“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.


Stump Speeches and the Synoptic Problem: A Lesson Outline

Like nearly every other American user of the Internet, I have recently been following the reports of plagiarism in Melania Trump’s 2016 RNC stump speech. As others have been quick and correct to point out, Ms. Trump (or, more likely, her speech-writer) is not alone in lifting material from other speeches. Although I’ve been enjoying the humor of these posts, and of the Trump campaign’s response to the allegations, I really don’t have a strong opinion about what Melania(‘s speech writer) did or didn’t do or why that matters. Those concerns are completely irrelevant to me. Although Anthony Le Donne may think me a scoundrel, I politely and good-humoredly demur. The circus amuses me, and I certainly appreciate the bread, but I’m after something else.

What I am most interested in is how Ms. Trump’s speech and its relationship to a 2008 speech from Michelle Obama may be leveraged for teaching. As a student and teacher of Bible, like many others, I seized upon these events as a modern corollary to what biblical scholars call source criticism. And so I have developed a lesson outline draft that uses the Melania/Michelle speech as an introduction to mapping literary relationships among the Synoptic Gospels. It is my intent that this activity be a fun(ny) entree into the Synoptic Problem, a tool for honing reading skills, and a way of reminding students that they already know how to read carefully, critically, and comparatively.

Note: the outline below is meant as a companion to a Synoptic Gospels coloring exercise, but does not include directions for this activity.

GoogleDoc Link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15S3K3Gk64OMyR8dfRB_jDxvzDSvQ5ibBgPmqvJR-6EQ/edit?usp=sharing

Readers may use this outline for their own teaching. Proper credit appreciated, but not required; I’m not going to hunt you down.


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.