Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Book Review--Romans Disarmed


If it's not there already.

It's the gay marriage thing. In my denominational fellowship, it's coming this summer. Wherever it's appeared, strife and conflict, rancor and horror, even schism comes with. And yet, one of the leading Democratic candidates for President has a spouse who's a man, for Pete's sake. It's all around us. A goodly percentage of evangelical families have at least one nephew or niece or uncle or aunt who's out of the closet, and most of those relatives are no more randy with their sexual lives than this year's consistory members. 

Just about wherever you look, church fellowships are coming apart at the seams because its members hold Luther-like, "here-I-stand" positions on gay life and gay marriage: "I shall not be moved." 

Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh would be disdainful of my starting this review of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire/Demanding Justice with the bedlam of gay marriage. They'd say that their Romans Disarmed is not about gay marriage, and it isn't. 

What it's about is reading the Bible, reading the book of Romans specifically. The most telling litmus tests evangelicalism knows today are manifestations of a deeper, more complex question, and that is, "How do we know what the Bible says?"

Some say that's not at all difficult. You read the words. The Bible is the word. Thus, if Paul says women shouldn't lead, you silence 'em--or make sure they make cookies. If women want to lead, let them do pot lucks, as long as a male opens with prayer.

Or you read words like "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" and follow the blessed example of Salem in 1690. 

Or you read the words, like "Thou shalt not kill" and then go conscientious objector rather than fight Hitler, and in every way possible you fight capital punishment. 

Truth be told, no one just reads words, despite the defense of what people used to call the Bible's inerrancy, a word my spell-check doesn't recognize because of the infrequency of its use, I guess. 

Keesmaat and Walsh embrace what most of us might call "a liberal agenda," but they're not advocates of what my dad used to call "the social gospel." They take the Bible seriously. They don't hunt and peck or cherry pick; they don't roll their eyes at the virgin birth or Christ's resurrection. What they advocate is a realistic understanding of the historical motivations for what God is saying in the book of Romans. As if the Bible were history, they use the story of the Roman Empire to understand motivation. As if the Bible were literature, they open up personalities and character to interpret intent and meaning. Romans Disarmed is, first of all, plain old Bible commentary--just neither plain nor old

I couldn't help but wish the book were half as big. Romans Disarmed is not beach reading. It's not a book you peruse. The authors do everything they can to make it readable--and it is. It's a tome, but it's not heavy. It's just huge. Thus, formidable. I wish it weren't. 

What they argue can be summarized in the way they word a treasured text for Calvinists like myself, Roman 8:28. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose," one of the most comforting words Paul ever wrote. Here it is in the New International Version: "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." A little less clear maybe, but still a line of scripture you can rely on.

Here's Keesmaat and Walsh's version: "'We know that in all things God works of good with those who love God and are called to his purpose" (italics theirs). Take a shot at the inclusion of those two words and you've got at least something of the gift of the book.

The authors want Romans Disarmed to equip followers of Jesus Christ for the blessed work of loving others, not saying they do but doing the hard work of taking care of  God's world, of bringing people in not keeping people out, of creating love fests and not constructing fortresses. 

Yes, if you're wondering, they're lefties and their determined. They don't back away from issues. They try their best to be fair to those who aren't, but where they're sure they're right, they say it, and say it clearly.

And that's how it is they get to gay marriage. And that's how they see it--draw no lines in the sand. Learn to love--that's the gospel.

If you ever wonder how evangelical Christians can argue for gay marriage, if you'd like to read a discussion that clearly and fairly takes you through that argument, I highly recommend that chapter in Romans Disarmed.

What we need to remember, they argue, is that for new Christians in Paul's moment, the idea of their own slaves being whole persons, men and women endowed by their creator with the image of God, the very notion of those slaves being loved and not used was as difficult for them to understand as it is difficult for millions of evangelicals to love and include their LBGTQ neighbors. 

The book is huge, but it's not a stiff read. It's a commentary on some of the most familiar passages in the book of Romans. 

Will it change anyone's mind? I don't know. What I do know is that evangelical Christianity faces no more divisive question right now--in many ways--than how to accept Mayor Pete and his husband.

That's where we're at. Romans Disarmed doesn't pull punches. It's all about love. 


Retired said...

A few years ago I was asked to give a talk on "raise you children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord." All female audience. A mother shared that one of her kids misbehaved in a restaurant as the family was out for a dinner. Her husband brought the child outside to the parking lot and inside their car. A couple seats on the butt and a short discussion and the teaching moment was over. Or was it? His wife got a call and visit from Social Services the next day. It was the parents position that they were loving their child. Social Services disagreed. Whose definition of love should prevail? Lefties or righties?

Brian Walsh said...

Hey Jim, thanks for the review - or perhaps, thanks for the post on some dimensions of our (admittedly) long book. There are a few infelicities that are kind of important to correct.
1. your quote of Rom 8.28 NRSV misses the word "work".
2. Keesmaat/Walsh translation (and the footnote in the NIV) of Rom 8.28 - you have "words for good," where you mean "works for good." I'm only nitpicking because the whole point is on how we translate this text.

And yes, that difference in translation does indeed capture the tone and spirit of our book.

Perhaps one final little point. Mayor Pete has a husband, not a bride.

Thanks again for taking time with the book. I would love to know how your study group engaged the more controversial matters of climate change, cell phones, the state, and how we eat together.

J. C. Schaap said...

Wow! Never dawned on me that one of the writers might just show up here. Thanks for doing so--and thanks for the editing help. I've always been a lousy proofreader. Our study group includes others you probably know. We spent four nights on the book--it is long, after all :), and we greatly enjoyed it. What you called "the more controversial matters" didn't create any conflicts, in part because life in a small town--you know where we live--sometimes approximates at least some aspects of "living off the grid." (I know--the reason for the Trump madness is somewhere in that description too.) As far as I know, we have no homeless, but Siouxland has become incredibly more diverse in that last two decades, and creating community is a on-going project, as it is everywhere. We smiled about cell phones, but I dare say none of us (in the group anyway) are addicted--we're too old. I hope you're not offended if I say that there are times when some of us think that what critiques like yours suggest is what already exists in small-town life. Most of the discussion during the hours we spent talking about your book centered on the really important contributions you make to discussions of exactly how it is we read the Bible. Some of us--I certainly did--loved the way you attempt to bring the reader into New Testament life, as revealed in historical scholarship. All in all, we deeply appreciated the book, as my blog post claims. So thanks again! And now pardon me, I've got some editing to take care of. . . Jim

Chuck Adams said...

Every two weeks, three friends and I get up bright and early and meet for omelets and coffee at Harry's Diner in Sheboygan (the one with shiny siding and a statue of Elvis in the entry) to discuss and make sense of what we are reading in light of our various ministries. (We are made up of two Evangelical Covenant pastors, a public sector lawyer licensed to exhort in the CRC, and a recently retired business guy who is married to one of the pastors.)

For the past couple of months we've been working our way through Romans Disarmed. We're only four chapters in, so this is in no way a review. I can say, though, that thus far our entire group has expressed appreciation for a few important details in this book that would cause us to recommend it to anyone who is willing to have their paradigms shifted a bit while studying Romans.

First, we've appreciated the work the authors do to bring multiple voices to the table. They recognize that their readers, even those who revel in occasional paradigm shifting, may have some reticence to simply swallow whole some of the suggestions for reading the text. Romans is a revolutionary text designed to oppose empire? Romans can be read through the lens of homelessness and homecoming? The authors recognize and address our initial hesitancy to go all in.

Second, given that so much one reads on Romans is expressed as "Here is the one and only right way to understand Paul," we appreciate that while the authors are persuading us to read Romans in a different way, they are clear that doing so does not prevent us from also using older, more traditional spectacles. The motifs of opposing empire and homelessness do not shove out more traditional ways of reading Romans as a doctrinal text--they add to it, they give those traditional ways more color, more fullness.

Third, as you pointed out, while many readers would experience this book as coming from a more "progressive" or "liberal" perspective, {meaningless words, really, but you get my meaning}, the text is taken very, very seriously. This is no "God is still speaking, so ignore all that stuff in the Bible." Nor is it "sure, this is Scripture, but it really only applies based on how you experience it." The authors take seriously the inspired words of Scripture.

Finally, we enjoy the multifaceted methods of getting at the meaning in the Scripture. The narrative stories, the reflections on the folks in the authors' congregations, the targum of the first part of Romans, all provide different angles by which to examine the words and ideas in Romans.

As noted, we are only four chapters in. Perhaps our appreciation will wane. Perhaps it will grow. And we have certainly expressed areas where we are not sure we fully buy into the authors' arguments (though, in those cases, we are also waiting to read more.) Regardless, "Romans Disarmed" has been a fruitful source of discussion and learning for our group.

Professor Schaap, you probably don't get back to Sheboygan County as often as you once did. But if in the next few months you find you will be near your old stomping grounds on a Tuesday morning, let me know. Breakfast will be on me in exchange for a few of your further ponderings on "Romans Disarmed."

J. C. Schaap said...

Thanks for the invite, Chuck. No trips scheduled right now, but should we come back sometime soon, I'll be in touch.

jerry27 said...

It looks like anything goes on campus -- as long as it is not BDS.

I simply have not decided what to make of gay marraige. Some of my friends and family accuse me of being incapable of "rightly dividing."

I have a group of friends that meets every friday night to watch Bill Maher on cable tv. My brother asked me why do you do that to yourself?


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