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Romans Disarmed

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I wasn't really a big fan of this book. Maybe I was looking for more of an exegetical engagement with the text than what was presented here, but I found myself often distracted and constantly looking at how much further I had left to finish a section (something I don't do if I'm actually enjoying the book). If you're looking for exegetical engagement with the text, this is not really a book that I would recommend.

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The Good: Keesmaat and Walsh’s overarching argument about home is, on the whole, interesting and in some places compelling. After reading this book, I’ve found my reading of other New Testament texts enriched by their arguments on this point, and believe it may prove to be fruitful given further discussion, especially in light of the church being described as “the family of God”. As a Canadian, I also appreciated seeing—for the first time—theological reflection in a popular level biblical studies book regarding the residential school system and the attempted (and largely, disturbingly, successful) cultural genocide of First Nations communities across the country. While I found their conclusion(s) of how to approach reconciliation for the most part biblically, historically, and socially incoherent, their effort on this front must be applauded. And I also appreciated the discussion on ecology, and repeated reflections on lament found throughout the book.

The Bad: I found the methodology of the book strange, making reading and evaluating the content of the book a very slow-going process. The book has a number of imaginative readings/exercises and targums that really only work to show the direction of the authors assumptions about the text—and indeed that is the point of targums, in some sense. But I found them each to be a distraction, providing little in the way of further evidence for their claims. I think other readers will also find the methodology of the book strange enough that this alone will limit the book from entering into wider readership.

The Ugly: Ultimately, though, I found myself transfixed by a question while reading this book, which points to some major biblical and theological issues that will limit the books usefulness for the majority of discerning readers. This question was whether Paul’s theology in Romans was derived and driven as a critique of Empire (and economics), or whether it was driven by a fidelity to God’s self-revelation (particularly in the person of Jesus, but also in and through the Old Testament) with the incidental application being confrontation with Empire? It seems to me that the book's view of the relationship between Paul and Empire is such that everything Paul wrote was derived from a critique of Rome, so much that empire critique is behind nearly every word of the letter. In my view, the authors seem to have confused derivation with confrontation, and instead of seeing Paul’s theology as being fundamentally grounded in Judaism they have seemed to find it only tangentially connected to Judaism, and only in so much as his Jewish theology supports the critique of empire that they argue is central to the text. Certainly the Gospel confronts empire, and thus confronts the imperial cult of Roman, but that confrontation is driven by a thoroughly Jewish theological core. Thus, why should one read Romans primarily as a text concerned with empire critique, rather than a pastoral/missional theological discussion of the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection for God’s people, (which might include empire critique but is not predicated on it)? This is never truly answered or addressed, and because of this much of the book actually does violence to Romans by removing the text from its theological foundation and replacing it with new foundation of nondescript notions that resemble post-christian, postmodern Canadian culture more than anything one finds in Scripture or the Christian tradition.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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I just read a similar book about Galatians but it was much more straightforward with the theology and the relatability for modern audiences was secondary. This book does the opposite and also weaves in experiences at a church in Canada. I see what they were trying to do, like if Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote a scriptural commentary book but I don't think they pulled it off.

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I actually think this book would be better off with the title: "Readers Disarmed." This is not an easy, fluffy read, which most of the things I read aren't but this book can be jarring because of the writing style and the way the authors chose to approach the conversation going on in the book.

Even if you are familiar with the Book of Romans, this is such a departing from the standard reading that it might take you some time to comprehend what you are reading. This is definitely not a book that I can say would be great for a general audience of just about anyone, but it is a book that has value in it. If you are prepared to work through it and look some things up, open your mind and learn something about history and philosophy, then it will likely benefit you.

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher, provided through Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that challenges the way that we read the Bible. In some instances, the change could be in how we read the cultural context surrounding the book, like EP Sanders and James Dunn challenged us to do in the 70's. Some offer new angles on books, like NT Wright and Scot McKnight have done with Philemon. And, in some cases, we are asked to consider current hot-button issues through the lens of the text, which is where Romans Disarmed comes in.

Authors Sylvia and Keesmaat and Brian Walsh challenge what we know about Romans, asking us to consider new angles on the text. These new angles? They are wide ranging, varying from Pauline challenges to Empire, ecological theology, and economic ideologies. Most students or readers familiar with Romans won’t see this – I certainly didn’t from the start.

This is where one of the book’s most unique angles comes in. The book challenges our traditional readings using both exegesis and imaginative readings. That second part might scare prospective readers away – and the authors are quite aware of that. But the book is not all imagination. When necessary, the authors are capable and willing to argue from the Greek. For example, they engage in a discussion on how English translations render “wickedness” and “righteousness” when they could also use “injustice” and “justice”.

The authors call on us to us our imaginations in a variety of ways. At the beginning, we are invited into a story focusing on Indigenous peoples in Canada and their relationship with the government. This story is full of the joys of these people, but also their sorrows. This helps the authors understand that Paul was also writing Romans out of a place of sorrow (Romans 9:1-5), using the communal sorrow and grief as entry points into the epistle.

We are also introduced to imagined Roman citizens, who represent the first hearers of the text. These two imagined characters are used as ways we can enter into the first century and hear the text the way that they might’ve. In that we do not have a view of marginalization, these characters are some readers’ only way to hear some of the ways Paul helps the marginalized move into the center of the kingdom.

I can’t speak to the success of this method for everybody – and I don’t think anybody would want me to. I can only be honest about my own experience with the texts. From the start, I was hesitant to engage in the imaginative exercises that they brought us through. The authors foresee this, though, and create a fictive conversation partner who voices a lot of push back readers like myself have. Seeing that the authors foresaw this push back and worked to address it in the book itself, rather than after the fact, helped me engage in their imaginative world a bit better. In general, these were somewhat helpful in illustrating their points, but I don’t know if I was ever able to come alongside their practice. I wonder now how much my cishet white privilege position was in engaging more fully with this book, but I don’t know how to judge that yet. In that, I am excited to hear reviews and conversations from people of color, women, and others who are not white cishet men.

Having addressed one of the first hurdles blocking total engagement with the book, I want to (somewhat) briefly discuss the themes and ideas explored in the book. Thankfully, the authors provide definitions of all of their terms, and your mileage may vary in terms of how closely they match contemporary and popular usage. Broadly, the books tackles the way (the authors believe) Romans addresses homelessness, the relationship between ecology and economy, and sexual ethics.

“Paul is concerned about the shape of the oikos, the household of creation and the household of faith. This makes him, in the broadest sense of the term, an eco-theologian, not only because a theology of the land, a theology of creation, is woven throughout his epistle to the Romans, but also because his letter as a whole is an attempt to engender an alternative home among the followers of Jesus at the heart of empire.”

Using the paradigm of the relationship between Jew and Gentile, we are invited to see how Romans is formed on the basis about becoming a “homed” people. The church is shaped as a counter-cultural home to all people, so that no one is left on the margins that the Empire pushes them to.

In what is probably the most profitable (unfortunate pun) section, we are invited to explore the relationship between our idolatry, the economy, and the ecological disaster scientists say we are barreling toward. Even if you aren’t convinced Romans is directly addressing ecological theology, this is a tremendously helpful section which warrants engagement. We are helpfully invited into lamenting the state of the enviroment and repenting of the sins we have committed which have brought us here, but shown our eschatological hope of resurrection and God’s renewal.

In the end, I am excited to see how the conversation around this book goes. The book is well-written, engaging, and didn’t fail to keep my interest. As a “more traditional” student, I had a hard time engaging the methodology, but I think any reader should do their best to lean into the work as best they can. If it is not true that Paul had ecology/economic relationships, homelessness, and contemporary social issues in mind, this book would still not be a complete waste. There is still a lot to be learned about these issues, and ways to discuss them biblically, that we can learn from this book. In the meantime, you can read more about the book from Baker here. You can pre-order it from Amazon here.

I received a review copy of this book from NetGalley. I wasn’t required to write a good review, only an honest one, to get the copy.

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