Every now and then I come across a book that hooks me with the title. Sometimes after turning the cover and reading the first couple pages I find the old adage to be true that I should not judge a book by its cover or, as in this case, the title. This was not one of those times. I had previously seen this book on Amazon and added it to my wishlist and by chance came across it when I was browsing NetGalley's publishers one day. I was thrilled to find the book. I was even more thrilled to read the book. And, now that I am finished with it, I am absolutely ecstatic about its content. I don't think I am overstating the case when I suggest that this reading of Luke-Acts is one of the most significant and important readings since Robert Tannehill's reading in The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts was published.
Kuhn's thesis is stated succinctly in the introduction (and repeated periodically for emphasis): "This study aims to introduce reader's to Luke's two-volume work, focusing on its urgent call for Theophilus and others to embrace Jesus and the Kingdom of God" (13*). And introduce us he does. But he does even more than merely introduce us to a theory or an idea about the Gospel according to Luke. Kuhn digs deeply even as he surveys the landscape of the massive two volumes. He reaches into the nooks and crannies and sheds like in the darkened corners of Luke's literary masterpiece. He explores the caves of literary technique and rhetorical devices. He demonstrates how Luke parallels characters and stories in the two books. What I appreciate the most about this book is that Kuhn looks at Luke as a piece of literature that should be, and needs to be, interpreted. In other words, Luke had a purpose in mind when he wrote and it is the readers' job to read his work as a piece of literature and discover that meaning. Kuhn's thesis demonstrates that the purpose behind the book isn't all that difficult to discover if the reader reads well.
It is Kuhn's contention that Luke is writing a piece of Kingdom work designed specifically for Theophilus and generally for anyone who reads it. There are things associated with this Kingdom of which he (Luke) writes that Theophilus needs to thoughtfully consider before, or now that he already has, walks in this Kingdom way, this following of Jesus: "This is meant to challenge Theophilus and others to understand that they cannot truly embrace the Kingdom while still participating in the norms and values of Rome" (232). When I read this statement, I leaped with excitement. 'Yes!' I shouted as I took out my phone and started to Tweet the quote. It is this, I think, that we most often miss as Christians saturated by American values and norms. Somehow or other we have taken to believe the silly notion that being American is equivalent to being a 'Christian.' Kuhn goes to great lengths to demonstrate to Theophilus that he cannot have it both ways. And if Theophilus cannot, how much less can we?
But this is exactly what makes this work by Kuhn so special: everything is kept in context. The books of Luke and Acts are kept in there historical and social contexts so Kuhn's work begins with a fairly detailed exploration of Roman culture. Part 1 thus takes up about the first 70 pages or so of the book. Frankly, this part of the book is kind of boring although essential to Kuhn's theory of Luke-Acts as a whole. I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did the second part of this contextual reading of Luke-Acts: the literary context. Part 2 thus spans pages 71-202 and is, in my opinion, the best part of the book. Granted, it gets repetitive at times because as he explores one literary aspect there is necessarily some overlap with another. Kuhn spends a significant amount of space writing about Luke 1-2 and 24 and draws such beautiful meaning out of the chapters that I am tempted to say I will never read those chapters the same way again. And, to be sure, some of the most brilliant exegesis is on display in part 2 that I have seen in a long time. Part 3 tells of the book's theological context and spans pages 203-274 and Kuhn reasserts his position that one of Luke's main objectives was to "call Theophilus and other members of the elite to abandon their privileged stations and their allegiance to Rome and to embrace the Kingdom of God and Jesus as Lord" (299).
It may be that Kuhn overstates his case when it comes to Luke's focus on the 'elite' and I'm not sure it will hold up under closer scrutiny. Others will no doubt challenge his idea of this being Luke's focus but I'm not so sure that the idea should be waived off–especially if Theophilus was in fact Luke's patron and Luke himself was a member of the Israelite elite. If Kuhn is correct then perhaps Luke-Acts is even more significant for the American church than previously thought. The problem of course lies with those who will preach these books. If the preaching of Luke-Acts continues to be a mere monologue before an invitation to something we tend to call 'salvation', as is often the case, then the bulk of the books will be nothing more than prolegomena to Jesus' death and Resurrection and Pentecost. But if by some strange chance preachers actually start reading Luke-Acts and discerning his entire message then perhaps the affluent American Church might start to be challenged the way Luke intended the affluent to be challenged: "Instead, as indicated regarding Acts 17, the gospel proclaimed by Luke is one that calls upon humanity to turn their allegiance from Caesar and the kingdom of Rome to another realm and another as Luke. Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance" (15).
I think this is a message the American church desperately needs to hear.
Which leads into my final point. In college I remember hearing and learning how one of Luke's purposes in writing the books was to demonstrate to certain Roman officials that Christianity was no threat at all to the pax Romana of the time. Christians are peaceful people as is demonstrated by Paul on several ocassions in Acts. So: "Luke's aim was not accommodation but resistance. He considered the reign of God to be not a benign reality but a deeply subversive and disturbing force that was already undermining the foundations of Rome and all earthly claims to power" (15). He writes later, "I find it equally unlikely that Luke-Acts was a narrative designed to convince elite persons used to squashing resistance to their rule that the Christian movement was compatible with Rome's maintenance of elite wealth, status, and control" (307).
Christianity is dangerous and subversive. I think American Christians need to hear this message too and it needs to start being preached more thoughtfully from the pulpits of our churches. The problem is that we have been coddled by American culture and lulled to sleep by this coddling. But Luke will have none of this: the Church is the force, the movement, The Way, that turned the world upside down. It was the world that put Jesus to the cross, how can we then partner with this world? It seems to me that the church nowadays is far more content to set the world right side up again by being satisfied to work hand in hand with the very kingdoms that Jesus came to destroy. Not only do we tell the world, "the Church means you no harm," but we have listened to the world when they tell us, "we mean the Church no harm." This is not the experience of the church or Jesus in Acts and Luke.
This should be more carefully considered by pastors, preachers, and theologians and more prophetically proclaimed in our pulpits. I think we are seeing more and more the results of this hand holding experiment in the church.
I could go on and on but I must stop. I love this book. I'm not ashamed to confess that this is a book I absolutely love and will read again soon. I am glad publishing companies are making more space for books that talk about the real, Biblical meaning of the Kingdom of God and in the case of this present book, Baker Academic has done us a huge favor and I applaud them. More publishing of these kind of books where the literary purposes of the bible's authors are discussed is necessary. I cannot say enough about how important and well done this book is and how, if you are a preacher, you should buy it, read it slowly, and carefully consider how you will challenge your congregation to live up to the high call of God: "…as one who manifests the identity and mission of Yahweh, Jesus the lowly one, not Caesar, is Lord and Savior of all" (267).
The book utilizes end notes and the hyperlinks to and from these notes worked well on my Nook. There is a substantial bibliography which is most helpful and also a large subject index which also had working hyperlinks. The book is of a scholarly flair, but it is accessible to most readers who share an interest in reading such works.
Buy this book. You will not be disappointed and you just may find that your own world is being turned upside down in the process.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts Amazon (Kindle, $15.65) CBD ($19.99) Baker Academic ($28.99) (Prices current as of July 7, 2015)
- Author: Karl Allen Kuhn
- Publisher: Baker Academic
- Pages: 367 (Nook epub version); 336 (paper)
- Year: 2015
- Audience: Christians, pastors, preachers, college professors, students of New Testament
- Reading Level: College Level
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free reader's copy courtesy of Baker Academic via NetGalley.
*All page numbers I note are references to the epub version of this book on my Nook reader and may not correspond to the pages in a paperback version or location on a Kindle.