I have just finished writing a brief book review of Kavin Rowe’s 2009 book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Kavin is a young and exciting New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, and the book is a fantastic exegetical and theological treatment of Acts.
Here is the beginning of the forthcoming review:
Few books are truly paradigm-shifting 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 world-changing 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 for Christianity’s harmlessness toward Rome and thus a rationale for the harmonious coexistence of church and empire. Second, Rowe wishes simultaneously to read Acts as “lively political theology” (p. 7) and a “culture-forming narrative” (p. 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 that he summarizes in the phrase “New culture, yes—coup, no” (pp. 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.
One thing (among many) I really like about this book is Kavin’s careful attention to both the narrative of Acts and Luke’s “cultural encyclopedia”—the cultural intertexts, the social world reflected in the text, etc. Few scholars are as attentive to both as he is, and my appreciation for both is always strengthened when I read Acts (as I did last month) with students on-site in Turkey and Greece.
This book has many implications, not only for the study of Acts, but also for the church. Kavin does not spell all of these out, though he does devote a chapter to hermeneutical issues and the book is implicitly theological throughout. The gospel he finds narrated in Acts is one that both undermines fundamental aspects of existing culture and offers a new culture—more than beliefs, a worldview, or practices, but encompassing all of the above in an integrated Way that first de-stabilizes and then re-creates religion, philosophy, economics, politics, and more.