Religion, culture, and Paul in Acts

I think there are plenty of insights in C Kavin Rowe’s World Upside Down (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Chapter 2 of the book is entitled “Collision: Explicating Divine Identity”. It looks at the following chapters in the Book of Acts.

Acts 14: Paul and Barnabas – Hermes and Zeus
Acts 16: Power at Philippi
Acts 17: Athens
Acts 19: Ephesus

The chapter talks about the collision between Christianity and Paul’s audience in different cities. Here are some excerpts from the conclusion of the chapter (on pages 50–51).

This collision, however, is not due to the missionaries’ lack of tact (though they were doubtless bold) or to a pagan propensity for rash violence…; rather, its deeper basis rests ultimately in the theological affirmation of the break between God and the cosmos. For to affirm that God has ‘created heaven and earth’ is, in Luke’s narrative, simultaneously to name the entire complex of pagan religiousness as idolatry and, thus, to assign to such religiousness the character of ignorance.

Ancient religion, that is to say, is a pattern of practices and beliefs inextricably interwoven with the fabric of ancient culture. Religion is not, however, just part of this fabric, ultimately passive and controlled by other more basic influences such as politics and economics, for economics. Rather, religion is also constitutive of culture; it helps to construct the cultural fabric itself.

In short, religion and culture are inseparable, and the difference in the perception of divine identity amounts to nothing less than a different way of life.

This last sentence is profound. To be followers of Jesus is about a different way of life. We can’t speak of “believing in Jesus” without following his way of life – a new culture and a new way of living that centres around Christ and the cross. I think the above has several other implications to the church today.

  • Do we engage in mission as if culture and religion are inseparable? If we do, then we can’t be effective. Indeed we can make a lot of mistakes.
  • What is the relationship between our faith and our own culture? Does our faith transform the culture in which we live? Or is our faith actually influenced by the culture of the world so much so that the world cannot see any difference between us and them? (For example, are we just as materialistic and the world in affluent West?)
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