Reading Scripture as a Political Act: Essays on the Theopolitical Interpretation of the Bible (Fortress, 2015)

[1] It is a challenging task to provide a clear and fair evaluation of a volume of collected essays. This is doubly true when the volume includes contributions from more than a dozen different authors whose diverse interests coalesce around an emerging ​theme still being defined. In this instance, a reviewer more closely resembles a film critic who must offer an opinion of the wholeness of a film based upon evaluations of separate aspects—acting, screenwriting, directing—in order to indicate where the strengths and weaknesses of the work truly reside. My task here is no different. In order to provide a clear, fair, and accurate evaluation of this volume, I must balance an assessment of the quality of the individual contributions of each author with the task that the editors of the volume have set for this project. With this balance in mind, the contributors have mostly succeeded but the editors have not fully succeeded in the task they have set out to accomplish.

[2] This edited volume by Matthew A. Tapie and Daniel Wade McClain is concerned with this confluence of reading Scripture for thought, formation, and action within one’s context or polis. At the same time, they are concerned that the growing field of Christian political theology marginalizes the role of scripture and biblical interpretation in crafting these theologies. As they state from the very beginning, “Although divine revelation is recognized as a key concept in political theology, and biblical scholars increasingly understand scripture to contain political dimensions, scripture is often marginalized in most scholarly discussions of political theology. As a corrective to this problem, the contributors…attempt to demonstrate how scripture functions in the ‘theopolitical imagination’ of theologians from the earliest Christian centuries to the present day” (1). This is important because, as Tapie and McClain, write, “…the act of reading scripture in and of itself—especially as this act is embedded in the church’s liturgical life—possesses a character that is both political and ecclesial at the same time” (6). Moreover, “The church’s liturgy has what might be called a theopolitical aim: to confess faith in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, as Lord” (7).

[3] The organizing principle for this collection is a preferential but not exclusive focus on the fruits of “pre-modern” readings of Scripture. That is, ways of interpreting scripture that were used before the method of historical-criticism became the dominant method. Tapie and McClain indicate that part of the importance of retrieving such “pre-modern” readings of Scripture is to demonstrate how such readings form a Christian “theopolitical imagination.” To this end, the first ten chapters (the majority of the volume) investigates “pre-modern” theopolitical biblical interpretation. These illuminating and well-researched essays investigate Lamentations, Johannine politics of friendship, Augustine’s discussion of law and rape through the story of Susanna, Basil of Caesarea’s politics of fasting in his sermons, the politics of social order from Genesis 1 in Origen, Basil, and Ambrose, Bonaventure’s biblical interpretation of Francis’ stigmata, Aquinas on Christ and peace, the biblical theopolitical imagination and interpretation involved in the work of Bartolome de Las Casa and the Valladolid debate, a theopolitical reading of the biblical foundations in Shakespeare’s Richard II, and the ancient fourfold sense of reading Scripture practiced by Henri de Lubac as an act of resistance and “spiritual warfare” against Nazism. The final four chapters then look at John Wesley’s theopolitical imagination, Karl Barth and the Barmen Declaration, John Howard Yoder and capital punishment, and the volume concludes with an investigation into the Gospel of Mark.

[4] Each essay in this volume deserve to be read closely. Among the highlights are Peter Dula’s essay on the politics of friendship in the Gospel of John, Melanie Webb’s discussion of how Augustine’s reading of the story of Susanna in the Book of Daniel deeply affected his merciful stance towards the victims of rape during the sack of Rome, Travis’ Ables’ examination of how Bonaventure’s theopolitical biblical imagination formed his interpretation of the life of Francis of Assisi, and in particular Francis receiving the stigmata, Craig Hovey’s discussion of reading Mark through the experience of broken bodies, and David Lantigua’s excellent re-evaluation of the role that theopolitical readings of Scripture played in the thought of Bartolome de Las Casas, Francisco de Vitoria, Juan Ines de Sepulveda, the Valladolid debate and the theopolitical and biblical underpinnings of the Spanish colonial project.

[5] The aforementioned essays are exceptionally strong, however, there are two other essays in particular that deserve more attention. The first is the opening essay by Rebekah Ecklund, “Empires and Enemies: Re-Reading Lament as Politics.” Here Ecklund examines the practice of lament in Daniel, Revelation, the Psalms, and other books, demonstrating that lament is saturated into the entirety of Scripture. In doing so, she highlights the political dimension of lament that challenges all structures that cause innocent suffering and brings out its political dimension, including public protest within our contemporary context. She connects this tradition to its continuation in contexts of innocent suffering such as the African-American, South African, and Liberian contexts. She concludes, “When the church laments as the church, whether in speech or action, it affirms the most basic trust of the biblical lamenter: that there is a God who hears and who wipes away all the tears, a God who defeated death and evil and invites us into abundant resurrection life, the God before whom all earthly powers are already disarmed” (35). This essay is one of the volume’s high notes.

[6] The second essay is Kevin Hughes’ “Ressourcement and Resistance: La nouvelle theologie, the Fathers, and the Bible, Against Fascism.” Here, Hughes focuses upon Henri de Lubac’s work initiating the series, Sources Chretiennes, and collaborating with others to retrieve and translate many the works of the early Church Fathers. What is particularly interesting about de Lubac’s work with this series is that he began it right after the Nazis conquered the entirety of France and eventually set up the Vichy puppet-regime. As Hughes points out, de Lubac retrieved ancient, “pre-modern” methods for interpreting Scripture as a means of resisting evil and fascism. Hughes writes, “For de Lubac, the recovery of spiritual exegesis was a spiritual re-armament for an underground battle, beneath the political and military maneuvers, for the soul of the church and the heart of the world. In particular, facing the storm of fascism, de Lubac argued that the renewal of scriptural interpretation was the necessary foundation for Christian resistance. The very spiritual interpretation of scripture which seemed to the critical scholarly eye to signal the nostalgia for the backward past was for de Lubac an essential tool for his present age” (221). Hughes concludes this insightful and illuminating essay with the following observation: “If Scriptural interpretation is not quite ‘political’ in the strict sense, it is all the more powerful as spiritual warfare against the principalities and powers that float above, or beneath, the regimes of the world” (238).

[7] The individual contributions to this volume are very strong. The essays are clear, erudite, and provide real insight into the interaction among reading the Bible and understanding and acting within a political context. Although this collection of essays is strong, informative, and does indeed push forward the conversation on theopolitical readings of the Bible, there is one major weaknesses that must be mentioned and it falls squarely upon the shoulders of the editors: the complete lack of attention to and engagement with the long tradition of theopolitical readings of the Bible in African-American Christianity.

[8] This oversight is a severe problem because Black Christianity frequently is overlooked and neglected by the field of political theology even though it is one of the most robust and effective traditions of theopolitical readings of the Bible and the formation of a Christian theopolitical imagination. One need look no farther than the work of esteemed scholar Albert Raboteau or the recent work J. Kameron Carter and Willie James Jennings to engage with this tradition. They have demonstrated that from the very beginnings of “New World Afro-Christianity” (the term is Carter’s), or “slave religion” (the term is Raboteau’s), there has been little separation between the Biblical narratives and the political situation of chattel slavery. For centuries, Black ministers and thinkers have interpreted scripture to provide an alternative theopolitical imagination, and one much truer to the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed as Christ, than the ones enforced by the white slave masters and slave traders. Long before any others in North America, the “slave religion” of Black Christians provided an alternative and adequate understanding of the Christian Scriptures and its ramifications for political life and they did so using what might be called “pre-modern” methods or interpretation. Their methods show a much closer resemblance to the methods of Origen and Augustine than to “modern” or “post-modern” methods of interpretation.

[9] In a volume such as this it is important to investigate pre-modern readings of the Bible employed by seminal theological figures in the first fifteen centuries of Christianity. It also is important to examine the interplay of theopolitical readings of the Bible with key figures in crisis situations such as the French Resistance to Nazism, the Barmen Declaration, and colonization of the Americas. And no one volume can cover everything. Nevertheless, the severity of the problem created by the absence of African-American theopolitical readings of scripture is a major flaw. Historical and contemporary Black theopolitical imaginations and interpretations of scripture are without equal in their bearing witness to the God of Life who can “make a way out of no way.”

[10] All in all, this edited volume is a solid achievement. It brings together a variety of historical figures and fruits of biblical interpretation that shed light on the importance of reading the Bible to ongoing construction of political theologies. I recommend this book for graduate and seminary classes that focus on political theologies, biblical hermeneutics, Christian spirituality, and the intersection among the biblical narratives, the context in which the narrative is interpreted, and the meaning and action that are the fruits of the labor. It also may be accessible to the informed reader outside the realm of academia. Had the editors introduced and explored the historical and contemporary importance and unparalleled achievement of African-American theopolitical interpretations of the Bible, however, this volume may have become necessary reading. As it stands, it is a solid achievement with a deep flaw. Although this omission does not detract from the careful and insightful work of the many contributors to this volume, it does place the larger question of addressing theopolitical interpretation of Scripture into a new light. As Tapie and McClain conclude, “It is also our hope that the efforts undertaken here might assist those concerned with shaping a political theology that can articulate the liberating power of the gospel in light of the tradition and with attention to the problems of violence and injustice” (17). Let us hope they continue this work and expand to fully engage all of the essential voices from the Christian tradition.

Kevin Considine

Kevin Considine is Assistant Professor of Theology at Calumet College of St. Joseph (Whiting, IN). He is the author of Salvation for the Sinned-Against: ‘Han’ and Schillebeeckx in Intercultural Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015). His research has been published in Black Theology: An International Journal, Horizons, New Theology Review, and Tijdschrift voor Theologie (online).