Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat
Reviewed by Jonny Baker
In Colossians Remixed, Walsh and Keesmaat argue that in its original setting, the letter to the Colossians would have been heard as a subversive and dangerous text; Colossians presented an alternative vision of reality to the ethos of the Roman Empire and called for ultimate allegiance to a power other than Ceasar. They use a creative mix of historic, cultural and Biblical studies to unpack how the text would have played out to its hearers. Unlike a lot of other commentaries that get bogged down in technical detail they stick with the big questions and the big story—it’s the most engaging commentary I have ever read.
We find ourselves in another equally powerful empire today—global capitalism—with a different set of idols. Working out how to live as disciples of Christ in this consumer-driven culture is possibly the biggest challenge facing the church in the west. Walsh and Keesmaat do a lot of imaginative work to bring this ancient angular text to life and show that it offers a lot of wisdom in addressing this challenge. The other big question which they tackle head-on is one that characterizes our culture—the postmodern suspicion about truth. They suggest that it isn’t good enough to stand on the side lines and keep your options open in a cool, detached, postmodern way. Following in the way of Christ demands nailing your colors to the mast.
One of the most stunning things in the book is a set of targums. When Jewish rabbis read the Torah to the Jews of the Diaspora, recognizing that their congregations did not understand Hebrew, the rabbis would have to translate the text as they read. When they did this they would update the text applying it to the changing context as they read. The result of such interpretive exercises was called a targum. What would Colossians sound like if it was written yesterday? This snippet of the targum on Colossians 2 gives you a flavor:
“Don’t be duped by advertising that tells you that various products are indispensable to constructing certain images and personas. This is all crap. They are still trying to captivate your imagination… Resist this McWorld nightmare with all the strength you have!”
These targums give a fresh and original look at the intent of the book of Colossians—connecting it with applications for our current postmodern context. We have tended to domesticate and privatize its message, just as we have done with a lot of the radical and dangerous teachings of Christ. It is strong stuff and I am sure it will be seen as controversial by many.
The final section of the book outlines practically what this might look like lived out in everyday life, which is a fitting way to conclude a brilliant book.