World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age
By C. Kavin Rowe, Assistant Professor of New Testament
Oxford University Press, 2009
300 pages, Hardcover, $65.00
Reviewed by Michael J. Gorman
Few books are truly paradigmshifting or landscape-altering. Yet this new book from Kavin Rowe has the potential to be such a book—to, in effect, turn the world of scholarship on Acts upside down. (Or, better, rightside up.) More importantly, it is a book that can reinvigorate the contemporary church as we corporately continue the worldchanging narrative begun at Pentecost, recounted in Luke’s second volume, and deftly interpreted by Rowe.
Rowe’s objective, then, is twofold. First, he seeks to overturn, through careful exegesis, what he takes to be a fundamental misinterpretation of Acts that has reigned for nearly 300 years. This misreading claims that Acts is an apology “that articulates Christianity’s harmlessness vis-à-vis Rome”(4), and thus a rationale for the harmonious coexistence of church and empire. Second, Rowe wishes simultaneously to read Acts as “lively political theology” (7) and a “culture-forming narrative” (4) that can provide both a theological framework and various theological resources for issues we face in the 21st century.
That may sound like a typical, rather facile political reading of a New Testament book: “critique of empire.” But it is not. Rather, Rowe offers a carefully nuanced, dialectical, and theologically rich analysis of the narrative texture of Acts, and its vision of the church, that he summarizes in the phrase “new culture, yes—coup, no” (5, 91, 150). That is, the apocalypse of God in the life, death, and especially resurrection of Jesus offers humanity the culture of God—a whole new, integrated, theocentric way of believing and living—that destabilizes the existing culture, even as it is not in the least seditious or interested in political power.
World Upside Down takes its title from a phrase in the NRSV text of Acts 17:6, part of the narrative about Paul in Thessalonica in which his mission is accused of cultural destabilization (rightly, says Rowe) and sedition (wrongly, says Rowe). The book consists of five chapters. After a brief introductory chapter, the second chapter, “Collision: Explicating Divine Identity,” examines several passages from Acts in which the destabilizing effects of the gospel on Roman religion, philosophy, economics, and politics are narrated, along with the frequently dangerous consequences for those who preach and believe that gospel. Chapter three, “ Dikaios: Rejecting Statecraft,” looks at the encounters with Roman officials in Acts to argue that Luke does in fact portray the church as innocent of sedition.
So which is it? Dangerous or not? In chapter four, “World Upside Down: Practicing Theological Knowledge,” Rowe shows how the two perspectives in chapters two and three must be kept dialectically together and interpreted as the necessary consequence of three early Christian practices: (1) confessing the resurrected Jesus as Lord of all, which leads to (2) a universal mission, which in turn leads to (3) the formation of Christian assemblies of light, forgiveness, peace, and cruciformity. “New culture, yes—coup, no.” Resurrection, yes—insurrection, no.
In each of these chapters Rowe engages in careful and illuminating exegesis. Furthermore, he constantly stresses the inseparability of religion and politics, on the one hand, and of belief/knowledge and practice, on the other. In a final chapter, “The Apocalypse of Acts and the Life of Truth,” he retains those same emphases and offers some significant hermeneutical reflections about his argument within the context of postmodernity’s suspicion of metanarratives. Despite its universal claims, Acts is not a dangerous totalizing metanarrative, because its message and its Christlike way of life are inseparable.
I spent a few weeks reading this book before, during, and after leading a study tour to the cities of Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus that figure so centrally in Acts. The book (assigned as recommended reading), the trip, Acts, and our group’s theological discussions about many issues reinforced one another. Not only is Rowe’s reading of Acts a convincing corrective to misreadings of Acts, its basic argument has implications for church, politics, culture, and the missio Dei that every pastor or theologian needs to engage.
My chief criticism of this carefully argued, elegantly written, and intellectually challenging book is its subtitle. It should be Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age and Our Own . Which is precisely what Rowe does so well, and invites us to do with him.