“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.

 

Paul and the Pothetic Love of Christ: A Review of David E. Fredrickson’s “Eros and the Christ”

FREDRICKSON, David E. Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology. Paul in Critical Contexts. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.

To begin, a banal truism: biblical exegesis, like all historical inquiry, is an act of cross-cultural exploration. The past is foreign to the contemporary reader, and it is the task of the historian to catch a glimpse of and describe for others what once existed across that “ugly, broad ditch” of history. Things are unimaginably different on the other side of Lessing’s ditch; the people “over there” are profoundly unlike us. History-writing, like understanding between contemporary cultures far removed, is difficult, for it must attain the dual goals of both highlighting the differences of the ancient culture and making the culture and its differences in some way intelligible to a modern reader.

In my view, Fredrickson’s Eros and the Christ is an example of good historical inquiry. It stands out among recent scholarship on Paul’s letter to the Philippians in part for its creative de-familiarization of an incredibly familiar text, the so-called “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11. First, Fredrickson reminds us that the Christ Hymn and its writer are ancient, and therefore might differ, perhaps even sharply, from the interpretive frames we have placed them in. As the reader progresses through Fredrickson’s argument, though, the de-familiarized text becomes intelligible once again within a new interpretive frame. Even when Fredrickson’s exegesis is not fully convincing, his creative act of textual comparison is still fruitful and provides a theological and hermeneutical seedbed of new questions and ways of approaching one of Paul’s most famous writings.

For Fredrickson, Philippians displays “Paul’s longing for the [Philippian] church and for Christ and Christ’s longing for mortals” (3). As Paul longs for the church (1:8), so Christ longs for communion with humanity. Whereas most Christian interpreters of Philippians 2:5-11 have read it as the obvious account of the condescension of the all-powerful second member of the Trinity, Fredrickson places the text alongside Greco-Roman poetic expressions of pothos, the physically-felt and self-emptying longing of the lover for the beloved. Fredricksen forwards the thesis that the Christ Hymn is comparable to other Greco-Roman poetic traditions of longing and that this might helpfully frame Christian theological reflection on what this text says about the nature of Jesus Christ. Fredrickson thus reads the passage “as if it were a narrative of longing, as if the motivation for the incarnation, life, and death of Jesus had been the Son of God’s impossible desire for communion with humanity” (1). Thus Fredrickson’s project is not a historical-critical denial of Christian theology but, rather, a literary re-contextualization of it. Although focused most intently on Philippians 2:5-11, Fredrickson’s reading supplies insights into the whole of the letter as well as the ancient practice and goals of letter-writing.

Chapter one problematizes the traditional assumption that ancient letters served for the audience as substitutes for the presence and voice of the author (13). While the establishment of authorial presence is indeed the goal of ancient letter writing, Fredrickson cites epistolary evidence to point out how fragile a conduit ancient letters really were, especially when author and recipient longed to actually be in one another’s presence. Fredrickson highlights the longing Paul himself expresses for his audience in the letter (1:3-8) and shows how authorial “absence comes around the corner just as presence and voice seem established” (15). The fragility of authorial presence, such as it is, simply served to make the heart grow fonder. This distance, which is at best only partially mitigated (if not also reinforced) by Paul’s letter, is the hallmark of the Philippian epistle in Fredrickson’s reading.

In chapters two and three, Fredrickson builds on this argument by further contextualizing Philippians as a letter of longing, highlighting the ways in which Paul characterizes himself and his Christ as marked by pothos. Fredrickson translates 1:8 as “For God is our witness how we long for you in the innards of Christ Jesus” (35, emphasis added). Compare his translation to the NRSV rendering: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” Although the NRSV better translates the first-person singular character of the verb ἐπιποθῶ (epipothō), Fredrickson’s glossing of σπλάγχνοις (splanchnois) as “innards” highlights the bodily compassion Paul and Christ both feel. “Love happens in the innards. That is where pothos [longing] lodges. The innards were also known to melt away in longing for an absent beloved” (36). Such longing melts the innards and the lover empties herself, as she longs for communion with the beloved. Kenosis, the self-emptying of Christ, has traditionally been imaged as having to do with the self-limitation of Christ’s divine power through the act of incarnation. Within Fredrickson’s framing, Christ’s self-emptying is a bodily event (64), a deep sorrow that has lodged itself in the divine “innards.” Alongside Greco-Roman love poetry, 2:6-7 has less to do with the self-limitation of divinity and more to do with “the wasting effects of love” upon the body. Overcome with desire for communion, Christ “emptied himself” and took on the form of a slave—a slave of his beloved humanity (69).

If chapters two and three contextualize the love of Paul and Christ in Philippians as being marked by longing, chapters four, five, and six highlight the non-exploitative character of this love in Paul’s Christology and vision for the Philippians’ lives together. Christ “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” and, therefore, neither are other people in the Philippian community things to be exploited. That “something to be exploited” (ἁρπαγμὸν, harpagmon), Fredrickson contends, can also be rendered within the semantic register of rape in antiquity. “Erotic seizure” was common among both gods and men. As Fredrickson playfully puts it, ancient “gods can do whatever they damn well please,” which places Christ’s refusal of such seizure in starker contrast (90). Erotic seizure, like modern-day rape, is not necessarily about sexual attraction or desire; rather, it is an expression of power and abuse, whether human or divine. Fredrickson contends that Paul calls the Philippians to embody Christ-like, non-exploitative, loving power in their community (105). This non-coercive leadership, like Paul’s longing for Philippi and Christ’s self-emptying pothos for humanity, are all profoundly physical expressions of Christian theology. Longing, and the communion it desires, is mapped onto and felt by physical and social bodies (143).

A good piece of biblical scholarship stands out among its peers not necessarily because its thesis is overwhelmingly persuasive, or because every element of its argument is unassailable to peer review. While interesting, Fredrickson’s “pothetic” reading of Phil 2:6-11 is not fully persuasive. Fredrickson seems to be on surer ground in highlighting Pauline longing in 1:8, but it is less evident to me that traditions of ancient rape stand behind ἁρπαγμὸν in 2:6 (the term can carry connotations of robbery and non-sexual force as well). Within the context of the verse, it is not “Christ’s refusal to abduct mortals” or rape them (94), but rather his refusal to exploit divine equality. Potentially more destructive to Fredrickson’s argument that Christ’s kenosis (2:7) has to do with longing rather than divine self-limitation is the immediately preceding verse, 2:6. Read together, vv. 6-7 are more easily read as Christ’s choice to refuse exploitation of divine equality, which in turn leads directly to his self-emptying, slavery, and obedience to death. Fredrickson’s comparison of this passage to Greco-Roman letters of longing is interesting, but it does not fully overturn the consensus reading of this passage as “Christ’s humble subordination to God’s will” (63).

These criticisms aside, I still reckon Fredrickson’s monograph to be an excellent contribution to biblical scholarship. Good biblical scholarship can stand apart because it attempts to muddy the waters of the biblical text for a reader—querying, problematizing, and even upsetting old interpretive paradigms by offering up a new reading of the relevant data or, better yet, offering up new data that sheds a different shade of light on a very old interpretive problem. A good biblical study will generate new questions instead of simply rehashing old orthodoxies, theological or scholarly. Fredrickson’s monograph is such a book. Inhabiting the kind of humility often read into the Christ Hymn (somewhat ironically, as this is a reading the author ultimately rejects), Fredrickson offers up a reading of the possible, of what might be animating the apostle’s rhetoric in Philippians (e.g., 2; 92). By assuming such a posture, Fredrickson succeeds in not only making an interesting argument but doing so in a winsome way. Biblical studies, as a field, is dominated by the rhetoric of certainty; Fredrickson’s study, on the other hand, is characterized by creative and humble questioning. Even when Fredrickson’s argument can be critiqued, his work still presses fresh questions to the biblical text and, in doing so, creatively opens up new passages for further explorations into the text and its ancient context. 

Two Reviews

For those who might be interested, below are a couple of recent book reviews I’ve written for Reviews in Religion and Theology.

Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It? by Anthony Le Donne (check out his and Chris Keith’s blog hereit is well worth adding to your Google Reader!)

* *This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: Daniel M. Yencich, Review of Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, by Anthony Le Donne. Reviews in Religion and Theology 20, no. 1 (2013): 80-82. The published article can be accessed in full here.

Buy it on Amazon!

Mark: A Theological Commentary  by William C. Placher

* *This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article: Daniel M. Yencich, Review of Mark: A Theological Commentary, by William C. Placher. Reviews in Religion and Theology 20, no. 1 (2013): 115-117. The published article can be accessed in full here.

Buy it on Amazon!