Thursday, February 7, 2008

Colossians Remixed and Gender Hierarchy Part 1

Back in December I was asked how I approach the "apparent hierarchical gender passages" in the New Testament. My comments about "timeless truth" come out of that discussion, but I realize they didn't actually respond to the question. So this is an attempt to address the question by reflecting on Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat's entertaining and thought-provoking book, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (InterVarsity, 2004). (If my review seems only indirectly related to the larger question it is because it originated as a panel discussion response to the book at the 2006 meeting of the Canadian Evanglical Theological Association.)

Walsh and Keesmaat describe their work as an “anti-commentary.” It is peppered with references to pop culture and punctuated by dialogue and fictional narrative. As I began to read, I was pleasantly surprised at how consistently the dialogue sections anticipated and responded to my questions—as any good commentary should; the imaginative reconstructions of the first century context of Colossians also call attention to fresh new ways of reading familiar texts. And to its great advantage, Colossians Remixed has a characteristic that many commentaries lack: it is readable. This is good news because Walsh and Keesmaat draw our attention to the social and political implications of the confession “Christ is Lord”—and this is a message that needs to be heard by a contemporary North American church that has so effectively separated spiritual faith from practical life.

The church’s failure to consider the political implications of Paul’s gospel rests in part on what is at least an apparent tension within the writings attributed to Paul. The one who writes that Jesus is “Lord of all” (Rom 10:12) also says: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1 NRSV). The one who writes “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28 NIV; cf. Col 3:11), also says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything” (Col 3:22) and “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (Col 3:18).

Walsh and Keesmaat resolve this tension by reading Colossians over against a reconstructed first-century context in which the Roman empire and the imperial cult figure prominently. Acknowledging the lordship of Christ would have been “downright dangerous” (52), “nothing less than treasonous, a threat to the empire” (54). Because it was not safe to state his subversive message openly, Paul did not explain as clearly as we might like that the lordship of Christ decisively undermines the institution of slavery and fundamentally subverts hierarchy within marriage.

In the next post I will raise some questions about Walsh and Keesmaat's reconstruction, before returning, finally, to a discussion of the Colossian "household code."

1 comment:

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for laying out Walsh and Keesmaat's reconstruction. Can't wait to hear your questions of it.