Q: 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?
A: 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.