Messianism Against Christology

MessianismBy Tommy Airey

…the undercurrent of a conflict between lifeways haunts the text.
Jim Perkinson, Messianism Against Christology (2014)

*Note: an abridged version of this review was published in the December 2015 issue of Sojourners Magazine

Growing up in the conservative white suburban Evangelical Christian tradition of North America, nothing was more important than the Bible & Jesus. Indeed, is there really anything else? Yet, many like me have grown into adulthood and out of Evangelicalism, not because the Bible & Jesus are no longer important, but because the Bible Answer Men have used their interpretations to justify privilege all over the globe.

Jim Perkinson’s Messianism Against Christology: Resistance Movements, Folk Arts and Empire (Palgrave, 2013) is an important contribution to the Bible & Jesus reclamation project of post-Evangelicals, poets and prophets. Perkinson’s work continues to inspire and infuse the work of a younger batch of leaders, including Philadelphia-based carnivalistas Tevyn East and Jay Beck and Virginia-grown permaculturalists Melissa Shank and Chris Grataski.

Early on, Perkinson proclaims that “this work is a reading of the Jesus-event as movement…and intelligible only to the degree we take such ‘movement history’ seriously” [21]. This is great news for those of us who are carrying the Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other and have Howard Zinn bookmarked on our mobile devices. He takes to task the monopolizing and colonizing “Western messianic complex,” and the corresponding doctrine, what, in seminary, we called “Christology:”

It is simply fact that no other name has leveraged more conquest, enslavement, and plundering in human history. And quite patently, within the modern theater of genocidal takeover of the planet, and under the spiritual sponsorship of a kind of Logos-delirium, “Christ” has been made the Alpha-Male Author and Great Heavenly Apologist of the End Game of the epoch… [126]

Perkinson, ultimately, offers a theological correlate to Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization. A truly biblical messianism (against Christology) is a “reaction to settled agriculture’s invasive militancy and rapacious hierarchy.” It is a creative, analytic critique of empire rooted in small communities of nurture & struggle. “What we need to be saved from,” he writes, “in such an orientation, is the imperial pretension to conquer, control, and enslave an entire planet of resources and life forms.”

Perkinson devotes his most profound chapter to the selectivity that Jesus himself prioritized in his quoting of the Hebrew Bible, invoking his ancestors from Abel to Abram to Moses to David to Elijah to Isaiah. It has often been overlooked, however, that true followers of Jesus ought to follow Jesus’ biblical reading strategy. But choices abound. For instance, how is it that “eternal life” is defined & experienced? Some prioritize Romans 10:9 where “believing and confessing” his “lordship” is necessary. Others claim Matthew 25:31-46 as their primary lens, where “eternal life is decided entirely by mundane response to other human beings in need” [22]. This choice has mighty implications.

Perkinson’s own urban roots dispel the myth that those who commit to messianism against Christology must literally check out of civilization and enter the wild. Perkinson upholds a faith that “will highlight values and recall traditions whose power is rooted in wildlands symbiotics and insist these are central to the struggle for justice in an otherwise settled lifestyle.” It’s more about a shift in mentality and sensibility than about geography.

A white seminary professor in an impoverished chocolate city (83% black), his commitment to Detroit goes back four decades, when he moved from Cincinnati to experiment in Christian intentional community. He eventually got saved, he says, by black inner-city culture, a powerful incubator for the messianism he has chronicled here. His spoken-word poetry and activism infuse his academic work. Last summer he was arrested for blocking trucks contracted to shut-off water to homes of low-income residents of the city.

Faithful and determined readers of Perkinson’s know well that his word imagery is challenging and highly allergic to clichés. Like every important journey we embark upon, reading Messianism will require focus and discipline in order to truly drink up the exquisite theological vistas. Ultimately, as he warns readers, his work is “suggestive,” offering theological “soundings” that demand further work and refining by readers as they faithfully confront their own unique watershed challenges. His is a quest “to catch certain details in a refractory light that opens the doors of inquiry & imagination.” In the grandiose world of academia, Perkinson refreshingly offers a first word, not the last.

Messianism Against Christology is so valuable that it is listed for $100. Finally, a book price that matches the blood, sweat & tears that the author has poured into it! Ironically, no one who will benefit from it has the funds to buy it. What a world plunged into climate catastrophe cannot ultimately afford, though, are the imperial and industrial tricks justified by the Bible and Jesus for centuries.   Hopefully, a paperback edition of Messianism Against Christology will make an alternative road less-traveled more accessible.

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