Review: World Upside Down by C. Kavin Rowe

9780199767618Rowe, C. Kavin. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

In World Upside Down, Kavin Rowe explores the political and cultural vision of Acts. Against scholars who view Luke-Acts as a pro-Roman apologetic, Rowe argues 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—a comprehensive pattern of being—one that runs counter to the life-patterns of the Graeco-Roman world…a culture forming narrative” (4). At the same time, although Rowe acknowledges that Acts challenges the very fabric of Graeco-Roman culture—including the Roman Empire and its emperor—he also asserts that “Acts clearly rejects any hint of the notion that Jesus is a rival for Caesar’s throne” (152). Rather, Acts paints Caesar as a rival to Jesus’ universal lordship because of his idolatrous claims (112). Although on one level World Upside Down is a work of New Testament (NT) scholarship that reads key passages in Acts against their Graeco-Roman historical backdrop, Rowe’s intent “is not simply to fill a gap in the scholarly discussion on Acts but admittedly is rather more ambitious: to reread an ancient text with historical knowledge and acumen precisely so that we might better understand how to think intelligently about the very real problems that face us today” (7). In this way, Rowe brings compositional criticism, intense historical work, and theology together in a unified whole. In the remainder of this review, I will summarize Rowe’s work and evaluate its argument.

World Upside Down unfolds in five chapters. In chapter 1, “Reading Acts,” Rowe introduces the project by outlining the problem: For almost three hundred years, NT scholarship has tended to read Acts as “a document that argues for the political possibility of harmonious existence between Rome and the early Christian movement” (3). Although some have challenged this dominant view, “to date there has not been a sophisticated, critically constructive reappraisal of Acts’ ecclesial vision” (4), and this is what Rowe sets out to present. After giving brief overviews of the coming chapters, Rowe sets forth some of the foundations for his work. In his words, World Upside Down is “an interdisciplinary project” (7) that brings together exegesis, Graeco-Roman antiquity, political theory, and theology. Two key assumptions of World Upside Down are (1) that Acts “is best read as a document intended for Christians” (10) and (2) that the text of Acts, rather than secondary literature, is the foreground for the argument (12). In addition, this work “does not depend on or advocate a particular method” (15). Instead, it employs a multi-faceted approach that seeks to do justice to Acts’ numerous themes at once.

In the following three chapters Rowe makes the bulk of his exegetical case. In chapter 2, “Collision: Explicating Divine Identity,” he argues that Acts presents Christianity as a theologically-driven total way of life that challenges pagan patterns of living. For instance, Paul and Barnabas’ protest against being deified by the crowds at Lystra “involves both a demolition of the pagan model in toto (worshipping Zeus is futile) and the call for a new construction of divine identity” (23). Similarly, in his speech at the Areopagus Paul uses pagan philosophical terms but simultaneously subverts them by placing them in the biblical meta-narrative. At every point, “The accounts of the Christian mission…display narratively the collision between two different ways of life” (50). “To encounter the Christian mission from the pagan side…is to experience a force for cultural destabilization” (51).

Chapter 3, “Dikaios: Rejecting Statecraft,” “uncovers the profound tension that lies at the heart of Luke’s literary program” (5). Although on the one hand Luke presents the Christian mission as a collision with pagan culture, at the same time he portrays it so as to deny the claim that Christianity directly competes with the Roman Empire. Chapter 2 raises the former issue; chapter 3 the latter. Rowe examines Paul’s interactions with Gallio, Claudius Lysias, Felix, Festus, and Herod Agrippa, and argues that these exchanges do not portray Christianity as sedition to Rome. Rather, “Basic…to Luke’s portrayal of the state vis-à-vis the Christian mission is a narratively complex negotiation between the reality of the state’s idolatry and blindness—its satanic power—and the necessity that the mission of light not be misunderstood as sedition. In short, the fact that Luke portrays Paul as δίκαιος with respect to Rome means that the threat Christianity poses is not one of political sedition: “New culture, yes—coup, no” (5).

In chapter 4, “World Upside Down: Practicing Theological Knowledge,” Rowe suggests the possibility that there is a “fundamental conviction” that gives rise to the two seemingly disparate sides of Luke’s portrayal of the Christian mission that the last two chapters have highlighted (91–92). To explicate what this fundamental conviction might be, Rowe expounds Acts 17:1–10a. He argues that by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, Paul and his companions challenge the order of things upon which the Empire—and therefore Caesar’s reign as well—is founded. Thus, the Jewish opponents are wrong to “place Jesus in competitive relation to Caesar.” However, they are correct that “the Christian mission entails a call to another way of life, one that is…turning the world upside down” (101–02). The remainder of the chapter explores this tension through the lens of three Christian practices: confessing Jesus as Lord of all, universal mission, and Christian assembly.

In the final chapter, “The Apocalypse of Acts and the Life of Truth,” Rowe turns to the constructive theological task of bringing his account of Acts to bear on the present. He argues that Acts “narrates the formation of a new culture,” by presenting a vision of the world in which pagan practices no longer “make sense” (140, 145). Rowe also draws together his exposition of Jesus’ lordship and shows how the resurrection factors into the picture: Next to Jesus as “Lord of all,” “the self-exaltation necessary to sustain Caesar’s political project” is shown to be “inevitably idolatrous” (152). The resurrection is central to Jesus’ lordship because in it “God rejects the rejection of Jesus’ lordship, authenticates his life—and death—as part of what it means to be the Lord of all, and extends this life into a mission of salvation in his name” (153). Rowe concludes the volume by reflecting on the implications that Acts’ vision of Christian mission has for modern polytheism and the postmodern ideal of “tolerance.”

World Upside Down is a truly extraordinary volume in both its depth of scholarship and breadth of engagement. Rowe’s engaging writing style, rich exegetical insights, and encyclopedic knowledge of Graeco-Roman backgrounds make this an academic page-turner, and a volume that any NT scholar will want to have on their shelf. Rowe is also to be commended for engaging in a holistic reading of Acts. Instead of pitting certain trajectories in Acts against each other, Rowe always seeks to find the inner coherence of Luke’s thought. This both-and approach is a great strength of the volume. In addition, Rowe also leverages his reading of Acts to engage in a constructive theological project. In this way, Rowe provides a model for biblical-theological integration that the NT guild is in great need of today.

However, although World Upside Down has much to commend it, like any volume it has areas for improvement. I will mention three: First, World Upside Down lacks any significant discussion of method. Rowe makes no secret of this (15–16). However, for a work that utilizes Graeco-Roman backgrounds so heavily yet claims to make the text of Acts the foreground for the argument (12), some explanation that defines the relationship between text and context seems necessary. For instance, how does the background play into the exegesis? What are Rowe’s basic assumptions regarding Graeco-Roman backgrounds? To what extent does the text serve as a control for the context, and how does this work? The lack of any significant discussion of these key issues in an otherwise stellar scholarly work is both surprising and disappointing.

Second, in his rhetoric Rowe seems to set himself against the world. Although Rowe occasionally mentions scholarly allies (e.g., Cassidy and Horsley, 55), on his account one generally gets the impression that Rowe is the only scholar in the guild with a sufficiently nuanced view of Acts’ political horizon. In addition, he sometimes does not recognize the nuances of scholars with whom he takes issue. For instance, contra Horsley, Wright, Crossan, Reed, and others, Rowe asserts that “Jesus does not challenge Caesar’s status as Lord, as if Jesus were somehow originally subordinate to Caesar in the order of being” (112). However, of these scholars, Wright at least is significantly more nuanced in his view than Rowe allows. Indeed, it would be surprising if any of the above scholars were to affirm Jesus’ ontological subordination to Caesar or anything like it.

Third, for all of its brilliance World Upside Down is unnecessarily inaccessible on several levels. Since the work uses endnotes rather than footnotes, scholars who want to see Rowe’s interaction with the guild will be forced to constantly flip back and forth between the text and the approximately ninety pages of notes in the back. In addition, the copious Greek quotes and frequent German citations make the work inaccessible to virtually all pastors and serious laymen. This is all the more a pity because World Upside Down is a project with much potential fruit for the Church.

However, these issues should not discourage the scholar or the academically-inclined pastor from acquiring and reading World Upside Down. Overall, the work is a stunning piece of NT scholarship that also manages to undertake a constructive theological project, resulting in powerful insights regarding Christian mission in the past, and a compelling vision for Christian mission in the present.

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