Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down”

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.

Highly recommended.

14 Responses to “Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down””

  1. Siufung says:

    This sounds like a very good book to read. Thanks!

  2. MJG says:

    It is!

  3. mike wells says:

    Hi Mike, sounds exciting! Though I’d thought the whole ‘apology to the Romans’ has been old hat for a while now.

  4. Dm says:

    sounds quite interesting. thanks for the post.

  5. MJG says:


    Not really. I think it’s still the dominant approach, even among those who find Luke to have political interests, and Rowe certainly agrees. In his recent big book “Christianity in the Making: Beginning from Jerusalem” Jimmy Dunn still asserts that Acts serves as an apologia vis-a-vis Rome.

  6. dan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    I’m reading Rowe’s book at the moment and I agree, it is excellent. I have often been puzzled that people tend to see Luke’s Gospel as more ‘radical’ or politically subversive than the others, while simultaneously reading Luke’s Acts as so pro-Empire.

    Anyway, given that my own area of research is related to political readings of Paul (I’m currently working on a book entitled “Paul and the Uprising of the Dead: Eschatology, Ethics and Empires” with Wipf and Stock), I’m very encouraged by the ways in which counter-imperial readings of Paul (and the NT more broadly) have matured over the last fifteen years. I really do think that a paradigm shift will occur in Pauline scholarship, one comparable to the paradigm shift that has occurred in the study of Jesus over the last forty or so years. I guess we’ll see how it goes!

    I should also add that I very much appreciate your own writings on Paul (I’ve read all four books). However, I sometimes wonder if you follow through your own thoughts to (what I see as) their logical conclusions (an observation that I think is even more true of N. T. Wright — something Sylvia Keesmaat and I were briefly discussing last week). For example, I think that the divide between the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’ that one sees in a good many scholars who are at least sympathetic to counter-imperial readings is over exagerrated and more reflective of our own culture… but this is probably the topic for another conversation. So, thanks for everything, and hopefully this post will inspire more people to read Rowe!

    Grace and peace,


  7. MJG says:


    Thanks for stopping by and for this comment. I look forward to seeing your book on Paul.

    I agree that there has been a maturation; I remember watching its birth, and I’m not THAT old! I remember, for instance, an early lecture by Dieter Georgi, and a conversation with NTW after his “conversion.” There has also been a pushback—John Barclay versus NTW at SBL about two years ago, and now Seyoon Kim’s Christ and Caesar? Have you seen that?

    I appreciate your appreciation of my work, as well as your concern. I think I know what you mean generally, though I confess to seeing the speck in another’s eye more than the log in my own. Tell me more! Those of us in academia who TRY to carry our arguments to their logical conclusion and TRY to live what we write about need more Dan’s and Sylvia’s who do both better, I suspect.

  8. MJG says:

    Dan (again),

    One other thought: if it is true that the next generation carries on and carries out the best thoughts and dreams of their parents, instead of just rebelling against them, perhaps it is my/our children who better embody the practices their father/parents have dreampt. That’s not an excuse, but it is a testimony.

  9. dan says:

    Hello Dr. Gorman,

    Thank-you for your (overly!) generous response. Not only have I found it interesting to see the ways in which counter-imperial studies of Paul have matured from one scholar to another, it has also been interesting to note the developments that have occurred in individuals. Compare, for example, Richard Horsley’s earlier writings with his later writings or, to pick a fellow you mentioned above, compare James Dunn’s earlier remarks (like those he made in a conversation had with N. T. Wright in 2004 — available on ntwrightpage.com) with some of the material he covers in Beginning From Jerusalem — of course, Dunn remains cautious (something I’ve always appreciated about his writings) but I am left wondering about the consistency of his current thinking in this regard. That volume left me a unclear as to how the various remarks he makes about socio-economic and political matters along with Paul’s thought and praxis, fit into a coherent whole.

    I did follow the Barclay/Wright conversation and thought it was quite good. Kim’s book, however, was pretty disappointing. I came to Christ and Caesar with some excitement, hoping to be challenged… but found that Kim was consistently unable to engage in the substance and the roots of the arguments he was attacking. So, for example, Kim suggests that we can’t trust counter-imperial readings of Paul because they rely on some assumptions like, oh, the assumption that the imperial cult was widespread and influential in Paul’s day. What Kim doesn’t do is address the reasons why these scholars operate with this assumption. He never engages voices like Simon Price and Paul Zanker, nor does he even come close to addressing the evidence provided by others like Justin Hardin and John Dominic Crossan. So really Kim’s book ends up just finding ways to ignore the evidence and arguments that have accumulated in order to reassert the prior more common conservative reading of Paul. Also he fundamentally misunderstands those who have built on the writings of James C. Scott in order to speak of ‘hidden transcripts’ or ‘coded’ ways of speaking in the NT (scholars like Warren Carter, Neil Elliott, and N. T. Wright come to mind here). His argumentation here is so shallow (basically accusing Wright of looking for a bible code or some such nonsense) that I think he is either deliberately misreading others or is so ideologically blinded to any alternative that he is incapable of understanding what he does read. Very disappointing.

    Finally, my comment regarding consistency in your work, wasn’t meant as a reference to your personal life (I don’t know anything about that!). However, I do have one question for you: how does a commitment to cruciformity and inhabiting the cruciform God fit with the life of a tenure-track professor? I’m not trying to be snarky here… this is something I struggle with in my own life as I engage in academics while also journeying alongside of some of the crucified people of today.

    Another friend of mine — Dave Diewert, who still teaches occasionally at Regent College in Vancouver — actually had a major turn in his life many years ago due to his study of Phil 2 and ‘Paul’s master story’. While studying and trying to prepare a article on 2.5-11 he came to the conclusion that what he was trying to do with that text (i.e. publish and continue along the tenure-track) was so fundamentally opposed to what that text required of him (cruciformity) that he ended up giving of his tenure and moving into more deliberate relationships of mutually liberating solidarity with homeless and marginalized people. So, I would greatly appreciate it if you could share how you have negotiated this (possible?) tension in your own life.

    Of course, if I’m asking too much, I understand. Sorry for going on for so long!

  10. Bruce Hamill says:

    Thanks for a review that confirmed by own enthusiasm for the book. I loved it

  11. MJG says:


    First of all, I was not suggesting that I agree with Kim, just noting the “pushback.” You correctly point out some very serious flaws in his work, though I think there may be some strengths as well (I’m not finished reading it). I sometimes wonder what those who write about Paul would say what they say if they spent any significant time in the ruins of Philippi or Corinth or Ephesus or Pisidian Antioch seeing and imagining how public space was reconstructed, as Price puts it, in favor of the emperor. Jimmy Dunn, for example, who has by and large neglected this dimension of Paul, never went to Greece or Turkey until he retired.

    As for the compatibility of cruciformity and a tenure-track professorship, I can’t really say, since although I am a full professor and dean, I do not have tenure and never will at my institution. But I get your question—I still have some degree of security, status, and wealth. If cruciformity is a creative, imaginative spirituality of non-identical repetition, then each of us must follow the creative leadings of the Spirit in this regard.

    How have I participated in that? (I write as a fool, but perhaps it will be helpful to someone.) When I came to St. Mary’s full-time I took about a 40% cut in pay because we felt this was God’s leading. We have lived in a modest house for 21 years so that we can be stewards of our income in other ways. We drive cars built in 1993 and 1996, and have not had a car payment in 18 years, for the same reason, contemplating getting different cars only for the protection of the earth. (Fortunately my wife’s commute is only one mile each way, and she occasionally bikes.) On my last sabbatical, while earning less than full salary (such is the nature of our sabbaticals), I followed a visiting professorship at Duke (status, one might say) with a self-paid visiting professorship at a seminary in a developing country in Africa.

    Enough. I think each one, guided by the Spirit and the community, must discern how this plays out in daily life.

    But I am still interested in the comment about separation of politics and culture.


    Glad you loved the book.

  12. dan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Sorry, my intention wasn’t to imply that you agreed with Kim (I actually assumed that you disagreed with a lot of what he wrote, both in Christ and Caesar and in his stuff on the NPP). I was just sharing a few thoughts since you asked about his book. The part of his book that I figured would really make you laugh or scratch your head, was when Kim asserts that the real scandal of the cross is that there is nothing (socially or politically) scandalous about the cross! At this point, one can realize that Kim is pretty much only preaching to the choir and will only convince those who already agree with him. Of course, as you suggest, his whole argument is this terrible, but these are some of the reasons the book disappointed me.

  13. dan says:

    Sorry, got cut off there — my little man decided to rip off his diaper and run around laughing and pooping on the floor. Good times!

    I do appreciate you taking the time to respond to a more personal question… I understand that there are all sorts of sensitivities that come with discussing these things, even with close friends let alone with strangers(!), so I appreciate your response. I still remain baffled by the contrast that exists between many things that I and others from our context treat as cruciformity and by the type of cruciformity exhibited by Jesus and Paul, but I’ll leave this alone.

    Regarding the remark about ‘culture’ and ‘politics’, well, this is something I get into in more detail in my forthcoming work when I examine some of the pros and cons of the NPP and those who speak of Paul developing a distinct ‘Christian subculture’ or something along those lines. One of my objections is basically that a good deal of the subjects we treat as related to ‘culture’ (say gender relationships or matters of ethnic diversity within the body of Christ) are actually very deeply ‘political’ both in Paul’s understanding of those matters, and in the way in which the early Christian practice of these things would be perceived by others. Further, even when some people are able to connect the ‘cultural’ and the ‘political’ in Paul’s day, often the points of comparison or application to our day remain disconnected. I suspect that this is because we largely perceive of ourselves as politically impotent (our electoral systems are sham democracies, the Powers that sustain and deepen the reign of global capitalism are far stronger than we are, and so on and so forth). Therefore, we take refuge within ‘cultural actitivities’ in order to try and engage in something that is meaningful and ‘makes a difference’ — we practice literary studies, deconstruct films, perform art, attempt to create some sort of life-giving subculture — but we do so in a way that is largely disengaged from broader socio-economic and political structures. Thus, we flee (or are driven) from the political and take refuge in the cultural and we often do this ‘naturally’ — without really thinking about it. Then, I suspect, this ends up conditioning how we come to Paul and read about what he said and did in relation to matters of society, economics, and politics. Does this make sense to you?

  14. dan says:

    Sorry for the burst of comments, but I noticed a significant typo in my first reply about Kim. The last sentence should read:

    “Of course, as you suggest, his whole argument is NOT this terrible, but these are some of the reasons the book disappointed me.”

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