Not too long ago I preached on “The Gospel According to Punk Rock” – about how punk functions at it’s best when it takes and uses dominant cultural and societal symbols and turns them on their head (eg. Sex Pistols performing God Save The Queen on the queen’s silver anniversary – “we mean it man”). Whatever you think about the Sex Pistols, the apostle Paul was certainly at least a little punk rock.
One of the best skills Paul shares with artistic prophets in the rest of Scripture and the best theologians springing out of the biblical tradition is to take well known language, images, and ideas of the culture and subvert them to proclaim Christ. For example, Caesar Augustus was hailed regularly as both “savior of the world” and “Lord of all.” N.T. Wright points out that when Paul says, “Jesus is Lord” the loud and booming subtext is, “and Caesar isn’t!” The idea, of course, was to intentionally mirror the culture’s phraseology to make the subversive exclamation that Jesus is, in fact, the true king of whom Caesar is a parody.
There are lots of examples of this. In Philippi, where Roman identity is celebrated and esteemed, Paul writes a treatise on the believer’s heavenly citizenship. In Galatians, where detractors are urging the church to use the knife for circumcision, Paul suggests they go “the whole way” and use the knife to castrate themselves. The cross, itself, so boldly proclaimed by Paul as symbolic of the victory of God is a dramatic subversion of the very symbol used by Rome to establish the frightening dominance of Empire.
The statement of Paul in Colossians 2 that Christ made a “public spectacle” of the powers and authorities on the cross is nothing short of hilarious. It is more extreme than pointing to the electric chair as the sign of the laughable impotence of the penal system. The cross, in Jesus and subsequently Paul’s gospel, comes to symbolize the exact opposite of what Rome intended. In no small part, of course, thanks to the empty tomb.
In any case, subverting language and imagery, or re-appropriating it happens all the time in Scripture. The “logos” taken by John from Greek thought is another example. The New Testament writers also re-appropriate Hebrew Scripture with regularity. Wisdom, the Melchizedek priesthood, and the title Christ / Messiah are just three concepts / terms that are creatively re-worked and given a fresh meaning Jesus.
Okay, so given all of this, I would love to see some creative person take some of the big terms and concepts of Empire today and use them to articulate the gospel. Not to affirm the language and concepts of Empire today – precisely the opposite! To subvert them, reverse them, undo them, and strip them of their power. Specifically, I’m thinking about the language of global capitalism, nation states, and consumerism. In the movie Zizek! Slavoj points out a truth played out continuously in pop culture, namely, that it is easier for Americans to imagine a world where aliens invade or a world overrun by vampires or zombies than it is for us to imagine a world without global capitalism and nation states.
So here is the question… What would it look like to take the language of consumerism, capitalism, nationalism, Empire, homophobia, bigotry, greed, elitism, etc. to articulate the gospel in a way that subverts and unravels their former meanings and presumptions? What are the symbols, words, and ideas of “the world” that need re-spinning?