Well, my reviews ended up being a little more sustained this month. That makes me happy.
1. World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age by C. Kavin Rowe.
This book has received praise from some top-notch scholars (like Robert Jenson, Markus Bockmuehl and Michael Gorman) and has also received glowing reviews in journals (as diverse as First Things and RBL) and on some other great biblioblogs (see, for example, J. R. Daniel Kirk’s two part series here and here). Needless to say, this book has received a lot of positive attention and it is very well-deserved.
In World Upside Down, Rowe challenges the traditional reading of Acts (that sees Acts as an apologia to the Powers, and that also sees Acts as speaking highly of the Roman Empire). Instead, Rowe argues, Acts posits a world that has been turned upside down — a world wherein the culture and politics bound up with (imperial) pagan theology are undermined by the embodied, communal proclamation of the revelation of Israel’s God in the crucified and resurrected person of Jesus. Rowe makes this case carefully, exegetically, and persuasively.
Of course, anybody familiar with Luke’s Gospel should not be surprised by this. The thoroughly subversive nature of Luke’s first volume has often been noted (to take the most well-known example, compare Luke’s more ‘material’ version of the Beautitudes with the more ‘spiritual’ version found in Matthew) and one would expect to find that theme continued in Luke’s second volume. Indeed, I have often wondered how scholars could hold such differing views about Luke’s two volumes given that they are actually a single work of writing.
Therefore, Rowe presents us with a reading of Acts that fits well with the narrative trajectory and themes already begun in Luke’s Gospel. I won’t go into detail as to what he argues — one can read the links provided above for that — but Rowe basically begins with an initial chapter dealing with definitions and how one reads Acts.
In the second chapter, he explores the ‘collision’ the occurs between Christian theology and its concomitant practical outworkings (‘ecclesial life’ which is ‘the cultural explication of God’s identity’) and paganism and its concomitant outworkings.
In the third chapter, Rowe looks at moments of conflict that result in Paul being questioned by the State authorities. I found this chapter to be quite rich, especially when compared to the superficial analysis of these events provided by Seyoon Kim in his recent book, Christ and Caesar. Kim argues that the imperial authorities regularly find Paul innocent because Paul is, in fact, engaging in a form of theopolitics that is not at all threatening or radical (of course, I find it puzzling that Kim takes these authorities as reliable guides, especially considering that these authorities decided to crucify Jesus… and would later on kill Paul and the other apostles). Rowe, on the other hand, agrees that Paul is not trying to orchestrate a coup or engage in something that is fundamentally anti-state for the sake of being anti-state. However, Rowe argues, this does not mean that Christianity did not carry revolutionary implications for the state of things under Roman power. For, he writes, ‘the rejection of insurrection does not simultaneously entail endorsement’ and, furthermore, ‘the state is not equipped to discern theological truth… the gentiles attempt to see with closed eyes… they are under the [power and authority] of Satan’.
Turning to the fourth chapter, Rowe looks more at the upside down nature of the world of the early Christians and spends time contrasting the lordship of Caesar with the lordship of Jesus. What Rowe argues is that both of these lords offer a different understanding of that which is contained in the notion of ‘lordship’. Jesus demonstrates lordship by establishing peace through crucifixion, subversion, service and suffering, while Caesar seeks to attain lordship by establishing peace through pacification and ruthless military dominion (NB: relating the creation of peace to lordship was especially important in Luke’s Roman context given the way in which the Empire had been devastated by a series of civil wars — the one who would be able to restore peace to the Empire, would be the one with a rightful claim to lordship, and this becomes a fundamental part of Augustan ideology). Thus, not so much contradicting those who engage in counter-imperial readings of Paul, but nuancing them in an important way, Rowe argues that Jesus is not raised up to challenge the status of Caesar; rather, Caesar is the upstart and the rival, ‘Jesus lordship is primary–ontologically and politically–not Caesar’s’.
Finally, in the last chapter, Rowe explores the implications of reading Acts for engaging in what he refers to as ‘the politics of truth’ in our contemporary context. Here, I very much appreciated the way in which Rowe links exegesis and application — simply to read Acts is to already engage in application and these things cannot be separated. Therefore, Rowe spends the bulk of this chapter exploring what reading Acts means in relation to themes of tolerance and bearing witness to truth. Here, in order to avoid both shallow appeals to tolerance and oppressive appeals to exclusivity, Rowe argues that the politics of truth are fundamentally shaped by the nature of lordship as it is embodied by Jesus. Witnessing is not just proclamation, it is also ‘living out the pattern of life that culminates in resurrection’. Unfortunately, I found this chapter a little disappointing (‘tolerance’, or some such related subject, seems to be the go-to subject for application when it comes to NT scholars these days… at this point, this strikes me as done to death and makes me wonder about the lack of imagination or the lack of awareness of one’s own historical context that this might reveal). I was hoping Rowe would link his reading to more contemporary matters related to socio-economic issues, but I hope to press him more on his thoughts in this regard in the near future, so I will close here.
Suffice to say, this book is very highly recommended reading.
2. Paul, Philosophy and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Žižek, and Others edited by Douglas Harink.
Many thanks to Christian at Wipf & Stock for this review copy!
It’s always hard to do justice to essay collections in these short blog reviews, and it is especially difficult in this case because there are so many fascinating essays contained in this book. However, in the introduction, Douglas Harink does a fine job of summarizing that which ties these pieces together. He writes:
The messianic event, as the interruption, qualification, and transfiguration of all discourses, marks the common theme of the essays of this volume… Put theologically (which is the primary discourse of most of the essays here), what creates Paul as a subject and interrupts the “previous regime of discourses” is an apokalypsis… the philosophers studied here have found in Paul’s apocalyptic messianism a point of departure for a fundamental criticism of modern philosophy.
After Harink’s introduction, Part One of the book (‘From Apocalypse to Philosophy’) is an essay by J. Louis Martyn exploring the ways in which Paul’s gospel proclamation invades the philosophical context of his day. Over against philosophical systems, Martyn claims that:
The gospel is not one phantasia among others. The gospel is the dynamis theou, the present, powerful, intrusive act of the God who raised his crucified Son from the grave. The gospel is the specific apocalypse of Christ as God’s own end-time act.
This, then, is why the gospel generates a new community that is ‘God’s new moral agent’ and that engages in the same form of cruciform love that was expressed by Jesus in opposition to the ‘anti-God powers’ that rule over this present age.
Following Martyn, in Part Two of the book, we are presented with three papers that focus upon the ways in which Nietzche, Heidegger, and Benjamin engage with Paul (although we still see a fair amount of reflection relating to Badiou, Taubes and Agamben, anticipating later parts of the book). I didn’t find any of these essays to be particularly mind-blowing but they were still quite fun to read. Although these essays might not have provided me with any new insights related to Paul, I did find their reviews of the philosophers at hand to be clear and quite useful. Alas, too my shame, I have not spent nearly enough time reading any of these big three.
In Part Three, we receive two essays that are focused upon engaging Badiou’s reflections upon Paul, and a third essay that engages with both Badiou and Žižek. I found this section to be quite strong. Further, in my own reading, I have mostly plundered Badiou (especially) but also Žižek (but less so) and have mostly just exploited them as points of inspiration rather than trying to follow them or engage them more systematically. Consequently, the more thorough and systematic engagement that occurs here was quite useful and it was interesting to compare it to my own reflections.
Neil Elliott’s essay, ‘Ideological Closure in the Christ-Event: A Marxist Response to Alain Badiou’s Paul’, was excellent and one of the real stand-out essays of the book (of course, I might be unduly biased, given how much I have appreciated what Elliott has written elsewhere!). When asking why Paul, who has traditionally been seen as the opponent and not the ally of emancipatory politics, is suddenly gaining so much interest amongst continental philosophers, Elliott suggests the following:
When Badiou declares that Paul is “our contemporary,” it is in part because he finds a precise parallel between Paul’s situation and ours. But it is also because he find in Paul the ideological gesture, the performance of a “universal truth” that militates against the ideological constraints of Paul’s situation and our own.
Both Paul’s situation and ours are characterized, Badiou declares, by “the destruction of all politics,” evident then in the legal usurpation by the principate of the political structures of the Republic, and in our own day by a parliamentary-democratic system that carefully insulates the economic order from popular will, that is, from politics.
Now, for Elliott reading Paul in such a context, and in apocalyptic terms, leads to this conclusion:
Paul’s proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection means, inevitably I think, that the biopower of the state is not sovereign, that its totalizing claims can be resisted… The formation of a community whose collective subjectivity depends upon the failure of the state’s totalizing claims over their allegiance is inherently subversive. For such a community to practice an economic mutualism that crossed, and thus annulled, the distinctions of slave vs. free or, implicitly, conqueror vs. conquered, would have constituted the performance of a genuine collective universalism such as Badiou describes.
However, Elliott immediately points out, Badiou does not engage in much detail with such political readings of Paul’s focused upon Jesus’s death and resurrection. Rather, Badiou still seems bound by the standard issue that has dominated traditional Protestant readings of Paul, i.e. Paul’s understanding of the Law and its relation to Jews and Gentiles. Thus, Elliott charges Badiou with making the same mistake that has been made by many Protestant scholars: a falsely constructed opposition to Judaism, Jewish identity, and the ‘exceptionalism’ of the Jewish law are made central to Paul’s thinking.
In opposition to this, Elliott posits a less abstractly ‘philosophical’ and more actively ‘political’ focus in Paul and returns to the theme of Jesus’s death and resurrection. Consequently, drawing from Jon Sobrino, Elliott argues that “the universal truth at the heart of the Pauline gospel is no philosophical abstraction but is realized in an alternative politics, the civilization of human solidarity that is the civilization of poverty”.
Moving to Part Four of the book, we have two essays that focus upon Agamben. Paul J. Griffiths’ piece, ‘The Cross as the Fulcrum of Politics: Expropriating Agamben on Paul’, was another one of the stand-out pieces in the book. First of all, Griffiths provides a very clear and even exciting overview of the central themes in Agamben’s philosophical project and the ways in which his explicit reflections upon Paul fit within that project. Thus, he explores Agamben’s reflections upon zoe and bios, citizenship and humanity, the law and violence, the messianic vocation and messianic time.
Griffiths then wants to try to intensify Agamben’s reflections and propel them in a more Christian direction. He does this by first emphasizing that the messianic call does not merely revoke our vocation, but that it does so by crucifying it and so the “vocation’s revocation involves death.” This then leads Griffiths to suggest that “the revoked and crucified vocation of the Christian citizen should be evident in quietist political action”. Note, that this position is both quietist and active. So, while Griffiths had triggered my alarm bells and had me thinking he was going to reassert a more traditional reading of Paul, he does not actually do this. He explains:
It is a quietism… only of interest in the outcome of such action: that, and only that, is what is renounced by the citizen whose vocation as such has been revoked. What gets put to rest by this quietism is a particular set of consequentialist interests, and what gets liberated is a genuinely Christian political agent.
Further, this Christian political agent is also marked by skepticism, hope, and lament. This combination of factors, according to Griffiths, carries a number of advantages. First, it provides a ‘more accurate understanding of the limits of our capacity to make accurate prospective judgments’; second, it allows these people to not be discouraged by claims that their political proposals won’t produce the goals they desire (‘Eschewing consequentialist judgments about a proposal’s enactment… may very easily be extended in the direction of eschewing such judgments about the likelihood of a proposal’s enactment’); third, this then permits continued advocacy regardless of both consequentialist and utopian objections; and, fourth, such people can abandon pretence.
Now, what is interesting to me, is that Griffiths seems to be trying to create a bit of a bridge between those who take after Niebuhr and those who take after Hauerwas and Yoder. Thus, we have a deep skepticism and political (or perhaps historical or anthropological) realism coupled with a form of political action that is committed to a certain way of being, regardless of whether or not that way of being can actually ever be implemented or embodied. To be honest, I am quite suspicious of what Griffiths is proposing (for example, I think we need to become more rigorously consequentialist in our political action, not less so, but this leads me in a different direction than both Griffiths and those to whom he is opposed… although Griffiths is frustratingly vague about ‘the particular set of consequentialist interests’ that he seeks to counter). However, he certainly got me thinking and left me with some good questions to pursue.
Finally, in Part Five, we have three essays that, as far as I can tell, didn’t fit as well into the other categories and got lumped together at the end. The first, by Jens Zimmerman, is a helpful analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of contemporary philosophical readings of Paul, coupled with an alternate proposal rooted in the life and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The second, by Gordon Zerbe, is also a very helpful look at the type of communities that are being called into being (or not) by Agamben, Taubes, Badiou, Žižek, and Paul. Last of all, Douglas Harink, concludes the volume with an essay exploring assumptions made by commentators about the notions of time and history and how those assumptions impact one’s ability to read Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Thus, he looks at Robert Jewett as a strong representative of a “historicist’ or ‘modern’ notion of time, at N. T. Wright as a representative of the ‘salvation-historical’ group, at Barth for a ‘time-and-eternity dialectical notion’ and at Agamben for a ‘messianic’ notion of time.
So, I realize I didn’t touch on all the essays in this book but hopefully this sampling gives the reader a good idea of the quality of material contained herein. I strongly recommend this book to readers of Paul (I’ve been trying to get those who read Paul to engage ‘outside’ voices, like the continental philosophers, not because I think they are always right, but because I think they often see important things that we miss because of the ‘insider’ lenses that we bring to the texts. These lenses make us think we already know what Paul is writing about when, in fact, we often do not already know anything of the sort). Further, for those who are curious about what is going on in philosophy and its relationship to Paul, but are unsure of where to start, this would be a very helpful guide. Recommended reading.
3. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy.
This is the tale of a brother who impregnates his sister and then, after she gives birth, takes the baby and disposes of it in the woods. A wandering tinker discovers the child, the sister sets off in pursuit of the tinker and child, and the brother pursues the sister. Meanwhile, three other figures are also wandering the land living off of the lives of others… and, somewhere along the way, a herd of pig stampedes into the waters. But, as with other McCarthy novels, that doesn’t mean any demons have been cast out.
I’m noticing another theme that seems to run through McCarthy’s novels. Violence, of course, is the first and most obvious theme. Violence, paired with both the glorious and the grotesque. Violence that is neither good nor evil. Violence that simply is.
However, another theme appears in several prominent characters — from the Sheriff in No Country, to the Kid in Blood Meridian, the brother in Outer Dark, Lester Ballard in Child of God, and the Man (or perhaps the reader?) in The Road — and I think this only became clear to me after reading this last book. I think this is the theme of being caught up in a world that is vast, unreliable, monstrous and beautiful. But, such a swirl is it all that one can never be sure if the monstrous is beautiful or if the beautiful is monstrous, or if they are one and the same thing. So, these characters sit perched on the cusp of the world, coming close (at times) to understanding things — perhaps they even did understand things at one point — but ultimately they are unable to do so. And, in the end, they are all devastated.
4. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy.
Cornelius Suttree was born into some wealth and, unlike many, received an education, but he turned his back on that life (as well as on his family) in order to live amongst the down-and-outs in Knoxville in the 1950s. As usual, in narrating this story, McCarthy summons an eclectic but electrifying cast of characters. What I find interesting about this (especially in light of the remarks I just made about characters standing on the edge of a world they cannot comprehend), is that Suttree appears to have come very close to some form of comprehension. Granted some events still stagger him, but the challenge for Suttree is not arriving at understanding; rather, it is the realization that understanding doesn’t count for much. Thus, near the end of the novel, when Suttree makes the only remark that comes close to explaining why he has chosen the lifestyle that he has, he states (in a conversation with himself):
Of what would you repent?
One thing. I spoke with bitterness about my life and I said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity I recant all.
And, really, it makes me wonder: would we all be better served if we recanted our efforts to attain to meaning, or something meaningful, in our own lives? I wonder how much my own efforts are leading me down a path akin to Suttree’s…
5. The Damage Done: Twelve Years of Hell in a Bangkok Prison by Warren Fellows.
This is Warren Fellows’ (semi-autobiographical) account of the time he served in a Thai prison after being busted on heroin trafficking charges. In the book, he spends some time explaining how he got into trafficking, what his time in prison was like (the bulk of the novel), and then what it was like transitioning back into ‘normal’ life in Australia. It was a pretty intense and gripping story. The opening scene — wherein Fellows cuts open an egg-sized boil on another inmate’s neck, only to see a bunch of worms spill out — is pretty much burned into my brain.
Mental Note: never go to prison in Thailand (yet another country to cross off the list… yeah, Russia, I’m looking at you).
1. The Veils, Under the Folding Branches; 2. A Perfect Circle, Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Sound of the War Drums; 3. Sunset Rubdown, The Empty Threats of Little Lord; 4. The xx, Shelter; 5. Titus Andronicus, To Old Friends and New; 6. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Home; 7. The Antlers, Two; 8. Mumford and Sons, Blank White Page; 9. Broken Bells, The High Road; 10. Blink-182, Stay Together for the Kids.