While we were in Toronto, we took the opportunity to contact Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, who we knew only from their book, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire.
The book, on the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to an early Christian community at Colossae, has been something of an intellectual rallying point for progressive evangelicals as well as the growing ranks of young conservatives who are rebelling against the theology they grew up with. (Check out, for example, this post by a Kentucky evangelical blogger and Baptist preacher who describes himself as a “libertarian-leaning conservative politically and an adventurous pilgrim theologically.”)
Part of Colossians Remixed is about Brian and Sylvia’s down-shifted life in Toronto, but it turns out they now live on a farm a couple hours outside of the city. Brian still comes to the University of Toronto every week, where he serves in campus ministry and teaches classes at the seminary. After we made contact, he invited us to dinner and to his community’s “Wine Before Breakfast” regular Tuesday morning service.
After searching through the basements of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto School of Theology, we finally found Brian’s office. Walking into the enormous room, we could feel right away that it was the home of a community, not just a professor’s office. Half the room is taken up by well worn chairs and sofas arranged in a circle; the other half by some long tables with coffee urns, breadbaskets and cutting boards.
Let me back up and tell you how we first discovered Brian and Sylvia’s book. Colossians Remixed is an explicitly anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist work, and yet I found it through a conservative evangelical Church that Elizabeth and I attended occasionally in North Carolina. This was during the first year of our marriage, when I was still getting used to going to church. When I realized that church was a non-negotiable part of the deal, I decided that at least I would like to learn something about the real heart of American Christianity: we would go to evangelical churches, conservative churches, Baptist churches, charismatic churches, etc…. Besides, the liberal mainline services that Elizabeth was trying to ease me in through were just so boring and empty.
It was the third or fourth time we had attended Chapel Hill Bible Church. I liked it because the regular preacher was very historical and usually made a real class out of his sermons. One of my first big surprises in attending evangelical churches was how scholarly and open minded their reading of the Bible was—even while reading it as the “inspired and inerrant word of God.” Most of their preachers have studied the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, and their sermons are all about putting scripture in its ancient historical context. For me, it was kind of unbelievable the first few times I saw these giant halls full of suburbanites–soccer moms, Nascar dads, teenagers, and all–delving enthusiastically into deep study of everything from Roman imperial social relations to subtle nuances of ancient Hebrew poetry.
So, church had surprised me many times already, but never as much as on this particular Sunday. After sitting down inside the sea of preppy, polo-shirted businessmen and their perfectly made-up wives, I looked down and read the title of that Sunday’s sermon in the program: “Two fists in the face of Empire,” a sermon on Colossians.
And, yes, the preacher was explicit that, while the empire of Jesus’s day was Rome, ours is America.
I was shocked, and excited. Was this an aberration? When we got home, I read all the bits of the Bible referenced in the sermon and then got on the web and did some Googling: “Colossians Empire Evangelicals”. There were thousands of pages, mostly Christian blog posts wrestling with conflict between the Bible and the modern American imperial mindset. The top ten or so hits were discussions of Brian and Sylvia’s Colossians Remixed. My next stop was Amazon.com, and when the book came, I was amazed to find the same basic argument and ideas from the sermon.
I say that I was amazed because it meant that either the Southern, conservative, evangelical preacher–in a church that, for example, doesn’t allow women hold leadership positions–was preaching from a Canadian anti-imperialist/anti-capitalist tract…or, he was getting it from somewhere else (a broader movement?). Either way, I was made dizzy by how vastly different the world of Christianity was turning out to be–at least very large pockets within it–than I expected.
OK, so, back to our time with Brian in Toronto. We had a very enjoyable dinner at which we got him to tell us stories about his family’s new agrarian life on an organic farm in the country. It was inspiring to hear about how bravely they’ve embraced this enormous change, and about the sacrificial community they’ve formed there with a few other families. We learned about the arduous learning curve involved in beginning to raise, and slaughter, cattle and other animals–in graphic detail. In the interview posted above, Brian talks a bit about some of the compromises involved in moving to the country–not an angle I was expecting to hear.
The next morning we went to the “Wine Before Breakfast” service at the Wycliffe College chapel that the community has been holding every school year Tuesday since Sept 18, 2001. The service was a beautiful mix of singing, litanies, readings from the Bible and a poetic sermon by Brian. It was September 11th, and it was fascinating to learn that this community was started the week after the 9/11/2001 attacks.
The service was largely a lament, a cry of grief out to God, around the event of 9/11 and all the violence that has exploded out of that day. The first reading was from Psalm 13:
How long O Lord, will You forget me?
How long O lord, will you look the other way?
How long O lord, must I bear pain in my soul
And everyday, have such sorrow in my heart?
…But I trust, in Your unfailing love
Yes my heart will rejoice
Still I sing, of Your unfailing love
You have been good
You will be good to me
As a kid, growing up in an atheist household, this was the main thing I could never understand about Christianity: how can Christians believe that God is omnipotent, and that He lets all this bad stuff happen, and yet still love and trust Him? The answer, which I’m only starting to be able to grasp, is that what Christians are doing is surrendering to the mystery of God. They don’t claim to know what God is up to with us (well, some do), they are just taking it on faith that whatever it is, it’s good, beautiful and infinitely important and meaningful.
The Wine Before Breakfast service definitely helped deepened my understanding of all this.
After breakfast, Brian sat down for an audio interview with me in his office. I tried to get him to discuss his book and Colossians with a secular audience in mind. You can listen to the excerpts by clicking on the track titles above, or download the whole interview for your iPod to take with you.