Remixing the Empire: A New Legalism?

by Tom Wright and Brian Walsh

So the guy that we at Empire Remixed affectionately call “the bish” (aka, N.T. Wright) is down in Pasadena teaching a course at Fuller Theological Seminary this week and he sent this dispatch from the trenches back to Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. We are reproducing Wright’s email and Walsh’s reply, which Wright then read to the class.

Wright wrote (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?)
Hi guys, just wanted to let you know how much the class (31 of them, Fuller capped it at that) have enjoyed reading Colossians Remixed, which I assigned as compulsory pre-class reading. Some of them have really raved about it. Others raved in a different sense – one said that three times his wife came through to find out why he was throwing things, including the book, around his room in a rage – but they are still enthusiastic. It really made a lot of them think and opened up questions some of them didn’t even know were there.

One of them jibbed at your multiple prescriptive lists of do’s and don’t’s at the end, and the “cloth diapers” became, for a short while, a sub-theme, almost a metaphor, in our class discussion this afternoon. A “new legalism” was mentioned and though I assured them that you were both of impeccable reformed orthodoxy and would never dream of anything legalistic I don’t think they were all convinced, but I suspect that was more because of anxiety over cloth diapers than any more serious theological reason. (At one point we mentioned the bad servant who hid his master’s money in a . . . cloth diaper…)


Walsh replied:

Thanks for this, Tom.

You know, for years and years people kept asking us, “What does this vision of the Kingdom mean in day to day life?” So we finally got specific and folks often got upset. In fact, it is the third section of the book that most consistently creates a reaction.

Keesmaat and Walsh want to trash absolutes in chapter 7? No problem.

They want to connect cloth diapers (and even reusable menstrual pads!!!) to a faithful living out of the Christian virtues of Colossians 3? Well, then there’s trouble.

The charge of legalism is itself intriguing. You are right, of course, that imposing a new legalism was the last thing we were trying to do in that book. I’d prefer to think that we were simply bearing witness to a way of life that we have found in communion with others and that we will commend this way of life as an attempt at fidelity to the gospel. Sylvia and I actually think that the way of life that we describe in the book tends to fall significantly short of the mark precisely because our life falls short of the mark and we were committed to only commending practices that actually characterized our own life together.

Nonetheless, folks are concerned with legalism. Curiously, the same folks are often not too concerned about legalism when Christians talk about the need for sexual fidelity in our lives. So the question becomes, “whose legalism?” And my hunch is that we tend to find any moral prescriptions that challenge our own sense of morality to be legalistic. Raise the standard of Christian discipleship high and you can get dismissed for legalism.

If the charges against us are nailed to the cross, then there is no place for legalism in Christian discipleship. But precisely because the charges were nailed to the cross, precisely because the King of glory went to the cross, are we called to a radical life of compassion, gentleness, humility, forgiveness and love. And serious reading of Colossians requires us to think long and hard about what such virtues look like in every dimension of our lives. Even what we put on our babies’ bums.

Folks may not think that what we offer in Colossians Remixed is actually what is called for in order to be faithful to Paul’s vision at our time in history. That’s fine. But then they must (and I mean “must”) offer another reading that leads to a life clothed in these virtues that will take Paul as seriously as we have attempted to do. Short of that, their criticisms amount to little more than a reflex of self-protection, an ideological self-justification. And if that happens, then Scripture is stripped of its transformative, directive and corrective power in our lives.

Blessings on the completion of the course and love to Maggie.


Tom Wright

7 Responses to “Remixing the Empire: A New Legalism?”

  1. revnace

    Thanks for the text!

  2. cyr

    hmmmm this is very interesting, i’ve definitely felt that some times people pushing their enviro-ways border on legalism. at the same time when my wife and i decided to go with cloth diapers i really felt that it tied into my faith and my seeing ourselves as stewards of God’s creation. i think with any path forward, and any call to prophetic action, there is the danger of legalism, but there is the danger of being legalistic about never letting people give out a list about concrete ways of living out the gospel!

    all that to say … great read

  3. well, i’d imagine jesus wore a cloth diaper . . . « The Nazarean Candidate

    […] short exchange between N.T. Wright and Brian Walsh about Wright’s students’ response to Walsh’s […]

  4. Frederick

    Re: Nazarean Candidate

    Great… I can just see the baby T-shirt with WWJW (What would Jesus wear?).

  5. Josh Husmann

    As one of the students in the class with Bishop Wright I can tell you we had more than one good laugh with this entire discussion… particularly as the bishop shared his e-mail and your response with us. Most of us not only thoroughly enjoyed Colossians Remixed we thought your response on legalism was well thought. Interestingly enough the discussion on a theology of baby diapers was begun when one student mentioned his only struggle with the book was that it lined up TOO MUCH with his own theological and political views, which made him suspicious of whether this was found in Colossians or was just making him happy because it agreed with his life style. Eventually the conversation led to the e-mail Bishop Wright sent. Needless to say, thank you for the book and the comments they were both enjoyed.

  6. Jonathan

    Nice. Thanks for posting this, it was an insightful read.

    While I’m not a student in Bishop Wright’s class, I do live in Pasadena. My wife attends Fuller, and we went to Bishop Wright’s lecture on virtue last week. All that to say, I have enough of a personal connection to this story that it put a smile on my face.

    I was actually surprised the first time I heard people discuss Colossians Remixed and legalism in the same breath. My community’s experience with the book was wholly positive. In fact, we followed it up by reading Simpler Living, Compassionate Life. I absolutely agree that “serious reading of Colossians requires us to think long and hard about what such virtues look like in every dimension of our lives.”

    Thanks again for this. It was an edifying and entertaining article (for me, at least). I will be referencing it on my site soon.

  7. Wright & Walsh « GOSPEL | COMMUNITY | MISSION

    […] 17, 2009 in Uncategorized | by Rob Davis Here is part of an email dialogue between NT Wright and Brian Walsh: For years and years people kept asking us, “What does this vision of the Kingdom mean in day to […]


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