This border is taken from the image of a Belgian Art Nouveau archway. The study of these doorways requires that one investigate the separation of two worlds while exposing the individual who must move between them.

An Excerpt from "Colossians Remixed" by Walsh and Keesmaat.

September 11, 2001, Postmodemity and Empire

No attempt at cultural discernment post-September 11, 2001, can fail to take into account the culture-shaping and history-shifting significance of the tragic events of the day and the response that these attacks evoked. If we are at all correct in referring to the culture of global consumerism-a culture that has become essentially synonymous with America-as an empire, then the events of September 11 and its aftermath only served to confirm the analysis. Indeed, if we are attempting to engage in cultural discernment of the shape of the twenty-first century, then it could be said that the twenty-first century began on September 11, 2001.

The tragic events of September 11 cannot be fully understood apart from the dynamics of empire. Remember that we said earlier that empires are built on system centralizations of power and secured by structures of socioeconomic and military cortrol. Moreover, empires are religiously legitimated by powerful myths that are rooted in foundational assumptions, and they are sustained by a proliferation of imperialism ages that captivate the imagination of the population. So what happened on September 11? In a stroke of perverse, counterimperial genius, America was attacked at the site of its socioeconomic and military control. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon were, of course, the perfect targets. This attack went to the systemic center of America] culture-its economic control and military power. But just as important, these were targets of profound symbolic significance. These institutions are at the heart of the powerful myth that legitimates the empire identified with America. As Benjamin Barber puts it, this was an "astonishing assault on the temple of free enterprise in New York City and the cathedral of American military might in Washington, D.C."

Clearly American political leaders understood that the battle at hand was of mythical proportions. This is why the language of myth was sharply in focus during the president's brief address to the nation on the evening of September 11. The attack, he said, was an attack on "freedom" which was intended to inflict chaos on the nation but he was here to tell us that America was still in control. The president was in the White House, government services would be reopened in the morning, and, most important, "America is open for business."

America is open for business? Wasn't that a rather callous and irrelevant comment under the circumstances? Not at all. You see, "America is open for business" means forces of chaos will not triumph because the forces of salvation are stronger. And as we have seen, in this myth salvation is found in an ever-expanding global economy If America is still "open for business," then freedom still reigns! It is not surprising then, that the litany repeated throughout the months following these attacks was two fold. Yes, America will root out the terrorists and destroy them, together with anyone else perceived to be a threat to American freedom. But in the meantime, the highest patriotic duty of the American population was to go out and consume. We must not let the terrorists have the sweet victory of destroying our economy, our very way of life. Spend your money fly on airplanes and take the kids to Disneyland! This was the moral admonition of the empire.

However, the American imperial mythology of invincibility, rooted in its economic and military hegemony and historically proved with the collapse of communism, had been shaken. When the president said that you can shake the foundation of a building but not the foundation of a nation, you knew somehow that this was not true. The foundation of the nation had indeed been shaken. For the first time in its history, an enemy of the nation had brought the pain, violence and bloodshed of war not only to the American mainland but to the heart of the American system of economic and military power. And you think that the foundations of the nation aren't shaking?

No wonder people on the street said that it all seemed so unreal, so much like a movie, rather than reality. How could this be reality? The American mythology has no way of interpreting such an event. In terms of the myth, the attack simply could not have happened. How could a nation that is so clearly virtuous, so moral, such a leader in civilizational progress ever be hated by anyone so much? Did they hate us, David Letterman asked, "because they don't get cable?" Is that it? Is this a matter of civilizational jealousy? Is it a matter of our just having more stuff than they do? The feebleness of Letterman's humor mirrored the superficiality of the culture that he entertains. So captivated by the consumerist imagination of the empire, and so immersed in the empire's self-justifying mythology and rhetoric, we find ourselves unable to fathom the depths of the crisis in which we now live.

If the myth is in crisis, who better to provide answers to our doubts than the official mythmakers of the empire-the media? And what better entertainment product but The West Wing to be the avenue for such myth refinement? In a special episode that was aired in response to September 11, an event of international terrorism has hit the United States, and the White House is subject to a security shutdown. But a group of bright high school students is now locked into the White House, and all of the show's regular characters arrive to discuss the issues with the students. The heart of the show-its moment of mythological resolution-comes right at the end. The security situation is resolved, and the students are about to leave, when the presidential press secretary makes his final point. He tells the students that if they really want to get to the terrorists, if they want to get at them deep down where they really live, then "believe more than one thing. It drives them crazy."

Believe more than one thing. Embrace a plurality of belief. Keep your worldview options open. And these terrorists go crazy because they are capable of believing only one thing at a time.

Why do "they" hate us so much? Is it because of cable? Well, sort of. Perhaps they hate us because we are a cable culture of multiple channels mirroring a belief pluralism that just keeps too many options open. From the perspective of an Osama bin Laden such pluralism represents not the maturity of an open society but the lack of moral courage and the conviction of a promiscuous society Perhaps "they" hate us because we are the consummate consumers. Perhaps "they" find the consumption of belief so morally reprehensible that "they" are willing to risk everything in order to destroy such a civilization.

The culture we have just described is the global consumerist empire, with its postmodern multiplicity of perspectives. And now that empire is under attack. It is not only self-imploding under the sheer weight of its own consumer refuse but exploding under the attack of a counterimperial force.

And in such a context William wants to be a theist. But what will the God he now believes in have to say? And what might a text written by the apostle Paul in the context of the Roman empire possibly have to say to the twenty-first century-the third millennium-which began on September 11, 2001?


Ancient texts were not always ancient. That may seem to be rather obvious, but it is worth remembering. Paul's letter to the Christian community in Colossae was once a piece of contemporary correspondence to a particular community in a particular place and time. And like our time, theirs was a time of empire.

In the next chapter we will attempt to situate this letter more concretely in the context of the first century, and we will have occasion to return to the theme of empire at that time. But before we do that, let's stop and try an interpretive exercise. What would happen if a letter like this was written to us in a post-September 11 context of global disquiet, combined with the cyberoptimism of the so-called economic boom? What language would the author use if he listened to contemporary music, watched the World Trade Center towers collapse, and was culturally attuned to the challenges of being a Christian community in the twenty-first century? What would the letter to the Colossians look like if it was written not two thousand years ago but last week? And what would it say if its audience weren't the beleaguered Christian community in the town of Colossae in the Roman empire, but the Christian community trying to make. sense out of being the body of Christ in the third millennium?

This isn't really such a novel way of approaching an ancient text. In fact, when rabbis read the Torah to the Jews of the Diaspora, they did precisely this kind of thing. Recognizing that their congregations did not understand Hebrew, the rabbis would have to translate the text as they read. And their translations were certainly not literal. Rather, they would update the text, apply it to the changing context and put it into contemporary idiom. The results of such interpretive exercises were called targums- extended paraphrases of the text. So before we dive into the world of the Roman empire, consider this targum on Colossians 1:1-14.

Colossians 1:1-14 Targum

Brian and Sylvia, disciples of Messiah Jesus by the grace of God, to the covenanted community of faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in the totally wired world of the new global economy.

At the dawn of a new millennium, and in the face of a world of terror, may you experience the all-encompassing shalom and wholeness that is received as a wonderful gift from God our Father.

We want you to know that thankfulness permeates our prayers for you. We continue to give thanks to God, the Father of our sovereign Messiah Jesus, as we hear the stories of struggling and daring discipleship that continues to characterize his followers. We have heard that your faith and trust in Jesus is proved true because it takes on the real flesh of love in your midst-a love that is manifest in your care for the poor, providing shelter to the homeless, food for the hungry and hospitality to the stranger. Such faith and love are inseparable: one cannot exist without the other. But neither is possible without hope. And here at the end of a century of such bloodshed, betrayal and broken promises, it is an amazing thing to be a community animated by hope. May that hope sustain you in a world addicted to violence.

But your hope is not the cheap buoyant optimism of global capitalism with its cybernetic computer gods and self-confident scientific discovery, all serving the predatory idolatry of economism. You know that these are gods with an insatiable desire for child sacrifice. That is why your hope is not the shallow optimism of the "Long Boom" of increased prosperity. Such optimism is but a cheap imitation of hope. Real hope-the kind of hope that gives you the audacity to resist the commodification of your lives and engenders the possibility of an alternative imagination-is no human achievement; it is a divine gift. This hope isn't extinguished by living in "the future of a shattered past," precisely because it is a hope rooted in a story of kept promises, even at the cost of death.

You didn't get this hope from cable television, and you didn't find it on the Net. This hope walked into your life, hollering itself hoarse out on the streets, in the classroom, down at the pub and in the public square, when you first heard the good news of whole life restoration in Christ. This gospel is the Word of truth-it is the life-giving, creation-calling, covenant-making, always faithful servant Word that takes flesh in Jesus, who is the truth. So it is not surprising that the Word of truth is no detached set of objective verities committed to memory and reproduced on the test. No, this Word of truth is active, bearing fruit throughout the cultural wilderness of this terribly scorched earth.

From the beginning blessing, "Be fruitful and multiply," God has always intended that creation be a place of fruitfulness. Now the Word of truth is producing the fruit of a radical discipleship, demonstrated in passion for justice, evocative art and drama, restorative stewardship of our ecological home, education for faithful living, integral evangelism, and liturgy that shapes an imagination alternative to the empire's.

And when that kind of fruit is evident in your lives, you don't need to choke on the word truth-you don't need to whisper it through your tears. You see, once you have comprehended the grace of God in truth and your life bears witness to the power of this truth, then you can speak-indeed you can sing-of truth with integrity. You have learned all of this well from prophets and singers, teachers and preachers, artists and storytellers who have come before us, and again, they all testify to your love in the Spirit.

So ever since we have heard of your faith, love and hope, we have not ceased to pray for you. And our prayer is that in a world that has commodified knowledge, you will be saturated with the holistic, intimate knowledge of God's way with this world that he has created. May your lives be characterized not by the accumulation of disembodied, unconnected facts and information but by a playful, history-embracing, this-worldly, interconnected wisdom that traces the wise and loving way God engages this world in all of its rich diversity.

What we are praying for is that you will demonstrate a spiritual wisdom and understanding in all things, so that you can discern where the Spirit is leading the church in this new century You see, such knowledge, wisdom and understanding are essential if you are to shape cultural life in a way that is worthy of the Lord. And don't miss the scope of what we are talking about here. What is at stake is nothing less than the pleasure of our Lord, a pleasure that he takes when every dimension of our lives bears the fruit of his kingdom.

But it is not simply a matter of growing in knowledge and then displaying the practical consequences or uses of that knowledge in our daily lives. No, that would be too much like the intellectualism that was the hallmark of modernity The knowledge and cultural fruitfulness we are talking about feed off each other. Knowing the world in wisdom and discernment engenders a certain way of life that then leads to an increase in knowledge. Knowing grows in the doing.

But here's the rub. Everything in this monolithic culture of McWorld globalization is allied against you and will try to keep your imagination captive, stripping you of the courage to dream of alternative ways to live. When a culture is threatened, it becomes especially repressive of those who dare to live differently, subject to another vision of life, another Lord. So may you be strengthened with all strength and empowered with the weighty power of God in this disempowered culture of unbearable lightness. May your vision, your stubborn refusal to allow your imaginations to be taken captive, have the tenacity to hang in there for the long haul and a patience that doesn't need to aggressively realize the kingdom of God now, because your faith will work and wait for a miracle, for the coming of God's shalom to our terribly broken world.

You will have the resources of such patient endurance and be sustained for the long haul of radical obedience in the face of overwhelming odds if your life is embedded in gratitude. Joyful thanksgiving is deeply empowering.

And what we are thankful for provides us with a subversive imagination. While the cybernetic revolution will tell us that the world is in the hands of those with the most powerful computers and widest Net access, and while the forces of globalization arrogantly proclaim that those who control capital have a proprietary right to the resources of creation, we confess that this world is the inheritance of those who live in the light- not the dim light of the Enlightenment, nor the glittering lights of computer screens, televisions and gambling terminals, but the light that liberates us from darkness.

You see, friends, because we are not subservient to the empire but subjects of the kingdom of God's beloved Son, we have the audacity to say to the darkness, "We beg to differ!"1 We will not be a pawn to the Prince of Darkness any longer, because we owe him no allegiance, and by God's grace, through our redemption and forgiveness, our imaginations have been set free.

In an image saturated world
    a world of ubiquitous corporate logos
    permeating your consciousness
A world of dehydrated and captive imaginations
    In which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted
    To be able to dream of life otherwise
A world in which the empire of global economic affluence
    Has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations
Christ is the image of the invisible God in this world
     in this world driven by images with a vengeance 

Christ is the image par excellence the image above all other images the image that is not a facade the image that is not trying to sell you anything the image that refuses to co-opt you

Christ is the image of the invisible God the image of God a flesh-and-blood here-and-now in time and history with joys and sorrows image of who God is the image of God a flesh-and-blood here-and-now in time and history with joys and sorrows image of who we are called to be image-bearers of this God.

He is the source of a liberated imagination a subversion of the empire because it all starts with him and it all ends with him everything all things whatever you can imagine visible and invisible mountains and atoms outer space, urban space and cyberspace whether it be the Pentagon, Disneyland, Microsoft or AT&T whether it be the institutionalized power structures of the state, the academy or the market all things have been created in him and through him he is their source, their purpose, their goal even in their rebellion even in their idolatry he is the sovereign one their power and authority is derived at best parasitic at worst In the face of the Empire in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty in the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces in our lives Christ is before all things he is sovereign in life not the pimped dreams of the global market not the idolatrous forces of nationalism not the insatiable desires of a consumerist culture In the face of a disconnected world where home is a domain in cyberspace where neighborhood is a chat room where public space is a shopping mall where information technology promises a tuned-in, reconnected world all things hold together in Christ the creation is a deeply personal cosmos all cohering and interconnected in Jesus And this sovereignty takes on cultural flesh And this coherence of all things is socially embodied in the church against all odds against most of the evidence In a "show me" culture where words alone don't cut it the church is the flesh-and-blood here-and-now in time and history with joys and sorrows embodiment of this Christ as a body politic around a common meal in alternative economic practices in radical service to the most vulnerable in refusal of the empire in love of this creation the church reimagines the world in the image of the invisible God In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal a world in which all fixed points have proven illusory a world in which we are anchorless and adrift Christ is the foundation the origin the way the truth and the life In the face of a culture of death a world of killing fields a world of the walking dead Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party And this glittering joker who has danced in the dragon's jaws of death now dances with a dance that is full of nothing less than the fullness of God his is the dance of the new creation this is the dance of life out of death and in this dance all that was broken all that was estranged all that was alienated all that was dislocated and disconnected what once was hurt what once was friction is reconciled comes home is healed and is made whole because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things8 everything all things whatever you can imagine visible and invisible mountains and atoms outer space, urban space and cyberspace every inch of creation every dimension of our lives all things are reconciled in him

And it all happens on a cross it all happens at a state execution where the governor did not commute the sentence it all happens at the hands of the empire that has captured our imagination it all happens through blood not through a power grab by the sovereign one

it all happens in embraced pain for the sake of others it all happens on a cross arms outstretched in embrace and this is the image of the invisible God this is the body of Christ

The imaginative richness of Paul's poetic proclamation in Colossians 1:15-20 is not a matter of clever wordplay. Rather, it is a matter of life and death. He is struggling for nothing less than the imagination of this young Christian community. That is what biblically shaped subversive poetry has always been about, and that is what exercises in a discerning imagination must still be about in a postmodern culture.

In a culture of captured imaginations, we need a Christian imagination in the arts and in neighborhood activism that will set the captives free, especially when they have become comfortable in captivity In a culture of ubiquitous graven images and rampant consumerist idolatry, we need Christian practices in business, environmental protection and politics that will topple the idols and energize an alternative economics of God's kingdom. In a culture of disconnection, we need Christian scholarship in the academy and psychological practices in the community that see things whole, cohering in Christ. In a culture of power as truth, we need servant communities ministering to the most vulnerable to demonstrate that truth is on a cross. In a culture of radical uncertainty, we need preaching and liturgy that build the body of Christ, where truth takes on flesh.

A PORTION of the targums of Walsh and Keesmaat on Colossians.

From "Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire" IVP, 2004


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by Len Hjalmarson
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