critical of Nero, written by a person who had been closer to Nero than most others (Seneca was Nero’s tutor and was one of two or three people closest to him at the beginning of his reign).  Thus, although it is written as a play, one can imagine Nero speaking or acting in the ways in which Seneca presents him (although, given their subsequent alienation, leading ultimately to Seneca’s death, one might wonder if Seneca sometimes overplays his hand).  One of the quotes I found interesting was when Nero asserts that he has no need to fear the gods, as it is he who determines who the gods are (by making Claudius divine, for example).  This got me thinking about Brigitte Kahl’s argument in Galatians Re-Imagined, wherein she suggests that the imperial cult essentially made Augustus the greatest of the gods, thereby theoretically maintaining a form of polytheism while, for all intents and purposes, functioning as monotheism.  Food for thought.
7.  Sodom and Gomorrah (In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV) by Marcel Proust.
Well, I finally returned to Proust.  I’m glad I did.  I find his reading to be… soothing.  Maybe that’s an odd word choice, but it’s true.  It makes me feel calm to lose myself in his sentences, tangents, and stories.  That said, I found this volume to be a little bit disappointing when compared to the previous three.  The reflections upon homosexuality (a prominent theme… hence the title) weren’t all that great, some of what was interesting in earlier volumes began to feel repetitive here, plus the protagonist got a little less attractive in his relationships (particularly with his mother and his lover).  Regardless, he still has a great way with words and some good insights.  For example, I’ve been thinking about the following quite in relation to contemporary practices of charity:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority of those towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that inferiority… “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the nicest way imaginable, in order to be loved and admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

There’s so much in that text, that I should probably write another post about it.  Until then, I’m looking forward to Volume V.

February and March Books

These are well overdue… I’ve finished another 10,000 words on my chapter about Roman ideology and sociopolitical structures, but I seem to not have written much of anything else.  My apologies.
1. The Complete Works of Horace by Horace.
Horace is probably most well-known amongst New Testament scholars because of his Carmen Seculare — his hymn to the New (Golden) Age inaugurated by Augustus and officially celebrated at the Ludi Seculares (the Secular Games) in 17BCE.  It is an excellent poetic snapshot of many of the central themes of the theopolitical vision of Rome–referring to renewed fertility, peace, abundance, mercy, virtue, victory and so on.
However, Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus — a friend and client of Maecenas, who was a close friend of Augustus) wrote a great deal more than that hymn, and this volume also contains four books of odes, a collection of epodes, a famous essay called The Art of Poetry, two books of satires, and two books of epistles (including one epistle written to the Emperor).  Taken together, the writings of Horace provide an excellent glimpse into certain elements of Roman life and values at the beginning of the first century CE.  The more one immerses one’s self in this literature, the more certain themes — especially those related to patronage, status, virtue, election, and family values — gain in prominence.
2. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It) by Thom Stark.
I just reviewed this in detail here.  Stark responds here.  He has a tendency to try and refute critics by talking and talking and talking until nobody gives a damn about the subject at hand (I think he seems to be mistaking the silence of the opposition for something more than that [agreement?]… although maybe he is just happy with the silence).  Regardless, I’m not convinced by everything he writes in his response (by the end of it, you’ll notice that my review never actually accurately reflects anything in Stark’s book…  that made me chuckle!), but I am happy to give him the opportunity to clarify points that certainly were not clearly stated in The Human Faces of God.
3. My People is the Enemy by William Stringfellow.
Anyway, moving on to a fellow who really knew a thing or two about practicing his religion at the margins, I arrive at this autobiographical account of the time William Stringfellow spent living in Harlem in the 1950s and ’60s (many thanks to Robin at Wipf and Stock for this complimentary copy!).
Stringfellow is something of a darling amongst a certain group of Christians–i.e. those who appear to have come from a Conservative background and who still strongly value their Christian faith but who want to become more involved in culture, politics, and economics with an orientation towards justice.  So, hey, Stringfellow writes fantastic theology, he was a lawyer engaged in sociopolitical and economic struggles at the grassroots in Harlem, he also organized within the church and, oh, he was gay.  Perfect, right?  Christians from this group can then just go around talking about Stringfellow and that changes their brand status without requiring them to engage in any sort of grassroots struggle for justice and without requiring them to actually know (or, gasp, fully welcome) any non-hetero people!
Okay, that’s my dig at Stringfellow’s audience (how many times has Halden mentioned him on his blog, but what are Halden’s views on sexuality and where is he rooted?  Sorry, Halden!).  I shouldn’t let that distract me from the book at hand.  I should also remember that I am included amongst those groupies (to a certain extent), as I’ve loved the other books I’ve read by Stringfellow.
This book is structured in five parts: Initiation (into the community of the poor), Acceptance (by the community rooted there), Involvement (within and on behalf of that community), Premonition (about the magnitude of the economic and racial divide in America, one that goes far deeper than liberal platitudes are able to recognize), and Epiphany (which points towards a way for white churches and congregants to live more genuinely as Christians and move towards reconciliation with those who are poor or non-white or both).  All in all, this book is full of a lot of great material and I strongly recommend it, not only to those who are accustomed to reading theology but to all readers.  Stringfellow is able to expound upon serious matters in a way that sacrifices neither the seriousness of those matters nor the clarity of his explanation.
However, I do also want to raise a few critical questions.  When he first moves to Harlem, Stringfellow realizes that there is not point in pretending to be something or someone that he is not.  He cannot pretend that he is anything but a white, Christian male coming from a background of privilege and status (he studied law at Harvard).  So far so good.  I’m tired of “homeless chic” or those who slum it just for the sake of slumming it, that one finds amongst (mostly superficial) social activists and hipsters.  However, Stringfellow then says this:

in order that my life and work [in Harlem] should have integrity, I had to be and to remain whoever I had become as a person before coming there.  To be accepted by others, a man must first of all know himself and accept himself and be himself wherever he happens to be.  In that way, others are also freed to be themselves.
To come to Harlem involved, thus, no renunciation of my own past or of any part of it… where I happen to be and what I happen to be doing does not determine the issue of who I am as a human being, or how my own person may be expressed and fulfilled…
I crossed a lot of boundaries in the course of a day.  This in itself is not important.  What is very important is that in crossing boundaries of class and race and education and all the rest, a man remain himself.  What is important is not where a man is, but who a man is, and that he is the same man wherever he is…
The issue for any man, in any place, is to be the same man he is in every other place (p.25-28).

Pardon the androcentric language, it will come up again — even the most liberating voices tend to have their blind-spots (something to bear in mind when reading the Bible as well!).
I disagree with Stringfellow on several points here.  While I appreciate his emphasis upon living with integrity and not posing as something we are not, I do not think that it is necessary for a person to continue to be whomever this person has been in the past.  In fact, I think the opposite is necessary: we are more “becoming” than “being” and so it is well worthwhile to pursue a life of ongoing transformation and development.  This does not mean denying or abandoning one’s past, or one’s past selves (I agree with Stringfellow that others are more comfortable with themselves when we are comfortable with ourselves).  It simply means that we need neither to be bound by our past, nor to have our identities rooted there.  I also very strongly disagree with Stringfellow’s assertion that one’s location and actions have no impact upon one’s identity as a human being.  On a very banal level this is true (where I live and what I do, does not change my genetic makeup), but one’s location and actions do have a very strong impact upon the kind of human being a person becomes.  Here, I can’t help but wonder if Stringfellow is unaware of the way in which his own location — having studied a great deal and pursued higher education in the early twentieth century — has blinded him to the impact that locations have upon constructions of self (Stringfellow later recognizes the importance of place for the formation and practice of the law [cf. p44] but he doesn’t draw the same conclusion about one’s identity).  Ironically, I suspect that Stringfellow is only able to see his identity as something isolated from place or deed, because he comes from a certain place.  Thus, I also disagree with his prioritization of this “self” over concrete actions like crossing boundaries.  What really matters are those transgressive acts and it is exactly those acts that will create mutations within your self.  And that is a good thing.
More broadly, I also want to comment on Stringfellow’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  He writes:

To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a “better” world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for “moral and spiritual values” (whatever that may mean), or self-serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God [cf. pretty much everything related to theological aesthetics].  It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for men in Jesus Christ.  He has borne death itself on behalf of men, and in that event He has broken the power of death once and for all.
This is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all men.
To become and to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of men, even to the point of actually taking the place of another man, whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or Negro, rich or poor.

I find this to be a very moving understanding of what it means to be a Christian.  Yet it is rather paradoxical, isn’t it?  As far as I can tell, the way in which Christians actually witness the breaking of the power of death is by choosing to die so that others may live.  The shitty thing about that, is that death is still pretty involved and pretty powerful.  Somebody’s dying either way.  Fuck, I’m tired of that.  Oh, and the other interesting implication of this definition of what it means to be a Christian is that most of the Stringfellow groupies who accept it (myself included) should not dare to apply that title to themselves.
4. Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Well, having read more than enough about Nietzsche, I thought I was well overdue to actually sit down and start reading the man himself.  I plan to read a few books by him this year, so I figured I would talk things in chronological order.  All told, this book was a decent place to start.  A lot of prominent themes are present here — the will to power, the revaluation of values, the super man, and so on.  However, I can’t say I loved the way this book is designed (the story of Zarathustra and the melodramatic nature of its telling).  It’s almost as though Nietzsche was writing fan fiction… about himself.  Despite that criticism, there is still a lot of force to his arguments.  So, I’m happy to be on my way here and will be picking up Beyond Good and Evil next.
5. Time For Revolution by Antonio Negri.
I’ve gotta say that these two essays by Negri (“The Constitution of Time” [1981] and “Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo” [2000]) left me feeling a little uninspired.  Maybe I didn’t really understand enough of what Negri was trying to do.  There were, of course, exciting moments, like when he gets into talking about the love of the poor as the location of revolutionary potential (NB: this is not our love for the poor, but the love the poor exhibit amongst themselves… and a great gap separates those two loves), but as a whole, both essays left me flat (the former more than the latter).  Half of the time I was wondering why Negri was struggling so hard to make a certain point, and the other half of the time I was unconvinced by the point he was trying to make (especially his emphatic desire to remain within “materialism” as much of his outlook strikes me as heavily ideological or theological in nature).  I enjoyed the trilogy he co-authored with Michael Hardt much more.
6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño.
This book, published after Bolaño died and before he finalized it, left me with mixed feelings.  The first two sections were incredible, the third section felt too long and overdone, and the fourth section didn’t quote redeem the drift that happened in the third.  It’s hard to know if the book ended the way Bolaño wanted (in the style in which the Coen brothers ended their adaptation of No Country For Old Men) or if it only ended that way because the author died.  Regardless, this is still a pretty incredible piece of literature.  I’m absolutely amazed by Bolaño’s breadth of knowledge.  Some authors are massively intimidating when it comes to the amount of research they put into writing books (fuck that “write what you know” bullshit… more like learn what you want to write!).
Basically, the centrepiece of this novel is a small town in Mexico where a lot of women and girls are disappearing and getting murdered.  However, to get there we travel through a circle of European literary critics, an American law officer, and a number of other characters, including an elusive German author.  Really, it’s hard to do justice to the scope of this text.  It is, however, recommended reading.
7. The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre.
I’ve hardly read anything by Sartre, but I’ve loved what I have read.  I’m glad this book is the first volume of a trilogy, as I’m looking forward to seeing how things go with the characters and themes Sartre has developed.  For some reason, I really connect with the existentialist French literature that cropped up during the World Wars (Camus remains one of my favourite authors).
In this novel, Sartre does a fine job of capturing the ways in which people are caught between their ideals and their lived lives, between freedom and relationships (both of which can be either life-giving or death-dealing… hence the bind), and in the general bullshit that comes to occupy our years.  Maybe it’s dangerous for me to be reading Sartre at the same time as Nietzsche.  Sartre reaffirms my feeling that life is just one fucked-up meaningless struggle, always ending in defeat, so Nietzsche then jumps in with a call to forget the struggle, forget everybody else, and go and seize what I want (unfortunately, I am too rooted in the company of the former and so I conclude that there is nothing meaningful worth seizing ; thus, this day-to-day existence is just as good and bad as any and every other alternative).
8. I, Superhero!! by Mike McMullen AKA “The Amazing Whitebread.”
Many thanks to the author and to Richard Ember at Kensington for this review copy!
A couple months ago, I had the privilege of posting an interview with Thanatos, a “real life superhero” (RLSH) who operates in Vancouver’s downtown eastside (and who just happens to be one of the most respected members of that movement, although I didn’t learn that till afterward when perusing the various RLSH websites and discussion boards).  One of the fun things that came out of that interview was The Amazing Whitebread’s offering me a review copy of this book.
In it, he documents his own journey into the realm of contemporary super (or not so super) heroes and villains (I love that there are real life super villains… although I feel like they are not tapping into their full potential… which is probably a good thing and keeps them off of the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list).  Thus, the book alternates back and forth from the author’s progression into being a hero to stories of various interviews that the author did with heroes like Geist, Master Legend, Amazonia, and Mr. Xtreme (who is the only member of the Xtreme Justice League–sweet!) and villains like the Joker of Chaos, Psycho-Babble, and Omniarch Supreme.  One of the things I realized reading the book (and from the RLSH sites I mentioned) is how lucky I was to first encounter Thanatos.  Seriously, a lot of the people associated with this movement seem genuinely delusional or are simply patriotic law-abiding assholes (who bully around kids who paint graffiti or who want to jump into bar brawls) or patriotic law-abiding losers.  I like the loser guys more than the assholes (although I think that the delusional ones would probably be the most fun to hang around with on special occasions) but if they are going to serve “justice” then they really need to become more critical about the dominant script of America, which determines what is or is not “just.”
One of the major themes within the annals of superheroes is resistance to the abuse of power and corruption that is intrinsic to police forces, political parties, law courts, and the “justice system” as a whole.  I don’t really see any RLSHs who are keen to step up and actually take on those Powers… because, you know, that tends to require an heroic effort.  Instead, RLSHs are too busy chasing around petty offenders or pot dealers and simply furthering the dehumanization of those whom society has already dehumanized.  Lots of these guys and gals in this movement just can’t wait to bash/beat/kill/whatever a sex offender.  Now, I agree that sexual violence is a terrible, terrible thing but, again, it is generally the product of a certain environment and certain systemic structures.  Victimizing somebody who has already been victimized (and who then goes on to victimize others) sort of misses the point.  If you want to pursue “justice” then first find out what it is, instead of simply accepting the definition provided by those who benefit the most from our unjust status quo.
Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there.  All in all, this was a fun book to read.  At times it dragged a little (mostly when the author was talking about his own transformation… reading about his diet and gym routine wasn’t the most gripping part of the book) but the characters assembled here are truly one of a kind.  Also, I really enjoyed the author’s concluding reflections upon the RLSH movement, what it does and does not do, and basically calling out a number of claims made by the various members.  I can’t say I agreed with his alternative (basically: “being in shape and being a good dad and husband makes me a real hero”) as I think that it gives up on the struggle for justice–a struggle that is still sorely needed.  I admire the RLSHs for their commitments to that struggle and for their willingness to confront their own fears and make sacrifices as they engage in that struggle (even if their commitments are misguided).  My hope, then, would be that those who engage in this movement eventually move beyond it, not to fall back into some sort of bourgeois lifestyle, but in order to move beyond it into grassroots organization in order to produce more life-giving ways of sharing life together and direct action in order to resist the death-dealing powers that confront us and others.

Book Review: "The Human Faces of God" by Thom Stark

Many thanks to Christian at Wipf and Stock for this review copy.
This book is a sustained assault upon the notion of biblical inerrancy popular amongst English-speaking Evangelicals, and expounded in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which dates back to 1978 but which was adopted in 2006 by the Evangelical Theological Society… creating awkwardness for more than one member therein!).  In doing this, Stark builds a convincing case, even though he doesn’t necessarily break any new scholarly ground (as John Collins notes in the forward).
After an opening chapter examining some prominent differences amongst some of the biblical texts, Stark spends two chapters exploring the position of those who adhere to biblical inerrancy, while highlighting some of the problems related to this belief.  In the next few chapters, he explores five examples of themes or texts or contradictions between texts that create insoluble problems for the inerrantist position.  In order, Stark examines the biblical shift from polytheism to monotheism, the matter of human sacrifice as practiced by Yahwists, the problem of divinely sanctioned genocides, contradictions about who actually killed Goliath, and then the supposed problem of Jesus and Paul being wrong about the timing of end of the world.  All of these cases are already well known to scholars but Stark explores them clearly and makes a convincing case (except in the last example regarding Jesus and Paul, but I’ll get to that in a moment).  In the next chapter, he explores the positions taken by some who reject inerrancy but who do not, in his opinion, confront the full brutality or reality of the problematical texts.  Thus, he examines and rejects both Brevard Childs’ “canonical” reading of the Bible, as well as more “subversive” or counter-imperial readings.  Finally, in the last chapter, Stark proposes his own way forward.  Rather than accepting or finding ways of avoiding a full confrontation with “texts of terror” and other problems within the Bible, Stark proposes that these texts “must be retained as scripture, precisely as condemned texts.  Their status as condemned is precisely their scriptural value.  That they are condemned is what they reveal to us about God” (p218; emph. removed).
All things considered, this is a very good book and one that I would recommend to those who value the Bible but who have wrestled with it and find themselves dissatisfied with the proposed solutions that they have encountered thus far.  However, I want to raise three points of criticism.
First of all, Stark’s understanding of our contemporary context needs to be sharpened.  On multiple occasions, his deployment of current or recent points of comparison is sloppy or problematical.  For example, on multiple occasions he compares the texts about the conquest of Canaan to the American history of conquest over the First Nations peoples.  Unfortunately, he always refers to that American genocide as though it were a distant past event (cf. p123).  This is simply not the case and the popular State- and Corporate-sponsored oppression, exploitation and genocide of First Nations peoples continues up until this present moment.  In this regard, Stark is still too deeply rooted in the dominant script of America.
Another example of Stark’s rootedness within that script, comes through in his comments about current American wars, which he refers to as “ambiguous” (p222).  A few pages later, it’s as though Stark forgets that America is even at war.  When he speaks about the apocalyptic dualism between good and evil, he suggests that this dualism may be appropriate in wartime when “it is often necessary to draw up sharp dividing lines between sides in the conflict” but now things are no longer so black and white (p226; cf. 225-226).  What Stark neglects here is that America is at war, not to mention the ongoing global class war of the wealthy against the poor that has been steadily increasing over the last several decades.  Of course, lacking a strong understanding of our current situation isn’t a weakness unique to Stark.  One often sees this amongst scholarly-types who are trying to be relevant but who aren’t sufficiently rooted amongst the marginalized and so end up making inadequate or misleading remarks despite their best efforts.
Secondly, I want to mention Stark’s criticisms of “canonical” and “subversive” readings of the Bible.  It seems to me that Stark (a) doesn’t sufficiently engage the possibilities inherent to some of those readings; and (b) does not recognize the extent to which he himself relies upon, and employs, both of these ways of reading.
Beginning with Childs, Stark describes his canonical reading in this way:

If the texts are going to continue to be useful, they will be useful not as objects of historical curiosity but as dynamic scriptures which are the rightful property of the community of faith… with the intention of providing the community of faith the inspiration it needs to be faithful in a trying world.  As a result, readings that challenge the truthfulness of this or that text… render the texts useless for their intended purposes” (p211).

Stark then identifies three problems with this: (1) the final form of the text was not chosen by the community of faith but by the theopolitical elites; (2) diverse voices are lost and problematical texts are buried; and (3) no clear determining factor exists as to who determines the what “canonical reading” actually is (p211-212).  This is fair enough, but it seems to me that Stark only engages in a slightly tweaked variation of this reading, and a tweaking that is susceptible to that same criticisms.  Thus, in treating some scriptures as “condemned texts,” he asserts that what readings are appropriate will vary from context to context and that “each confessing community must decide for itself how to make these and other texts useful for its own purposes” (p219).  Later, he again affirms that “the proper place for critical appropriations of scripture is within the believing community” (p235).  To me, this sounds a lot like a canonical reading and one that is still exercised without clear determining factors as to what might make this reading valid.  I’m not sure if Stark goes beyond “burying” problematical texts.  Rather, instead of burying them, he rejects them, but his criteria for doing so seem just as arbitrary as Childs’.  That is to say, while Childs (as a representative of a believing community) may be less committed to the truthfulness of a text and, by that means, escape a harsh confrontation with some texts in order to affirm a God committed to life, Stark (as a representative of a believing community?) confronts the same text in order to own it by condemning it, thereby ending up in the same position.
In fact, for all its stronger commitment to historical criticism, Stark’s proposed reading ends up sharing a great deal in common with the inerrantists with whom he is arguing: both permit prior commitments to dominate their readings of the Bible.  Just as historical criticism cannot be used as the basis for belief in biblical inerrancy, so also historical criticism cannot provide Stark with the criteria needed to determine if this or that text is condemnable.  As much as Stark rightly criticizes inerrantists who propose “plain” readings over “literal” readings (i.e. who permit an ideological overcoding to provide a previously determined meaning for any given text), we see the same ideologically-motivated methodology at work when Stark describes the “condemned texts” in this way:

Through these texts the voice of God speaks to us today, calling us to reject self-serving ontologies of difference, to abandon any allegiances to tribes or nation-states that take precedence over our allegiance to humanity itself and to the world we all inhabit (p120).

Of course, the condemned texts literally say nothing like this.  So, while I find Stark’s approach to have a better ethical value than the approach taken by the inerrantists, their hermeneutics may be more similar than both parties care to admit.
On a slightly different note, I’m curious to know how Stark’s reading is one that is really produced by a “believing community.”  It seems to me that his reading is produced by one person struggling to make sense of scripture (one person, it should be noted, who also is rooted more amongst the elite than the oppressed).  I don’t know how it is the result of a “confessing community” struggling to make sense of the Bible.  I’ve heard from others that Stark operates in isolation from faith communities so I don’t know if he follows the methodology he prescribes.  After all, Stark concludes with some pretty individualistic and personal words: “I am proposing [this reading] because to me it represents the most honest struggle–it is the only way that I know how to navigate our moral universe” (p241, emphasis added; no real sign of any “believing community” here).  I wanted to ask Stark about this but he has refused to engage with me after our last exchange.  I invited him to be interviewed about this book but he declined and told me that we are no longer “friends” (a statement I found odd, since I’ve only interacted with him online but perhaps he puts a different stock into online engagements, given that his website proclaims how many people “like” him on facebook, whereas I don’t even have a facebook account…).
Turning to “subversive” readings, one should note that much of what Stark actually does throughout his book is standard “subversive” or counter-imperial readings of the Bible — he appears excited enough about this sort of reading that he is willing to insert it into his argument at times when it feels awkward or diverges from his broader points (cf. pp201-202).  However, Stark draws on the scholarship of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and agrees with her assertion that “subversive” readings do not go far enough because they neglect the ongoing impact of imperial language and imagery as those things have shaped the readings, social imaginaries, and actions of Christians up until our present day (cf. pp213-216).  On the one hand, this point is fair enough.  When biblical scholars feel compelled to speak outside of their area of expertise (say the Pauline epistles, or whatever) what they have to say tends to be disappointingly shallow or dull (here one could refer to most “application” sections found in New Testament commentaries).  On the other hand, however, I do not think that the “subversive” or counter-imperial approach is to blame for this error.  Rather, it seems to me that a thoroughly counter-imperial reading is one that takes into consideration the impacts of imperialism not only upon the texts as they were produced, but also upon the formation of the canon (something Stark highlights very well) and upon our present moment (something Stark highlights less well… actually, on this point he doesn’t follow his own advice, as I mentioned earlier).  Thankfully, there are a number of scholars who are engaging in precisely this sort of more fully-informed “subversive” reading (cf., for example, Jennings, Myers, Howard-Brook, Gwyther, Walsh, Keesmaat, and even Schüssler Fiorenza herself, just to name a few NT voices… or those like Brueggemann or Trible who engage the OT in a fuller manner).
Finally, my third and final criticism: Stark’s talk about apocalyptic beliefs and what he takes to be the expectation of the imminent end of the world affirmed by Jesus and Paul.  All my previous criticisms have not been directed at Stark’s primary work in this text: exegesis.  In fact, his exegesis is very strong throughout… except on this point.  My first quibble is that Stark makes contradictory statements about the nature of Second Temple Jewish apocalypticism and never resolves them.  Thus, on the one hand he approvingly quotes Dale Allison, who asserts that the apocalyptic perspective is marked by “a passive political stance” (p165) and goes on the assert that Paul espoused “a strategy of political quietism” because he believed the end of the world was imminent (p202).  Consequently, he concludes that the apocalyptic perspective leaves “no room for any form of engagement… At most political responsibility is narrated in sectarian terms.  To be politically responsible is to be sectarian” (pp226-27; emphasis removed).
On the other hand, however, Stark asserts that the apocalyptic system contained beliefs that were “politically explosive” and “freed one up to walk a dangerous path of hard-line opposition to Rome and to the puppet temple regime in Jerusalem” (p167).  Further, he argues that Jesus’ (supposed) belief in the imminent end of the world functioned as a “pertinent sociopolitical/economic critique” and “was a complex beautiful, and incisively accurate expression of outrage at the existing world order, and a clarion call for fidelity to a new social system based upon justice rather than exploitation… it was the cry of the revolutionary spirit” (p229).
Thus, Stark concludes that the “revolutionary impulse was right… but the waiting for a miracle to make it happen–that was wrong” (p230).  Thus, he rejects what he takes to be an apocalyptic “ethics of waiting” that removes us from the present pursuit of justice and “renders world history a cosmic joke” (p228; cf. pp227-28).
A few things merit comment here.  First of all, Stark’s remarks do not make sense of the actual activities of Jesus and Paul.  Jesus and Paul did not exhibit any sort of political quietism.  There were actively involved in working towards the goals of the just reign of God in the here-and-now of their moments in history.  There was no passivity, no sitting back and waiting involved.  That is why they were both condemned as impious terrorists and executed by the political authorities.  Stark’s whole line of criticism falls apart when his picture of apocalypticism is compared to the textual witness to the lived lives of Jesus and Paul.  Secondly, Stark never adequately resolves the tension he sees between passive sectarianism and revolutionary action that I just mentioned.  Here, it seems to me that he has referred to some of the dominant scholarly voices who have studied apocalyptic literature, and he has pulled out key quotations, but he doesn’t seem to have delved fully into the discussion,  Here, one notices the range of perspectives found within Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic traditions.  Some voices are more passive and quietist, others are more active and revolutionary.  Some are more reformist, others are more radical.  Some are more rooted at the margins.  Others are more rooted at centres of power.  Given that, it is worth asking where Jesus and Paul fall within that spectrum.  This would help Stark to not make contradictory statements.
My second quibble with Stark’s reading of apocalypticism is his acceptance of the thesis that both Jesus and Paul believed in the imminent end of the world (cf., for example, pp160-61 on Jesus and pp125, 199-201 on Paul).  He doesn’t really argue the case for this but simply accepts the work of other scholars (in his assertions about Paul, he only mentions two texts, J. Christiaan Beker’s Paul the Apostle and J. Paul Sampley’s Walking Between the Times).  Again, I think Stark would have benefited from engaging the scholarly literature more fully.  Certainly this thesis has had strong supporters since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer blew the lid off of it over one hundred years ago, and I recognize that it was the dominant scholarly position twenty years ago.  However, a lot of strong work has challenged this view in recent decades and has pointed out the importance of distinguishing (in Paul’s case, for example) the difference between certain expectation and uncertain hope and longing.  I see good reason to believe that Paul longed for Christ to return during Paul’s lifetime, but I remain unconvinced that Paul was certain of this.  Thus, as Oscar Cullmann noted half a century ago, if Paul was proposing an “interim ethics,” that interim extends until today.  Again, when we look at the actual activities undertaken by Jesus and Paul, that ethics is not problematical because it does not espouse passivity or quietism or telling those who are suffering to “wait it out” (cf. p227).  Thus, while Stark’s penchant for hyperbole leads him frequently assert that his conclusions are “unequivocal” (cf. p173)  there is certainly a lot of equivocation amongst scholars on this point.  Consequently, I am bound to reject his conclusion that his “review makes it clear that an expectation of an imminent end is a consistent feature of canonical strands of Christian expectation” (p204).
My third quibble is with Stark’s final outright rejection of the apocalyptic perspective for contemporary Christians due to what he perceives as its “intractable problems” (p225; cf. pp225-30).  I’ve already mentioned some reasons why this perspective might be misplaced and one also thinks of the writings of Nate Kerr and Douglas Campbell (as well as the Pauline reflections inspired by Alain Badiou) as a sufficient refutation of this suggestion.  However, one further point is worth highlighting.  One of Stark’s problems with the apocalyptic outlook is that he thinks it relies upon waiting for a miracle, a happy ending brought to us by some deus ex machina (cf. pp228, 230).  Bluntly stated, Stark seems to have a problem with God intervening in history (one of his objections to the doctrine of inerrancy is that it “denies the human authors of scripture [their] free will” [p63]).  Yet, it seems to me that the Bible is full of deus ex machina moments.  The whole notion of Jesus coming as a (divine) Messiah is one of those moments.  Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road is another.  Hell, creation is this sort of apocalyptic Event.  It’s hard to reject a longing for the parousia of Christ for this reason, while holding on to much of anything else in the Bible.  Furthermore, unlike Stark, I do think we are very much stuck waiting for the miracle for which he says we do not need to wait.  I’ve been involved in the struggle for justice and abundant life for all (and not just for some) for more than ten years now and, despite all our best efforts, I know we are absolutely fucked if God does not come and intervene.  To say that we need no miracle seems to go back to where Stark is rooted.  Getting closer to the margins may change his mind about that.
In conclusion, I should reiterate that this book is very successful in completing what it sets out to do: making the Evangelical belief in biblical inerrancy unsustainable.  It is recommended reading for all those who are concerned about that debate or who don’t know quite what to make of their scriptures.

January Books

1. Imperialist Canada by Todd Gordon.
I already mentioned this book in my last post, when I interviewed the author, Todd Gordon.  However, given that I really do think that this book is required reading for every Canadian, I thought I would highlight that again.
Gordon begins with an examination of the big picture of (imperialist) capitalism itself.  This helps the reader to understand that the cases he studies are not exceptions to the rules for how governments and businesses operate within that picture.  Rather, he demonstrates that imperialist and violent behaviour is intrinsic to capitalism itself.  From here, Gordon moves to an examination of the practices of imperialism that take place “at home,” within Canada and against indigenous populations (the book was published in 2010 and this section is up-to-date, which is one of its strengths).  Gordon then moves from the national to the international scene and looks at the expansion of the interests of Canadian-based imperialist capitalism into other nations.  He looks at various trade and legal arrangements before looking at the death-dealing results of these arrangements.  He then looks at the ways in which military and paramilitary state-backed forces have been employed to back those businesses (both in Canada and abroad), before offering a final chapter on more direct Canadian military invasions, occupations and coups.
All in all, this book presents a damning picture of Canadian political and business activities.  Not only that, but it is damning of the status quo of daily life in Canada, as the lives of ordinary “citizens” are caught up within (and often benefit from) the machinations of these parties.  This is very strongly recommended reading.
2. Stolen Continents: The “New World” Through Indian Eyes by Ronald Wright.
As I continue my move into a more sustained reading of the history and present experiences of indigenous groups in Canada, I thought a more sweeping historical overview would be helpful.  In this book, Wright looks at this history of five people groups — Aztec, Maya, Inca, Cherokee, and Iroquois — and explores events from their perspectives through three historical phases that he terms conquest, resistance, and rebirth.  He draws heavily upon histories recorded by the indigenous peoples and offers a narrative that runs counter to the standard histories taught in public schools (America wasn’t an empty wilderness waiting to be populated, the indigenous people weren’t “inferior savages,” and so on).  Importantly, Wright also continues to tell the stories of these First Nations up until the time of writing (c.1993).  By doing this, he demonstrates the ways in which our systems of politics, law, and business continue to actively pursue the genocide of indigenous people groups.  However, Wright also demonstrates that resistance has continued up until our present day and so hope remains.
On a more personal note, I remember reading The Conquest of New Spain when I was young.  That book is an account of Hernan Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec empire, written from the perspective of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors present at that time.  As such, it is a classic example of history written from the perspective of the victors.  At that time of my life, I read a lot of adventure stories (lots of Dumas, Tolkien, Pyle, Scott… that sort of thing) and I was thrilled to find such wild adventures — stories of knights triumphing against all odds — occurring in real life.  Shame on me.  I mention this because I think the default position ingrained into all of us (through our education but also through the ongoing presentation of these matters in mainstream media and political discourse) is one that is deeply racist and violent.  Over the years, I have undergone a conversion related to these matters, and hope others will do the same.  This book is recommended reading.
3. The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.
I first read Suetonius back when I was starting to seriously research Paul.  However, as the years(!) have gone by and as my perspective has gained more and more focus, I made a decision to go back and reread a lot of the primary source material.  It’s very interesting to see how different a text appears after that kind of sustained work.  Many things about Suetonius’ account of the Caesars look very different and all sorts of unnoticed emphases now jump off the page.  It’s funny how much a text changes after you immerse yourself in its context(s).  It feels so different than my prior reading and I’m amazed by how much I missed or just didn’t understand the first time around (in part amazed because Suetonius’ account seems so straightforward and because I already had some basic knowledge of the matters related therein).
When I think about this, I also think that this is what happens when a person begins to engage in a serious and engaged study of “sacred” texts, like the Bible.  I often think that most Christians would be better served if they put down their Bibles and simply spent a few years reading books about the Bible.  After that, I imagine that they would be amazed at how different things look.  Truth be told, after all my years of engaging in biblical studies (I just realized I’ve been doing that for 11 years now!), I only now feel like I can pick up the New Testament and have a decent understanding of what is going on there.
4. Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy.
This is the final volume of McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy.”  In it, he brings together the protagonists of the first two books — John Grady Cole and Billy Parham (see here for a more detailed overview, including spoilers).  Initially, this conjunction rather excited me (like Wolverine meeting Batman, or something) but I ended up finding the book a bit disappointing.  It didn’t seem to quite meet the (admittedly very high) standard set by the earlier volumes.  Of course, as with anything written by McCarthy, there were still really excellent moments, like the conversation that occurs between John Grady and Eduardo during the climax of the novel.
So, one month behind schedule, I have completed my objective of reading all of McCarthy’s novels.  Now I gotta get back to Proust…

Imperialist Canada: An Interview with Todd Gordon

I recently finished reading a book that I consider to be essential reading for every Canadian.  It is entitled, Imperialist Canada and in it the author, Todd Gordon, explores the various ways in which Canadian capital and the Canadian political system engage in an imperialist program of stealing the land, resources, well-being, families, and lives of others (generally poor or indigenous populations both in Canada and abroad) in order to gain profits and power.  A lot of this material will be familiar to those already engaged in the struggle against imperialism and capitalism but it is very good to have a comprehensive study of a number of issues all collected in a single text.  For those who are unaware of the issues presented here — from the practices of Canadian oil, gas, mining, and hydroelectric companies in our own and other countries, to the Canadian-backed coup that occurred in Haiti, to the ways in which RBC has been getting rich off of the war in Iraq, to many other things — this book should be paradigm shattering.
Because I’m so keen on this book, and because I want to encourage others to read it, I contacted the author and asked if he would be willing to do an interview for this blog.  Despite time constraints, he kindly complied to my request, and this is the exchange that we were able to have.  My questions are bolded and Todd’s responses are in plain text.
I am always interested in the ways in which an author’s life intersects with the texts that author produces, and am convinced that the contexts in which we live can be highly influential upon the views we end up holding.  What people or events in your own life brought you to study Canada as an imperialist power?
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Books of 2010

I was able to finish just over sixty books in 2010.  It was an interesting year.  I dabbled around in the horror genre for a bit, only made it halfway through Proust (when I intended to complete all of In Search of Lost Time last year) and fell just short of my goal of finishing all of McCarthy’s novels by the end of the year (I’m just now completing the Border Trilogy… which I left for last).  Also, in comparison to prior years, I read a lot less theology in 2010.
In terms of my favourite reads, well, I always have trouble picking just one.  In the area of biblical studies, I’ll highlight Virgil’s Aeneid.  That text should be required reading for any student of the New Testament.  In terms of the other non-fiction I read, I think I’m going to go with Taylor’s A Secular Age.  There’s a reason why that book created so many waves (several reasons, actually). Fiction is always the hardest category to choose from but I’ll stick with McCarthy and leave it as a tie between Suttree and All the Pretty Horses.
My goals for 2011 are as follows:

  • continue reading one volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics per year (I’m thinking about starting to do the same with Balthasar’s enormous trilogy);
  • finish up with Proust;
  • get into Nietzsche and Spinoza;
  • read at least one of the following: Being and Time, Truth and Method, and Of Grammatology (any suggestions?)
  • engage in a sustained amount of reading related to the current and past struggles and experiences of Canada’s indigenous peoples (anybody claiming to be inspired by Liberation Theology ought to do at least this in one’s own context).

We’ll see how that goes.  Here’s the complete list of books I read (from cover to cover) in 2010:
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December Books

1. The Living Paul: An Introduction to the Apostle’s Life and Thought by Anthony C. Thiselton (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009).
Many thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy!
Over the last few years, I’ve read or skimmed through a few dozen brief introductions to Paul.  Given the space and content limitations imposed upon short introductory works, and given how often they appear, I have often wondered why scholars (and publishers) are keen to churn them out.  I understand that developments occur in scholarship but the sort of change that really impacts an small volume geared towards lay people or first year college students does not come around all that often.
In fact, sweeping introductions to Paul often feel like college papers to me — there is some good writing, but hardly any references, and a lot of general statements that need to be supported in a lot more detail than they are in the text at hand.  So, while a scholar like Thiselton may get away with writing this sort of thing, I would have a hard time imagining a publishing accepting an identical manuscript from an unknown and unaccredited person.
I’m sure the reader can tell, at this point, that I was a little bit disappointed in this book.  I tried to keep in mind the limitations of the genre, but I still had higher expectations.  Given the work that Thiselton has done in Pauline exegesis (see, for example, his NIGTC commentary on 1 Corinthians) and in the realm of hermeneutics (several volumes), I was hoping to see more of the strengths he exhibited in those works.  However, what he ended up writings was pretty similar to most other introductions to Paul, devoting about ten pages to each of the major themes we find in Paul (biography, justification, ministry, the Church, ethics, eschatology, and so on), with a concluding chapter that relates some of Paul’s themes to the mood of postmodernism (for a lay person, or for a first year college student that chapter might be of some interest, but it was far too brief and superficial to say anything new to those who have any kind of familiarity with people like Foucault or Derrida).  Thus, while I felt like this was a decent enough introduction, I also felt like it was a bit of a missed opportunity.  If the reader is looking for a short readable introduction to Paul, and one that plays to the strengths of the author, I would suggest What Saint Paul Really Said by N. T. Wright or Reading Paul by Michael Gorman.
2. A Grammar of the Multitude by Paolo Virno.
I’m currently involved in a reading group that is working its way through Commonwealth by Hardt and Negri.  This is my second time reading through that text and it got me thinking that I wanted to start engaging with more Italian voices and with the Italian history of resistance.
This short text is a series of lectures Virno delivered in 2001.  In those lectures, he spells out his theory of “the multitude” over against the more Hobbesian notion of “the people” (a concept popularized by Hardt and Negri in second volume of their trilogy).  He then looks at the ways in which the multitude has sought emancipation from the overcoding of the State and of Capital in various ways in the twentieth century.  This, then, leads to his (very interesting) conclusion that post-Fordism should not be understood as a triumph of labour (as though the workers have emancipated themselves from more oppressive working conditions) but should, instead, be understood as the way in which capitalism was able to overcome the near-revolution against capitalism that occurred throughout much of the Western world in the 1960s and ’70s.  Post-Fordism is thus capitalism’s way of changing it’s shape without relinquishing its original nature or goals.
I found this text to be quite interesting.  I would recommend it to those who are interesting in these things.
3. Life by Keith Richards.
I’ve been going through a pretty major Stones kick for the last two years, thanks to a friend who turned me back on to them.  Because of this, and because of a number of (what were to me) surprisingly good reviews, I decided to pick this book up and do a little further reading.  I’ve never really done the Hollywood Star bio thing (except for a pretty good book I once read about Marilyn Monroe), but I’m glad I indulged in this one.  It wasn’t just “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” along with crazy Keith Richards rumours about getting his blood changed in Europe in order to stay alive despite his drug use.  Far from it.  It was like sitting down and listening to Keith ramble about his number one addiction–music.  And he rambles in a really down-to-earth manner.  He’s not just out to tell war stories or make himself out to be the crazy rock-god that he became in the public eye.  He just wants to talk about the music, the people, the music, the places, and the music he loved and loves.  After I finished, instead of thinking, “it would be wild to hang-out with Keith because that man knows how to party,” I found myself thinking, “man, I’d love to sit down somewhere quiet, have a few beers and shoot the shit with this guy.”  Fun stuff.
4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I really enjoy Marquez but I find his prose to be really rich.  Reading him is kind of like eating an expensive dessert.  If you do it right, you take it in small doses and enjoy it piece by piece.  However, sometimes it’s hard to avoid over-indulging, which means you go through a lot in a short time, but then you need to take a break for awhile afterward to recover.  Plus, I think he’s best read when you have time to just immerse yourself in the story and the mood he creates and have no other worries on your plate.
That said, this book covers several generations of a family (of people who tend to all have the same name) in a small Latin American town.  We go through the birth of a town, more than one revolution, the arrival of banana plantations, and the gradual downfall of the town.  Along the way we meet farmers, gypsies, revolutionaries, colonizers, ghosts, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, parents and children and lovers.  It really is a magical story.  Recommended reading.

An Interview with Roland Boer (On Marxism and Theology)

[As I stated in a prior post, I recently completed reading Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology which the author, Roland Boer, very kindly sent to me as a gift.  I very much enjoyed the book and have also enjoyed his blog, so I was very pleased when he consented to be interviewed for this blog.  I started with a handful of questions more or less related to what he had written and then sent a number of follow-up questions to him.  As you can see, things got a little out of hand and we ended up having a rather lengthy exchange but I hope that the reader will find it as interesting as I did.  Thanks again, Roland, I very much appreciate your willingness to share.  In what follows, my “questions” are in bold and Roland’s responses are in the regular font.]

People on both sides tend to treat Marxism and Christian theology as opposing and contradictory ideologies. I’m curious to hear about your personal journey and what has lead you to be interested in (and critically sympathetic towards) both of these areas of study. Care to share?


The connection first arose explicitly in a course I took on liberation and political theologies in about 1986 at the University of Sydney, while studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree – which eventually led to ordination in the Presbyterian Church of Australia. One question with which I ended the course was: instead of reading these theologians on Marx, why not read Marx himself. Which I did, after an honours thesis on the riveting topic of Melchizedek in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Nag Hammadi and Qumran. So, for my Masters degree in theology I wrote a long thesis on Marx, Hegel and theology. Ever since then, I have been interested at a scholarly level in both areas. The idea for the Criticism of Heaven and Earth series first arose in 1992, so the completion of the fifth volume of that series a year ago was the fulfillment of that idea almost two decades ago.


But that is to focus on the intellectual history and you asked about the personal side. I came from a very religious family of (Dutch) reformed persuasions and I shared those convictions, although not without a continual critical spirit that annoyed my father to no end. At high school I used to joke about how things would be far better under communism, mostly to those in authority as they desperately tried to tell me how communism was another form of totalitarianism and how good capitalist parliamentary democracy really was. Even then, I was politically convinced that the centre-left was the best option (my parents voted consistently for Christian democrat or conservative parties while [I] opted for our social democrats, the Labor Party). Since then I have become more radical, on the far left, as they call it. As that happened, it became clear to me that within Christianity there is a strong tradition of political and theological radicalism, which I continued to explore personally. Reformed or Calvinist theology did not seem to sit easily with that interest, so I spent many a long year rejecting that tradition, only to realise later that Calvin himself was torn between the radical potential of elements in the Bible and his own conservative preferences (I eventually wrote a book about it, dedicated to my father, which he was able to read weeks before he died in 2009).


It also became clear, slowly, that not all the Bible or the various theological traditions are at their core or overwhelmingly radical, since they have sat and continue to sit comfortably with some of the most oppressive forms of power. It’s that basic ambivalence that continues to fascinate me, for which Marxism provides some unique insights. Add to that the fact that Marxists since Engels have been perpetually intrigued by the Bible and theology, often writing extensively on it in a way that has profound implications for their thought.

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November Books

Well, November was a heavy writing month, so not a lot of reading was done.  Here’s what I got:
1. Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology by Roland Boer.
Roland was kind enough to send me a copy of this book after this post prompted this exchange over on his blog.  He has also continued to extend that kindness and has agreed to be interviewed about this book on my blog, so hopefully that will be posted in the (near-ish) future.
In this book — the first in a series of five — Boer looks at the ways in which theological themes or biblical reflections impact the writings of eight prominent “Marxist” scholars: Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Antonio Gramsci, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Zizek, and Theodor Adorno.  The first two he refers to as “biblical Marxists,” the next four as “catholic Marxists” and the final two as Marxists who exhibit a “Protestant turn.”
As with any book exhibiting this kind of scope, some chapters are better or more exciting than others.  With some (notably Althusser and Lefebvre) it seems as though Boer is digging pretty hard to meet the demands of his project.  With others, however (notably the chapters on Bloch and Gramsci), the writing really is quite captivating.  I also found the chapter on Zizek to be of quite a bit of interest.  I’ve read a lot of Zizek but not a lot of what has been written about him, and so it is interesting to read what others are saying who have stepped back and taken the time to study his entire project.  Boer is also quite critical, probably more so of this author than any of the others mentioned, to it is interesting to see Zizek’s praise for Boer’s work on the back cover.
All in all, quite a good read.  I would like to pick up the other volumes in the series (or maybe Roland could mail them to me, along with that case of beer and carton of smokes he still owes me…), and would recommend them to others who are interested in this sort of thing.
2. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.
This is the first volume of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and it is fantastic–right up there with my other McCarthy favourites (Blood Meridian, The Road and Suttree, although it feels deceptively gentler than each of those novels).  It is something like a coming of age story, something like a love story, and something like Scripture.  Recommended reading (if you want a detailed plot overview, see here, but I would suggest just jumping in blind).
3. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.
This is the second volume of the Border Trilogy.  It is not as good as the first — it lags for about the first 100pp, but then it gets back up to McCarthy’s standard for story-telling (the first part of the book has been compared to Moby-Dick so that may be why I found it slow!).  Oddly enough, it was in this book that I encountered one of the better possible descriptions of my own “apocalyptic” life experiences that led me to the faith I live.  Here’s the quote, with some context thrown in to make sense of it:

He carried within himself a great reverence for the world, this priest.  He heard the voice of the Deity in the murmur of the wind in the trees.  Even the stones were sacred.  He was a reasonable man and he believed that there was love in his heart.
There was not.  Nor does God whisper through the trees.  His voice is not to be mistaken.  When men hear it they fall to their knees and their souls are riven and they cry out to Him and there is no fear in them but only that wildness of heart that springs from such longing and they cry out to stay in his presence for they know at once that while godless men may live well enough in their exile those to whom He has spoken contemplate no life without Him but only darkness and despair.

That, I reckon, sums up a lot of my journey.  Also recommended reading.  (Aside: there are a lot of quotable passages in this book.  As I was looking back through it to write this, I came across several that could inspire posts of their own.)
4. As I crossed a Bridge of Dreams by Lady Sarashina.
Since I was having a lot of fun reading the Norse and Icelandic sagas, I thought I would try something different and so I decided to read this book, which was written by a woman who lived in Japan during the 11th century (which means it dates to around the same time as the sagas).  I have concluded that it is far, far more exciting to read about Vikings than ancient Japanese women who write poems to each other, or to trees, or who get excited to go on a trip to nowhere to do nothing.  So, while this book is interested just for the glimpse it provides into a world that is dead and gone, the woman who lived in that world sure lived one helluva boring life.
5. Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald.
I grabbed this play out of a free book bin and read it at the bar one night after I got too tipsy to read anything heavier.  It is a pretty clever feminist reading of Othello and Romeo and Juliet.  Lots of wordplay, lots of innuendo, mimicking the bard and all that.  However, I was never a big Shakespeare fan (although I did once send my wife to a sketchy hotel to buy a $10 leather-bound complete works of Shakespeare from a big sketchy dude… sorry, wife!), and I never was really able to get into reading plays, so I feel pretty ho-hum about all this.