“New culture, yes—coup, no”: A Review of C. Kavin Rowe’s Theo-Political Reading of Acts

C. Kavin ROWE. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

With the present volume alongside his previous Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke (Baker Academic, 2009), C. Kavin Rowe has emerged as an important and self-consciously interdisciplinary contributor to ongoing conversations in Luke-Acts. Where Early Narrative Christology employed narrative criticism to track the meaning and usage of kyrios in Luke’s Gospel, in World Upside Down, Rowe blends traditional biblical exegesis, narrative criticism, political theory, and constructive theology to marshal an argument about the theo-political logic of Acts (7).

In Rowe’s reading, Acts sits uncomfortably within Greco-Roman culture. On the one hand, Acts is not, as some have posited, a kind of apologia for Christian quietism within the empire. On the other, neither is it quite anti-imperial propaganda, either. Rowe is after a reading that eschews such false dichotomies, and he upsets both old scholarly orthodoxies and newer assumptions by arguing that Acts is “a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document  that aims at nothing less than the construction of an alternative total way of life…that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world” (4). Rowe argues that there is a “profound tension” in Acts, as Luke presents the nascent Christian movement as both a threat to Graeco-Roman politics, economics, and religion as well as a movement whose kyrios is not in direct competition with Caesar.

Rowe explores this tension in Acts between cultural collision (chapter two) and avoiding direct competition with the Empire (chapter three). In narrating the elements of Acts that conflict with Graeco-Roman culture, Rowe assists his readers in paying close attention to the responses garnered by Paul and his compatriots when they take their message out into the world. In Rowe’s framing, the story of Paul and Barnabas refusing sacrifices after the healing of a paralyzed man in Lystra in Acts 14 is “the summons that…involves the destruction of an entire mode of being religious” (21). Similarly, Rowe reads Luke as further destabilizing Graeco-Roman piety by emphasizing that, for example, even the name of Jesus Christ is enough to displace a pagan pneuma/daimon and exorcise it from a slave-girl (Acts 16:14ff). Rowe is a careful exegete and well aware that “religion” should not be reduced to a discrete element of human life and thus contends that the implications of these stories upset multiple levels of religious and civic life. When Paul and Silas exorcise the spirit of divination from the slave-girl, her owners are correct to be outraged: Luke’s version of the Christian confession has (negative) implications for their economic practices. Rowe contends that other characters are quite savvy to notice just how disruptive the Christian movement is to every level of pagan life. Public responses at Thessalonica, Athens, and Ephesus to the Christian movement further illustrate the multiple strata of cultural disruption that Luke’s confession causes.

Rowe’s argument is a nuanced one, however, and he stops short of baptizing Acts in the waters of modern day politically-subversive wishful thinking. Acts is not, Rowe contends in chapter two, a direct threat to Caesar and Roman rule. Rowe shows how Luke narrates the Christian movement as dikaios—innocent—of any charges of sedition towards the emperor. Here Rowe illustrates the “profound tension” of Acts particularly well: yes, the Christian confession destabilizes multiple spheres of pagan life and Acts’ non-Christian characters are right to name the writing on the wall, but no, the Christian movement of Luke’s narrative is not interested in seizing upon Caesar’s throne. As Rowe memorably puts it: “New culture, yes—coup, no. The tension is thus set” (92).

Chapter four moves further into the tension that is the theo-political imaginary of Acts as Rowe shows how the confession and practices of the nascent Christian movement eclipsed, but did not directly challenge, the Graeco-Roman ways of knowing and being in the world. The Christian confession of Jesus as lord, practice of mission, and the formation of mixed communities of followers signal Luke’s mixed-bag of theological politics (135). The Christian movement was not founded in response to Roman rule or other aspects of Graeco-Roman culture; rather, it was founded on this confession and these practices, all of which signaled a fundamental break with Roman culture and jurisprudence—truly, a “world upside down.”

In chapter five, Rowe moves from the ancient world to our own and allows the political imagination of Acts to speak into, and perhaps even shape, our own. Rowe writes as a Christian and, in this chapter at least, is engaged in the work of constructive Christian theology. Rowe does not, however, cheaply port over the theological politics of a small messianic movement from the backwaters of the Roman Empire to modern-day, Western contexts. The differences are too vast and Rowe’s theological acumen is too strong for such easy moves. Instead Rowe uses his final chapter as a kind of exercise in thinking with Acts—embodying its particular Christocentric epistemology—to come at modern politics, and even the practice of critical biblical scholarship, from an Acts-inspired perspective derived from apocalyptic claim in the story of Acts that Jesus is lord of all (176).

The present volume is a must-have for all serious readers of Acts. Although Rowe, who teaches in the Divinity School, rather than the Religion Department, at Duke University, writes with theological aims in mind, his work must be engaged by anyone who would make a claim about the political life of the post-Easter Christians. This text would be a welcome addition to any graduate or upper-level undergraduate course on Acts, and would be a helpful conversation partner for ministers, religious leaders, and thoughtful laypersons looking to read Acts carefully and with an eye for questions of theology and politics in the shadow of empire.


The CIA’s Anti-Christian Eucharist

One of the category mistakes American Christians often make is expecting the government, in any way whatsoever, to look, act, or be anything even remotely close to ‘Christian.’ There’s a popular meme in support of Bernie Sanders that has been floating around that nicely illustrates this. It is ostensibly attempting to galvanize Christian support for Sanders based on the claim that Sanders (somehow) resembles Christ. (I like Sanders the best among the available options, but Jesus he is not.) For whatever reason, we tend to want our government to in some way approximate our God: among Christians on the right, this has amounted to imagining the U.S. as a “Christian nation,” whereas Christian lefties have wanted a Jesus-shaped socialism. Both hopes are totally misguided.

There are biblical and theological reasons why such hopes are woefully misplaced, but we can leave them aside for now. The most potent reason why it is foolish to hope for a Christian or Christ-like America is: the nation and its ruling powers do not want to be Christian. 

Take, for example, the commemorative ritual performed by the CIA on Twitter today:


Today, May 1, 2016, marks the five-year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden (alternative spelling in Tweet). To commemorate it, the CIA’s social media person is “live-tweeting” the narrative of Bin Laden’s death as if it were taking place again today. Although met with disgust in some quarters, the performance appears to be trading well on the currency of nationalism and revenge—two values at odds with nearly every aspect of the Christian confession.

Even if we concede that Osama Bin Laden’s death was justified—which, if one believes that God at times makes use of the nations to perform God’s justice and achieve God’s ends, is not that difficult (even for a Christian pacifist)—there is still something deeply and profoundly un-Christian, even anti-Christian, about performing a ritual that celebrates the killing of the enemy.

In a Christian frame, even among Just War theorists, intentional homicide never represents a moral good. It never represents the best of what could have been. At best, it is always less than the good that could have been. (Even Christians willing to kill for particular reasons should be able to recognize this. One can make a case that killing may at times be justifiable, but it is never representative of the good that could or should have been.) No committed Christian can say that the best possible world is the one in which Bin Laden was killed. For the Christian, the best possible world is the one in which Bin Laden had become a brother in Christ. His death is not worthy of celebration among Christians; it is grounds only for lament. His story, inclusive of all the horrors that he wrought, is a tragedy; his death simply cannot be taken by Christians as reason for celebration.

Yet the CIA celebrates Bin Laden’s death with the support and co-commemoration of many of their followers. In this way the CIA’s social media performance is an aping of the Christian ritual of communion. Whereas Christians follow the example of Paul and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), the CIA is proclaiming the death of the enemy, presumably with no eschatological end in sight. But it is built on the same logic: we re-enact, relive, and in some way embody the celebrated story through its ritual retelling. One group tells the story of the man whose death put an end to the hostility between and among humans, while the other tells the story of a death that only reflected, if not built-up, the dividing walls of hostility that already divide humanity.

The CIA is doing us all a favor by showing, in no uncertain terms, how vast the differences are between the Kingdom of God and the rule of the nations. For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, the CIA is trying to tell us: the government has no use for the Christian story. The government has no use for Christ because the government does not want to be Christian.

The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles

I am absolutely thrilled to share the news that my article, “The Centurion, Son of God, and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: Contesting Narrative and Commemoration with Mark” will be published in Horizons in Biblical Theology in late 2016 or early 2017!

This article grew out of an argument I’ve been trying to articulate about the Markan death of Jesus since I took a seminary course on the gospel in 2010. The argument was renewed and made more urgent for me this past fall, as I returned to Mark’s gospel and read it anew alongside the then-developing story of Kelly Gissendaner, the widespread support for her clemency, and her execution in September, 2016. I blogged about Kelly here. This article is my attempt to make good on that blog-post, to tell Kelly’s story truthfully, despite the counter-narrative given her by her executioners. Here is the abstract for my article:

Against a longstanding tradition of ascribing religious conversion to the centurion who witnesses Jesus’s death in Mark 15:39, I argue that his acclamation of Jesus as υἱὸς θεοῦ is better understood within the narrative as the words of a conquered enemy. The centurion’s confession parallels the responses of unclean spirits and Legion, two other vanquished enemies who, in the moment of defeat, see and name Jesus υἱὸς θεοῦ. By framing the centurion as a defeated enemy, Mark contests the meaning of Jesus’s crucifixion: rather than remembering it as a performance of Roman rule, Mark commemorates it as the summary victory of the rule of God. Turning from an ancient capital offender to a contemporary one, I recast the memory of Kelly Gissendaner, who was executed in Georgia in 2015, and attempt to narrate and commemorate her state-sanctioned death in light of the Markan Jesus’s.

If I am being very honest: this particular article means a lot to me. Mark’s story holds a very special place in my life and continues to tutor me in the way of discipleship and, when necessary, faithful resistance. As I mention in the piece, “this is not ‘disinterested scholarship.'” This is me at my most kerygmatic—my most Christian, my most honest—about how I see the world.  I am happy that it is my first “major” publication in the field.

Once published, I will share the piece here in full. Until then, here’s a portion of my conclusion:


To prove the world wrong

7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

Jn 16.7-11


The Word of the Lord to the boards of pardons and paroles. The Word of the Lord to the heads of state. The Word of the Lord to the judges and the juries. The Word of the Lord to Guantanamo. The Word of the Lord to all of us in an election year.

Our Story to Tell: Martyrology and #KellyOnMyMind

Through an accident of scheduling, I have spent my day today caught between martyrologies both ancient and modern. For class, I’ve been reading accounts of and commentaries on ancient Christian martyrdom stories. During study-breaks, I’ve been keeping up with the disheartening news surrounding Georgia death-row inmate and inheritor of the Kingdom of God, Kelly Gissendaner (#kellyonmymind).

On the one hand, such bodies of literature—ancient stories of Christian martyrs and the news about Kelly’s denial of clemency—are very distinct. The ancient Christians, in their own stories, were killed by the state because they were Christian. Tonight, barring a miracle or “last minute eruption of common sense,” Kelly will be killed in spite of her Christian faith and rehabilitation. (A banal aside: capital punishment puts the lie to justice). Although the historical record is murky, it appears that early Christians in particular locales and at specific times ran afoul of Roman authority for their religious identification. Kelly, on the other hand, is sentenced to die because of a crime she committed, an act she is wholly repentant of. In this way, the two kinds of stories are distinct: the early Christians were not criminals (the rulers, on the other hand, were frequently depicted as “lawless”), and Kelly is not, in the strictest sense, a martyr for the faith.

But Kelly’s story does share an important—crucial—affinity with those stories of the early Christian martyrs. Kelly’s and the early martyrs’ stories are contested narratives, representative of two versions of the same events. Told by Christians as acts of resistance to the historiography and jurisprudence of the state, the early martyrologies represent Christian efforts to claim and tell the story rightly.

The state tells the story quite differently: unwilling to make sacrifices to or name Caesar as lord, Polycarp represents to state power a square peg for a round hole. He cannot fit within the Roman economy of religion and politics; for this reason, and perhaps to appease a bloodthirsty crowd, he must be killed (cf. Martyrdom of Polycarp 8.2-3). Threats must be put down; peace and security must be maintained on land and sea. The people must have their blood.

The state of Georgia, on whose behalf Kelly Gissendaner may be murdered tonight, tells Kelly’s story differently from the way Christians the world over (including Pope Francis) have taken to narrating it. According to Georgia, Kelly owes a debt to the state that can only be repaid with her life. She committed a grave crime; rehabilitation is no payment—only death is acceptable in this economy. Execution is her just desserts; she had it coming.

Yet Christians contest the narrative. We must resist. Christians, like those who preserved the stories of the early martyrs, tell the story differently. We must tell it truthfully, with reference to the Kingdom of God as the true reality, the terra firma, upon which our epistemology and moral reasoning rest. Kelly is guilty, we admit; dead in her trespasses. But, with Scriptures in hand, we must continue: Kelly is already redeemed. She has been reconciled to God and humanity. She is our sister, beloved of God, and a minister of the gospelShe is a child of God, saved by grace through faithfulness.

By the moral calculus of the state and a decreasing percentage of its population, our version of the story is absurd. Kelly has it coming. This is her just desserts, and we are laughed out of court.

But still we tell her story differently. Resolutely, we tell the truth: Kelly is a sister. She is redeemed. She will live again. Her memory, beloved by the God of Jesus, will be preserved long after the state ceases to be.

We will tell her story differently. We will remember her differently. In the face of competing narratives, we will resolutely tell her story according to the truth of the grace of God, not the frail and fraught laws of the state of Georgia. We will stand with Paul and David, two redeemed murderers, and commemorate Kelly’s life, and death, as a witness to the love, peace, and Kingdom of a merciful God.  

We must tell this story, even as it falls on deaf ears in the courts of public opinion and among our brothers and sisters who can’t yet see Kelly’s story truthfully. To tell it is to tell Kelly’s story, and our own stories, within the grand narrative of grace displayed most fully through the death and resurrection of our crucified Lord.

This is our story to tell; we will tell it in remembrance of her.

Who is this who even forgives sins?: Kelly Gissendaner and the Law of Grace

Christians, like the Jews and Israelites before them, have ever been in an uncomfortable place in the world. We are an exilic people whose commonwealth is in heaven (Phil 3:20), who await a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), and whose Lord and Savior was executed by the state (Matt 27:24ff; Mark 15:6ff; Luke 23:13ff; John 19:1ff). Although Christians have enjoyed (and continue to enjoy) a privileged place in American society, we are—or, better, should be—like outsiders in the civic square that is American politics and jurisprudence. We must be strange; we must stand out. Whereas policy in the kingdoms of men follows the logic of retribution, Christians must be a people of grace.

How deeply and darkly ironic it is, then, that so many Christians join in stride with the clamoring crowds on the way to Golgotha, crying out for Barabbas and the death of the one whom God has already vindicated.

The state of Georgia has once again set a date for our Christian sister, Kelly Gissendaner, to die. If Christians remain silent, and if the powers that be remain cold-hearted, her execution will take place on September 29, 2015.

In one regard, Kelly’s story is totally unremarkable: she is set to receive a barbaric, cost-ineffective, and inconsistently-applied punishment that many before and, presumably, many after her will suffer.

But in another regard, Kelly’s story is remarkable and, for Christians, ought at least to give us a moment’s pause: while in prison, Kelly became a Christian, earned a seminary degree, and continues to minister to her fellow inmates. According to the Christian theological rubric, she has already been forgiven by the only one who can forgive sins. There is now no condemnation for her, for Kelly Gissendaner is in Christ.

Some will no doubt say that I am making here a category mistake by expecting Caesar and the state to follow the Lord and Law of Grace. Others will say that, while Kelly may be forgiven by God and can therefore expect to partake of eternal life, she still owes a debt to the state and that the state has the right to speed her entry into that life everlasting as recompense for her crime.

To those I ask: If God is real and the Gospel true, what is left for the state? If God is the real, if the Kingdom of Heaven is the true polis, how can the state and its policies trump the grace that the son of God died to extend? Christ is before and above all things, including the state, and he has already reconciled all things:

Colossians 1:15-20
[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Christ, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, has already reconciled Kelly to himself and made peace with her through the blood of his cross. Christians, won’t you live into that truth and bear its witness to the state? Won’t you be a people of grace?

I make no bones to anyone about the fact that I am a Christian and that I think part of the Christian identity is to routinely and consistently choose life over death, in all circumstances, in the name of faithfulness to Christ and his Kingdom. Thus it should surprise no one that I am categorically opposed to the death penalty in all cases, and I think you ought to be, too.

But this is a more modest claim, a more limited request: if you are a Christian, if you seek first the Kingdom of God, if you believe in the grace extended us all while we were still sinners, please stand for clemency for your sister.





On the Fence about Rome

On the Fence about Rome: A Critical Review of McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not Edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica

An edited version of this review appeared in the most recent print edition of Englewood Review of Books, Eastertide 2013, Vol. 03, No. 03, p.40 (“Grappling with the Biblical Concept of Rome”). My thanks to editor Chris Smith for the opportunity to review this book.

Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies presents readers with an entry point into an ongoing discussion regarding the New Testament and its engagement with the Roman Empire. The volume is edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica and features ten essays exploring the New Testament’s navigation of and engagement with the Roman Empire. Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is primarily a critical reading of leading scholars who, using an interpretive lens known as “imperial criticism,” suggest that the focus of particular New Testament documents is to resist and critique the Roman Empire. As such, this volume reads like one side of an ongoing and lively conversation. This may pose difficulties for readers who have not engaged the scholars with whom the contributors are in dialogue.

For readers familiar with current trends in New Testament scholarship related to postcolonial and imperial criticism, there is significant ambivalence to be found throughout these collected essays as well as in the introduction and conclusion from McKnight and Modica. At times, contributors suggest that various New Testament documents are critical of the dominant imperial order (e.g., Diehl, 38-81; Willitts, 83; Strait, 143; Bird, 161). At other points, even within the same essay, contributors argue that the Empire is not the—or even a—target of a given New Testament composer’s critique (e.g. Pinter, 114; Strait, 141; Bevere, 183ff). Most of the essays offer a balanced approach to the New Testament and Empire, thus supplying helpful correctives to certain postcolonial readings which have overemphasized a focus on Rome. Diehl’s essay on anti-imperial rhetoric in the New Testament, Willitt’s exploration of Matthew and Empire, Skinner’s treatment of John, Bird’s reading of Romans, and Sheets’ piece on Revelation and the Empire all stand out as helpful, corrective readings of biblical texts and certain imperial critics. These essays are also careful imperial-critical readings of the texts in their own right.

Often when the contributors suggest a given text is not so heavily-focused on Rome, we would do well to accept their helpful attempt at swinging the pendulum from one extreme to a more moderate point. But when the social world of the New Testament is so muted and the argument is made that the gospel has only to do with resistance to Satan, as the editors suggest in their conclusion (McKnight & Modica, 212), the corrective has swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Although Modica, who is suspicious of imperial criticism, suggests that it requires certain “hermeneutical gymnastics” (Modica, 20), one wonders what sort of interpretive calisthenics prepared Bevere, for example, to argue that Colossians 2:15 does not brazenly critique Judean client-rulers and their imperial patrons as well (Bevere, 193), or that Paul’s letter to Philemon may not subtly (and brilliantly) subvert the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world (Bevere, 194). One wonders also how Luke’s social location is comparable to Josephus, or how Josephus, who inherited the emperor’s former residence in Rome, can in any way be described as writing “from the margins” (Pinter, 103).

Similarly problematic are the editors’ concluding remarks: “To make the claim ‘Jesus is Lord,’ one does not make specific sociopolitical allegiances; rather the claim forthrightly involves repentance and following Jesus” (McKnight & Modica, 212). Here the emphasis is placed squarely on the individualized spiritual experience of the lordship of Jesus while the socio-political dimensions are muted. The editors thus fall into the very trap they caution against by creating a “binary confusion” which requires the lordship of Jesus to be about repentance and discipleship and not about political allegiances. By so spiritualizing the lordship of Jesus, the editors have created a neat bifurcation between “politics” and “religion,” or “social” and “spiritual.” Such a dichotomy is simply anachronistic to the New Testament and its social world. Although the editors later argue that the Kingdom of God is both spiritual and political, by overemphasizing the “stark contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan,” the reader is left to wonder how such a posture towards Satan ‘plays out’ on the stage of early Christian communal life in the Roman Empire (McKnight & Modica, 212-213).

In effect, suggesting that the New Testament is concerned with subverting Satan only pushes the question one step further back. It leads naturally to the question of how the kingdom of Satan impinged upon the world that the earliest Christians inhabited and how the Kingdom of God pushed back against it. The New Testament stands on the shoulders of inherited prophetic and apocalyptic traditions which connect the work of evil and otherworldly powers with the machinations of empires (e.g. Daniel 7-12; portions of 1 Enoch). Skinner, in his essay on the Gospel of John, offers a helpful perspective in a footnote: “Almost continuously from 605 BCE to 192 CE, Israel was under the rule of…foreign empires. […] This series of foreign subjugations no doubt played an important part in Jewish self-identity during the first century CE” (Skinner, 117n1). Add to this the “apocalyptic and messianic narrative” of Paul’s gospel (Bird, 161) and it seems clear that the earliest Jesus followers understood Rome to be one of the functionaries of Satan’s reign, just like the empires which preceded it.

In all, Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a very good collection of essays from diverse perspectives on the New Testament documents and their posture(s) towards the Roman Empire. This diversity of perspective is helpful and allows readers a glimpse of the variety of available readings of the New Testament in its Roman imperial context. A significant lacuna exists, however, in the absence of a chapter on Mark alongside the chapters on Matthew, Luke, and John. Especially with the recent publication of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man[1] and Richard Horsley’s sustained imperial critical reading of Mark throughout much of his work,[2] this is a glaring omission.

Overall, McKnight and Modica’s Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not is a welcome contribution and may serve as a valuable point of entry for those who are not aware that such a discussion about the New Testament and Rome has been taking place among scholars over the last few decades. It would provide excellent fodder for discussion in church bible studies, small groups, and undergraduate settings in Christian colleges.

[1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary Ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008).

[2] Richard A. Horsley, “The Kingdom of God and the Renewal of Israel: Synoptic Gospels, Jesus Movements, and Apocalypticism,” ed. John J. Collins, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism: Volume 1: The Origins of Apocalypticism in Judaism and Christianity (New York: Continuum, 2000); Ibid., Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); Ibid, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).