One of the startling functions of the Bible that we often miss is the insistent subversion of dominant claims to power that the biblical writers saw in their contexts (think Egypt, Bablyon, Rome, and so on). Do we miss them because we aren’t familiar with the social, cultural and historical elements of (for example) Roman rule? Most certainly. Do we miss them because, in the West at least, we aren’t sensitive to reading texts from a position of powerlessness? Quite possibly.
Preparing for two sessions on our MA in Bible and Mission programme, I came across this quote in Greene and Robinson’s Metavista: Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination. It is taken from Walsh and Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed:
If the empire encodes in the imagery of everyday life – on public arches, statues and buildings – the claim that Rome and its emperor are the beneficent provider and guarantor of all fruitfulness, how can a claim that the “gospel” is bearing fruit “in the whole world” be heard as anything less than a challenge to this imperial fruitfulness? Especially if we remember that the word gospel (evangelion) is the very same term that the empire reserves for announcements of military success and pronouncements from the emperor, doesn’t it become clear that there is something deeply subversive in what Paul is saying here? Whose gospel is the source of fruitfulness that will last and sustain the world – the gospel of Caesar or the gospel of Jesus?
The Bible confronts us constantly with uncomfortable questions of identity and allegiance. This is more subtle, I think, than the usual ‘God or mammon’ discussion, valid though that is. How am I capitulating to alternative worldviews and power structures in the place of my devotion to Christ? What imagery would Paul use if he were making his argument in our time?