Saturday, August 15, 2009

Interview with Kavin Rowe on Luke-Acts

One of the most exciting young scholars in the USA right now is C. Kavin Rowe who is Assistant Professor of New Testament at Duke University. Kavin was gracious enough to spare me some of his time to talk about a few of his recent books on Luke-Acts:

1. In your first book, Early Narrative Christology: The Lord in the Gospel of Luke you argue that Luke's usage of Kyrios and redaction of Mark makes an "essential claim about the relation between Jesus and the God of Israel: Jesus of Nazareth is the movement of God in one human life so much so that it is possible to speak of God and Jesus together as kyrios". Dunn argues that this identification of the risen and exalted kyrios with the man Jesus of Nazareth is the centre of NT Theology. Do you agree with that hypothesis?

I appreciate Dunn’s work very much, but as you’ve phrased it here I would have two hesitations or objections. First, there are not two figures – one figure, a man named Jesus, and another figure, the risen and exalted Lord – who are somehow “identified.” Much to the contrary, as the NT portrays it, there is only one figure, the human being Jesus whose identity is that of the risen and exalted Lord – or, conversely, the exalted Lord whose human identity is the man Jesus of Nazareth. To phrase it this way is to point to a deeper philosophical matter in relation to how we think of “identity”: my worry about the language in the question is that it betrays our failure to think narratively about human identity. But of course there is no other way to articulate the unity of a human life than by writing or telling a story.

Second, I do not find the “center” imagery particularly helpful for thinking about NT theology. I would rather think in terms of complex clusters of normative commitments, all of which are related to one another in mutually dependent and illuminating ways. Such commitments are made intelligible by their interrelation and not apart from it. So, to stay with our example above, to say that Jesus’ identity runs from birth through death to resurrection is already to invoke a complex set of other equally important commitments, commitments which make intelligible what it means to speak of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus (e.g., how he is conceived, why his death is salvific, who raises him, what life is in light of him, how he relates to the God of Israel, and so forth). Moreover, speaking of the center in the way that is commonly done (die Mitte der Schrift, and so on) also risks a reproduction of the false dichotomy between intellection and life – a dichotomy of which the NT knows nothing – because it can encourage us to look for conceptual content to the exclusion of the practices in which concepts are embedded (so, e.g., justification can be discussed apart from what a justified life actually is). By contrast, to speak of the mutual dependence and interrelation of normative commitments allows one to articulate and display the unity between thought and practice that is basic to the theology of the NT (e.g., that Jesus’ Lordship is not simply a statement about his status but is also a distinctive habitus or pattern of life).

2. How do you situate the christology of Luke between that of Paul and John?

In my judgment, Luke’s christology is materially similar to that of John and Paul, though it obviously differs formally. Or, to put it a different way, Luke, John, and Paul all make substantively corresponding judgments about the identity of Jesus – his full humanity, his relation to God, his resurrection, his continued presence by the Spirit, his salvific significance for the world, and so on – even if the ways in which they display such judgments are conceptually diverse and different (I owe the distinction between judgments and concepts to theologian David Yeago – it is not perfect, of course, but it is analytically useful when asking questions of coherence, comparison, and so forth).

But, once again, we should not confuse narrative as “genre” with narrative as a necessary ordering mode of rendering identity. It is true – though by now platitudinous – to observe that Paul writes letters, while Luke and John write Gospels (although very different kinds). This is simply a statement about the surface structure or appearance of the writing, i.e., its genre. If, however, the material dimension of christological judgments is not entirely dependent on genre – and it is not – then one can notice immediately substantive christological similarities between the story that Luke and John tell and that Paul presupposes. “Story” here is shorthand for the narrative articulation of the identity of Jesus. It is the “matter” (die Sache, res, etc.) of this articulation on which these three would agree. Finally, such “matter” cannot be abstracted from the story that renders Jesus’ identity but is instead given through it (whoever “Jesus” is will always be specified by the writing or telling of a story); this is why comparing these christologies requires us not only to look at the linguistic surface layer of the Pauline corpus but also to explicate the story that underlies the particular focus of the individual letters. To think christologically along with the NT is to move inside the substantive judgments of the narratives employed – whether explicitly or as presupposition – to articulate the identity of Jesus.

3. In your new book, World upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age you demur from dominant perspectives that see Luke as providing an apology for Christianity as harmless vis-a-vis Rome, but also against more recent attempts to make Acts some kind of encoded protest against Roman power. In contrast, you state: "Luke's second volume is a highly charged and theologically sophisticated political document that aims at nothing less that 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" Or in other words, "New culture, yes - coup, no." How did you come to this view? In what stages does your own argument proceed?

One of the main methodological points of World Upside Down is that in order to read the Acts narrative well, we need to do justice both to the passages that appear to proclaim Christianity’s political innocence (e.g., through the mouths of Roman officials) and to those that appear to speak about the potential of the Christian mission to interrupt and dismantle deeply important patterns of pagan life (e.g., the mantic girl in Philippi). The tendency has been to mistake one of these sets of passages for the whole (and ignore or downplay the other). But this way of reading severs the narrative connection Luke so carefully develops. Thus what I tried to do was to think both sets of passages at once. That is to say, to think out their tension in terms of the necessary interconnection between them, and then to articulate the way in which Luke tells the story such that both kinds of passages are needed to describe narratively the cultural contour of the Christian mission.

This led me to a way of presenting the argument that actually tries to move the reader through the kind of thinking that ultimately requires the inclusion of both sets of passages as necessary to the description of Christian life. Chapter two (on cultural destabilization) leads immediately to the question raised in Chapter three (on Luke’s rejection of sedition and the like). Chapter four then explores the core ecclesial practices that generate the tension that emerges from reading chapters two and three together (these core practices are: confession of Jesus as Lord, universal mission, social assembly). Thus the body of the book attempts both to explicate the thickness of Luke’s political description (including the entire narrative rather than privileging one kind of passage over another) and to account for it by tracing its roots to the distinctive pattern of life that Luke commends.

4. What is the epistemological framework that makes this transformation possible for Luke?

Insofar as we can describe Luke’s epistemological framework, I would simply call it Christian. This is not to be coy or unserious. Much to the contrary, I think it is mistaken to suppose that there is an epistemological framework that is more basic than the way in which the Christian theological one teaches you to see the world. If we learned from Luke how to think of epistemology, then we would learn that epistemology is not something detachable from a larger pattern of life, a moment in the overall process of intellection in which we think about how we know what we know (or don’t or can’t). Epistemology in a deeply Lukan sense is instead but the way we come to know through a pattern of life how Jesus’ universal Lordship shapes salvifically the totality of human existence. Of course there are specific, identifiable features of the way Luke thinks: for example, he is able to think the particular and universal together (Jesus and world, one man and everyone else, etc.); or, to take another example, he knows or intuits something of what Gadamer would much later see as the unity between legal and theological hermeneutics – i.e., Luke is able to work hermeneutically with Roman jurisprudential traditions vis-à-vis Christian life, and so forth. But such features of his thinking as we can identify result from his Christian habitus rather than a distinctive, discrete epistemological framework.

5. Is it possible (for Luke or even todays Christians) to be culturally destablizing without being political seditious or disloyal?

Good question. As far as I can see, the answer depends on (at least) two different things. (1) On perspective (or, differently said, the irreducible particularity of political vision): It would be easy enough, say, to argue that for present Western culture to flourish politically it could do with some destabilizing (advanced modernity has not exactly been good for addressing discrepancies between rich and poor, and so on). But whether such destabilization is construed as sedition or as the bringing of light will finally depend on your reading of the reality in question, which will, in turn, be indissolubly linked to the particularlized perspective from which you see the world. There is no third place to which one can be removed and from which one can evaluate political life (the so-called “view from nowhere” does not exist: it is essentially an idolatrous construction whose existential use is to hide or deny our radical finitude). We are quite simply caught in the concrete situation of having to make evaluative judgments that derive from, correspond to, and even inform the particularized perspective from which we read the world. So, in relation to Luke: Rome qua Rome will not understand Luke’s claim that the early Christian mission is not actually seditious precisely – and here is epistemology – because they cannot: they do not have the requisite categories of knowledge in which this kind of claim can make sense; for Luke, cultural destabilization is the outworking of God’s salvific action in Jesus Christ, it is not sedition. To understand the necessary connection between Jesus and a new reality (pattern of communal life in his name – the Way, ecclesia, etc.) is already to know that Christian political life truly is God’s light, however destabilizing it may be for the present order. I.e., for Rome to make the connection Luke makes between Christian political life and light, their particularized perspective would need to undergo a dramatic change (from pagan to Christian). Otherwise, what counts as sedition and what doesn’t remains intractably in dispute. In sum: the issue of truth that’s involved in the particularized reading of the Christian reality is what’s ultimately at stake in the question of whether one is “seditious” or not. If Luke is right, then they’re not seditious: they are participating in the peaceful creation of a new way of life; if Rome is right, they’re seditious. As far as I can see, there is no way around this conflict of interpretation.

(2) On what one means by “(dis)loyal”: As an example, let’s move past Luke a few years. Tertullian used to say – and here I’m roughly paraphrasing of course – “for crying out loud, we’re the best citizens you have! We don’t lie, kill, cheat, rob, etc. We even pray for you; we even pray for the Emperor! We just won’t call him god or sacrifice to him, etc.” In one way, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling argument for loyalty: we pray for you, don’t cheat you, work hard, uphold virtue, and so on – all the things that are necessary for a well-ordered and stable society. In another way, however, the Christian refusal vis-à-vis the Emperor is the pinnacle of political disloyalty. So which is it? Are they loyal or disloyal? Taking this question seriously helps to show that there is not some third thing that is knowable ahead of time – loyalty – which Christians either embody or do not. Loyalty will always take its meaning from the inside of the pattern of life from which the question “loyal or not?” emerges. Christians are loyal to the Christian pattern of life – this pattern of life will itself appear to be “loyal” to various forms of government at some times, and at others it will appear as “disloyal.” We are thus brought back to the question of irreducibly particular perspectives for reading the world: inside Tertullian’s argument, Christians are loyal; outside his argument, they are not.

6. For me the highlight of the book was the final section where you demonstrate that polytheism was not quite as tolerant as is often supposed. How can Christian communities find in Luke-Acts a guide or manifesto for living culturally destablizing lives in Western cultures that are becoming increasingly secular and aggressively pluralistic. What place does the universal lordship of Jesus Christ have for ecclesial groups in such societies?

I think Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age does a good job of describing the general conditions under which Christian life takes shape today (at least in the parts of the world that are influenced substantively by modern Western political, economic, intellectual, and religious traditions – whether such areas are in the West or not). Though there are some interesting questions about the so-called “American exception,” it seems hard to deny that the deeper intellectual, political, etc. currents flow powerfully against many normative commitments of classical Christianity. In such a time, Acts speaks perhaps as directly to Christian communities as it has since the early church – precisely because it offers a vision for living in a pattern of life that is defined by the Lordship of Jesus Christ in an overall cultural context that did not know what that was (i.e., Christian communities were literally witnesses to something strange and different). To put it rather simply, Acts gives Christians theological resources to be Christians, come what may – and it is this basic sense of living in a total pattern of life that is crucial overall to developing and sustaining Christian identity through time. I don’t think this is reducible to a lesson or two (do this or don’t do that), but requires us to nurture the type of analogical thinking where Christian faith is taken seriously as the deepest and most comprehensive way to configure human life. To learn from Acts is to cultivate a kind of thinking that rejects the notion that “Christian” is but one feature of one’s existence, or – to return to grammar school – could ever play the adjective to the more basic reality of the noun (as our English language wants it to do – Christian social worker or Christian scholar or Christian athlete, etc.). For Acts, to be Christian is learning to inhabit an entire reality, one whose cultural negotiations always take place from within a comprehensive identity.

If in countries where seminaries are losing their accreditation for retaining a distinctively ecclesial raison d’être and pedagogical telos this means that Christians need to learn to train and educate people without accreditation, then that is exactly what it means. There will of course be “loss” of some kind or another, perhaps even profound – as there was for the early Christians – but the kinds of communities that Acts seeks to form are never communities whose goal it is to satisfy or preserve fundamentally dispensable forms of life (of which official accreditation is surely a good example). When the political machinery of a state is against – or begins to move against – fundamental forms of Christian life, then the Christians are by definition problematical. And their form of life will therefore gradually – or even suddenly! – become culturally more destabilizing.

7. Finally, you are co-editing another volume on the unity of Luke-Acts with Andrew Gregory. What is your approach to the unity of Luke-Acts (or Luke/Acts !)?

Yes, Andrew Gregory and I do have a book coming out with University of South Carolina Press in 2010 provisionally entitled Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts. In brief, my approach is: (a) Luke-Acts is indisputably a literary and theological unity – two volumes of one work; (b) Attending to the known history of their reception discloses the fact that the two volumes were not read as one literary work to the exclusion of other Christian texts (i.e., especially the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John) from at least the 2nd C. on. This does not disprove the idea that at the earliest stages Luke and Acts were read together as Luke-Acts by a Lukan community (or Theophilus), but it does raise questions for those scholars who rely on the all-too-easy assumption of equivalence between modern reconstructions of a community that reads Luke-Acts and early reading practices (i.e., there is not a single trace of such a community). The historian, moreover, is required to posit reasons for the “separation” and very different reception histories of the two texts on the basis of an original unity. These reasons must transcend the old “canonization” theory (Luke and Acts were somehow separated in the textual drift we call the canonical process), which simply does not do enough work in light of the differences in the reception histories of the two texts; such reasons are much harder to come by than is typically thought; (c) Scholars who persist in identifying modern reconstructed readings of Luke-Acts with ancient hermeneutical reading strategies have likely not grasped the way in which the NT authors, early Apologists or Church Fathers actually worked with scripture and have, therefore, distorted hermeneutically the historical worth of their reconstructions. To base “historical” work on a fully modernized reading strategy is already to have forfeited the possibility of real reconstructive historical work.

Finally, in relation to this forthcoming book, I should mention that Andrew and I definitely do not agree on everything (Irenaeus, etc.); indeed, the book arises as much from our disagreement as agreement. Nor do the rest of our contributors necessarily agree with us or with each other. There is vigorous debate on virtually every important issue surrounding this question. But, of course, that is part of the point – and joy – of being a scholar.


J. K. Walters said...

Fabulous read. Thanks for the interview, and for making me aware of Kavin Rowe's work.

Samuel Bostock said...

My head hurts ;)

Mick Porter said...

He should take up poetry - "mutually dependent complex clusters of normative commitments" has such a ring to it! I might try using that terminology with my kids, or perhaps when praying at church...

Tim Marsh said...

As a former student of Professor Rowe, I appreciate your attention to his work. He has also done some work on Trinitarian Hermeneutics (I believe titled: "Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics" in Pro Ecclesia) that is worth the read.