Reading Colossians Remixed:Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, published in 2004, is a reminder of a time when postmodernity was in its ascendency. It’s not clear where we live now, but less than two decades later you feel that we are somewhere very different than the environment Walsh and Keesmaat took for granted. Their assumed audience of persons struggling with metanarratives and the failure of monolithic systems of truth has morphed into something more dangerous—the ascendency of siloed communities that do not live in the same world.
Our current struggle with the pandemic illustrates the troubles and the dangers. We have persons who believe the virus is deadly and worth all the efforts to minimize its dangers, including mass vaccination. Others contest that view, feeling that the threat is overblown, the virus not nearly so deadly, and the mitigation efforts damaging. Still others do not believe the virus is real at all, believing that it is a plot to undermine the former president. How do we live, much less make public health policy, with such an environment?
But I digress. I turned to Colossians Remixed as I prepared for an upcoming preaching series on Paul’s letter to the Colossians. The ‘remix’ is the authors’ attempt at “giving an older artistic expression new currency.”(7) The result is a commentary (or as they would style it, an anti-commentary) that is thin on textual analysis and big on speaking to issues that they see bridging both Paul’s environment and ours—the struggles for truth and the oppression of empire.
I was in sympathy with the broad strokes but found the overblown rhetoric and attempts at cultural connection off-putting. (And dated. In 2004 you could still get away with a Smashing Pumpkins reference.) Worse still were the frequent sections where an imagined reader’s voice was brought in to dialogue with the authors. These sections read like a Dan Brown book where an insufferable professorial-type mansplains all the ways that the naive reader has gotten things wrong.
I will say that the way the authors handled the difficult household code section of Colossians was helpful. By placing the instructions to slaves and masters, husbands and wives, within the context of Roman society and of Paul’s own writing, they uncover a tradition that is much more egalitarian, with all such relationships brought into perspective by the Lordship of Christ. “Love can only mean that the hierarchy is gone,” they conclude. A character in an imagined Colossian house church says, “You know that we all became part of a new household, which does not support the hierarchical economic structures of the empire but in which all exist for the benefit and mutual service of others.”(210-11)
It’s a good moment in a disappointing book. But all time-bound interpretations are doomed to disappoint. Which is why there’s nothing like returning to the original.