Well, I’m just barely keep my head above water with my reading. Here are last month’s books.
1. John and Empire: Initial Explorations by Warren Carter.
In my estimation, Warren Carter is one of the best New Testament scholars writing today. His knowledge of the New Testament, as well as all of the various contextual and intertextual possibilities related to it, is exceptional and makes for fascinating (dare I say ‘required’?) reading.
This is well illustrated in John and Empire, a study of the Gospel of John. Carter takes a Gospel that is generally perceived of as more ‘spiritual’ than ‘historical’, and places it firmly within the context of the Roman Empire in general, and Ephesus in the late first-century more specifically. Thus, the reader comes to understand John’s Gospel as a call to a particular way of negotiating the imperial realities of one’s personal and communal existence. In particular, Carter demonstrates that the author of John’s Gospel is calling the readers to create more distance between themselves and the values, ideologies, and structures of imperial powers (which, of course, has implications for the contemporary Western reader).
I highly recommend this book.
2. The Power of the Poor in History by Gustavo Gutierrez.
This book is a collection of essays written by Gutierrez. They reflect upon the historical development of liberation theology (within Latin America), and upon some of the major themes of that theology — notably, the transformative power of poor people and the importance of solidarity with them.
While reading this book, I was struck by the distance that has grown up between the original Latin American liberation theologians and many of those in the West who have adopted the rhetoric of liberation theology. It seems to me that many Western copies pale in comparison to the original. Specifically, while those like Gutierrez call us to the lived experience of poverty, concrete movement into places of oppression, and solidarity that is expressed in all areas of one’s life, Western voices have taken the language of Gutierrez and used it to support a more bourgeois, liberal democratic focus upon matters related to equality and inclusivity.
Of course, things like equality and inclusivity aren’t bad things, but the way in which these things are pursued tend to be quite superficial in comparison to the depth of the commitments of the Latin American liberation theologians. Nowhere is this more evident than in the means by which these theologies are developed. Latin American liberation theology is developed out of concrete solidarity at ‘the underside of history’ whereas Western appropriations tend to come out of places of privilege and power over history.
Thus, I persist in thinking that liberation theology continues to be an untested thesis in the West. It is not the sort of theory that one can simply engage cerebrally. To truly test the thesis of liberation theology requires the inquirer to engage in an embodied active experiment. Sadly, I know of very few Western theologians who have been willing to do this.
So, I recommend reading Gutierrez, but I even more strongly recommend trying to live in alternative ways, so that one can properly read Gutierrez.
3. Fugitive Writings by Peter Kropotkin.
Hot-diggity-damn, this is one helluva good book. It is a collection of essays written by Kropotkin on the theme of anarchism (its vision, principles, philosophy, ideals, morality, and relation to the State) and if you are not open to being an anarchist after reading it, then I might be inclined to think that you are also not open to being a Christian! Indeed, it is precisely because I am a Christian that I am drawn to anarchism in general, and to Kropotkin’s expression thereof in particular.
Now, I could rant and rave some more about this collection, but perhaps a few quotes might be more helpful.
From the essay, “Anarchist Morality”:
[T]his principle of treating others as one wishes to be treat oneself, what is it but the very same principle as equality, the fundamental principle of anarchism? And how can one manage to believe himself [sic] an anarchist unless he practices it?
We do not wish to be ruled. And by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves wish to rule nobody? We do not wish to be deceived, we wish always to be told nothing but the truth. And by this very fact, do we not declare that we ourselves do not wish to deceive anybody, that we promise to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth? We do not wish to have the fruits of our labour stolen from us. And by that very fact, do we not declare that we respect the fruit of others’ labour?
By what right indeed can we demand that we should be treat in one fashin, reserving it to ourselves to treat others in a fashion entirely different?
By proclaiming ourselves anarchists, we proclaim beforehand that we disavow any way of treating others in which we should not like them to treat us; that we will no longer tolerate the inequality that has allowed some among us to use their strength, their cunning or their ability after a fasion in which it would annoy us to have such qualities used against ourselves.
Of course, what makes this so different than so much bourgeois rhetoric is the way in which the anarchists realise that this belief is tied to pratical solidarity (just like the Latin American liberation theologians). Thus, I quote from the essay, “Must we Occupy Ourselves with an Examination of the Ideal of a Future System?”:
The necessary and primary condition of any success whatsoever… is the full renunciation of any signs of nobility, the lowering of one’s material circumstances almost to the level of that milieu where one intends to act. And one must work, do actual work, which each worker and each peasant can understand precisely as work… A person unable to renounce these comforts when he [sic] sees the usefulness of such renunciation, is not capable of presistent, tedious labour, and never will be capable of persistent revolutionary activity. He might be the hero of the moment, but we have no need of heroes; in moments of passion, they appear of themselves, from amongst the most ordinary people. We need people who, once having come to a certain conviction, are for its sake ready to withstand all possible deprivations day in and day out. But activity amongst the peasants and workers demands precisely this rejection of every comfort of life, a lowering of one’s prosperity to a level attainable by the worker.
Of course, many people are unable to hear these words because they are afraid of the word ‘anarchy’ and have confused anarchy with ‘disorder’. Kropotkin addresses some of these fears in the essay, “Anarchist Communinism: It’s Basis and Principles”:
We know well that the word “anarchy” is also used in current phraseology as synonymous with disorder. But that meaning of “anarchy,” being a derived one, implies at least two suppositions. It implies, first, that wherever there is no government there is disorder; and it implies, moreover, that order due to a strong government and a strong police is always beneficial. Both implications, however, are anything but proved. There is plenty of order–we should say, of harmony–in many branches of human activity where the government, happily, does not interfere. As to the beneficial effects of order, the kind of order that reigned at Naples under the Bourbons surely was not preferable to some disorder started by Garibaldi; while the Protestants of this country will probably say that the good deal of disorder made by Luther was preferable, at any rate, to the order which reigned under the Pope.
Yet isn’t the anarchist vision one that is too ‘utopian’ and impossible to work out in real life, due to the fallen nature of humanity? Kropotkin reverses this challenge in “Anarchism: Its Philosophy and Ideal”:
Far from living in a world of visions and imagining men better than they are, we see them as they are; and that is why we affirm that the best of men is made essentially bad by the exercise of authority…
Ah, if men were those superior beings that the utopians of authority like to speak to us of, if we could close our eyes to reality and live like them in a world of dreams and illusions as to the superiority of those who think themselves called to power, perhaps we also should do like them…
All the science of governments, imagined by those who govern, is imbibed with these utopias. But we know men too well to dream such dreams. We have not two measures for the virtues of the governed and those of the governors; we know that we ourselves are not without faults and that the best of us would soon be corrupted by the exercise of power.
Another book I strongly recommend.
4. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.
This is Goncharov’s story of Oblomov, a member of the Russian gentry who has good intentions but never seems to get around to doing anything meaningful. Indeed, Oblomov is the superfluous man, and functions as a representative of Goncharov’s generation (as perceived by the author). It’s a decent story and one that should be rewritten for my generation.
Well, I’m just barely keep my head above water with my reading. Here are last month’s books.