Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Book Review - Songs of Resistance

R. Alan Streett's previous book, Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance, demonstrated how Christian baptism functioned as an oath of a new allegiance toward King Jesus, forsaking former allegiances to other authority figures and structures such as Caesar and the Roman Empire.

Streett's new volume, Songs of Resistance: Challenging Caesar and Empire, takes the next step to demonstrate how the songs sung by characters in the four Gospels, and the portions of epistles often thought to be early hymns included by the apostolic authors, demonstrated resistance to and protest of the corrupt worldly power structures of the day.

Streett starts out in chapter one discussing how the early Christians appropriated language used by the Empire, such as "gospel" and "peace" (in the pax romana), and used them subversively in support of the Messianic king of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth. Whereas worldly leaders such as Caesar and military generals demanded glory and honor from those they defeated and subjugated, Jesus earned glory and honor through service and self-sacrifice.

The second chapter talks about the language of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" used by Paul in Ephesians 5, and whether there is distinction among the three terms in regard to form or content. Streett also discusses the use of songs in the history of the Jewish people from which Christianity was born, and the extensive use of the book of Psalms by the early church and the New Testament writers. In the time the Jewish Scriptures were written, the enemies referred to in the Psalms were Egypt, Babylon, or David's pursuers. In the first century AD, the "Gentiles" were now the Romans, the "kings" were the various members of Herod's line, and the "rulers" were Pilate and other Roman functionaries who opposed God's Messiah and His people.

Chapter three focuses on the resurrected and exalted Christ, comparing ancient Jewish thought about resurrection, and Christ's exaltation in His ascension, with the concept of the apotheosis or deification of heroes and rulers in the Greco-Roman world. 

Beginning in chapter four, Street does in-depth reading and analysis of several songs and hymns found within the New Testament text. First, he covers Mary's song in response to the angel's announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. Chapter five looks at the prologue of John's Gospel (1:1-18) as a poetic outline that foreshadows the themes repeated throughout the book. The sixth chapter analyzes the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Since Philippi was a Roman colony, the language of Christ's kenosis and ultimate exaltation as having a "name above every name" (even that of the emperor), is most certainly a challenge to Caesar's claims of divinity. Whereas Caesar was seen as a human being who became a god upon his death and apotheosis, Jesus Christ was already God, and chose to take on the human form of a servant.

Chapter seven addresses the song about Christ's supremacy over all in Colossians 1:15-20, while chapter eight discusses the qualities of one verse (1 Timothy 3:16) as a song or poem that summarizes the person and glory of Christ. The ninth chapter discusses what Streett refers to as "hymn fragments," looking at Hebrews 1:1-4 and 1 Peter 3:18-22, Chapter ten, the final chapter of analysis, dives into the various songs from the book of Revelation (4:1-8; 5:1-14; 7:12-17; 14:1-11; 15:1-4; and 19:1-8). Chapter eleven is a brief (only 4 pages) conclusion, but packs a powerful punch, asking whether the Church in our modern era is still singing songs of resistance against Babylon, or has become so comfortable with the systems controlled by the principalities and powers that she has lost her ability to speak and sing prophetically in announcing that "Jesus is Lord, and therefore, Caesar is not."

I found this volume to be a great follow-up to Caesar and the Sacrament, fitting in nicely with other recent books I have read about the political claims of the gospel of King Jesus. With this book, Streett helps readers to be aware of the broader implications of Christian songs of worship beyond simple piety within the four walls of the church or in one's personal "quiet time." The songs and hymns found in the text of the New Testament are vocal protests against the evils that damage and distort God's good creation, and serve to point us back to the way of the rightful Ruler.

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