Is the Apostle Paul Anti-American? (Part 2)

The Apostle PaulIn yesterday’s post I introduced the so-called “Fresh Perspective” (FP) on Paul and some of the antagonistic things that these scholars are saying about America. Today, I want to explain why it is that these biblical scholars say what they say in opposition to the United States.

The FP holds as axiomatic at least two assumptions, with a third assumption being increasingly advocated in the literature. First, it is assumed that emperor worship was pervasive in Paul’s missionary context. FP interpreters note that the emperor cult of Paul’s day was the ideological glue that held the Roman empire together.

Second, Paul’s gospel is, therefore, both theological and political in that it offers an explicit repudiation of emperor worship and the empire it represents. When Paul calls Jesus Lord (Greek, kurios), he means not only to say that Jesus is Lord, but also that Caesar is not. Thus Paul’s message was “counterimperial.”

Third, Paul’s gospel, therefore, confronts all imperial systems, especially the new American empire that dominates the world with its military and globalist-capitalist economy. In the FP, the analogy between America and Rome is so direct, that Pauline repudiations of the “powers” of his day imply a direct confrontation of American imperial power in our own day.

Consider the following statements from FP interpreters.

Hal Taussig, “Prologue: A Door Thrown Open,” USQR 59 (2005): 1:

The conference [on the “Fresh Perspective”] marked a paradigm shift for the field of New Testament Studies . . . Convened at a time where empire had re-emerged as one of the most dangerous and frightening phenomena of our time, the conference addressed directly the ways the New Testament today can help shape ways of resisting and negotiating the realities of arrogant American power today.

Editors of the Union Seminary Quarterly Review 59 (2005): vii:

Participants at this trans-disciplinary and multi-media meeting discussed a reconsideration of the Roman empire as the New Testament’s socio-political context, examined the political resistance of early Christian communities, and considered and debated implications of reading the New Testament differently for resistance to imperial presumptions of twenty-first century American power.

We live in a context where the public face of New Testament interpretation is increasingly represented as either esoteric and irrelevant due to the perceived introspection of biblical scholars, or counter-productive to progressive theological praxis due to the dominance of right-wing Christian fundamentalist orientations. We hope this collection begins to articulate alternative questions and resources for New Testament studies and progressive religious thought more generally. . . remembering that the call to resist complicity with empire in all areas is embedded in the most sacred and ancient of Christian scriptures.

Come back tomorrow to find out how this new movement is impacting Evangelicalism and to see whether Evangelicals should appropriate this new way of interpreting Paul’s letters.

3 Responses to Is the Apostle Paul Anti-American? (Part 2)

  1. John Caneday November 15, 2006 at 10:54 am #

    Denny,

    It seems to me that Wright (I’m unfamiliar with the others) has an anti-American bias already, and he uses the anti-Imperial writings of Paul as an opportunity to level his criticisms of America.

    I am skeptical that his anti-American bias stems from his interpretation of Paul.

    This is one of Wright’s most glaring blind spots in my opinion. It is distressing to read such mis-guided criticisms from an otherwise intelligent and fair-minded theologian.

    As for the others, I would expect to discover them to be politically liberal and to view scripture from that angle, rather than discovering their liberalism and anti-Americanism in the scriptures.

    This is one of the problems I have witnessed in the handful of Emergent-type people I know and have met.

  2. Kyle Barrett November 15, 2006 at 11:08 am #

    It’s interesting that Crossan and others adopt this same kind of approach. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. The kingdom of God is given not to the spiritually oppressed (i.e, sinners) but to the politically oppressed (i.e., peasants). I’m not implying that those who hold to FP are in the same camp as Crossan but there is a strong similarity at least at this one point.

    kb

  3. Nancy November 16, 2006 at 12:43 am #

    Denny, do those in the FP camp do a thorough job of identifying a preponderance of characteristics shared by both Rome and America?

    And what do they do with Jesus command to give unto God what is God’s and give unto America what is America’s? (oops…)

    Seems the real enemy is the evil one and our own radical corruption. Why superimpose the falleness of the world onto a country?

    Looking forward to the next installment. When will the paper be available?

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