Hearing Christianity for the First Time: An Interview with C. Kavin Rowe

“The Sense of Growing Wonder … at Just What It Was That Came into the World with Christianity.”

Mockingbird / 4.27.21

Below is a slightly condensed version of our interview with author and professor C. Kavin Rowe, from Issue 17 of The Mockingbird.

What historians call the Common Era began with a surprise. That is, several surprises. Where to begin? With the rabble-rouser, perhaps, who was betrayed by his friends and executed by the state. Or with the flurry of eyewitnesses proclaiming he had risen from the dead. Or with the blinding flash — the appearance of this Risen One that converted a former religious zealot into a constantly imperiled itinerant preacher. Or the cluster of churches that proliferated in his wake.

Today, for much of the world, Christianity feels old-hat. But its arrival was bizarre, unexpected. It seemed fortuitous, then, if not all that surprising, to discover C. Kavin Rowe’s Christianity’s Surprise, a book with such an on-topic title that we couldn’t help devouring it swiftly.

Published in the autumn of 2020, right when we began preparing this issue, Christianity’s Surprise recovers the strangeness that made this religion so initially compelling, while also illustrating why it might remain so in our own pluralist culture.

Rowe is Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School. After completing his Ph.D. on Narrative Christology in the Gospel of Luke, he turned his attention to the similarities and differences between early Christianity and its Greco-Roman cultural surroundings. With successive volumes, Rowe’s work has progressed from Christianity’s origins toward an era of ever-increasing interaction with the Roman world. His second book, World Upside Down, provided a close narrative reading of Acts. This was followed by One True Life, in which his analysis expanded to include Paul, Justin Martyr, and Stoicism. Christianity’s Surprise widens the scope even further.

For Rowe, the “surprise” of Christianity arises precisely from its novelty in comparison with the beliefs and practices of the Greco-Roman world. Amid a complex religious landscape, Christianity entered the scene with something new.

In Rowe’s terms, Christianity offered a compelling “story of everything”: a story of the fallenness of creation, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the new life that is and will one day be. Christianity defined the human species in light of Jesus, and practiced its faith through profoundly original institutional activities and habits.

Below, we discuss Christianity’s Surprise and some of its main themes, as well as the diversity of early Christianity. We also examine the narratives that inform modern-day beliefs and Christianity’s relation to them.

Mockingbird

How did this book come about?

Kavin Rowe

I suppose it had its genesis more in teaching students over the last fifteen or so years than it did in a pre-planned research agenda. It’s connected to the sense of growing wonder and surprise — and my own understanding — at just what it was that came into the world with Christianity.

And the more that you try to introduce that to students and to try to say to them, This is what it was that came into the world, the more I think you’re confronted with its non-necessity.

Christianity did not emerge out of a natural development of religious consciousness, or the way the world just was going to run, in the sense that if you have an ice cube and you put it above 32 degrees Fahrenheit in some location, it’s automatically going to become water. It was not like that at all. It burst into the world in a way that ought to, when you look at the beginnings of it anyway, cause a sense of wonder and surprise and amazement.

So that was at the general level — just trying to understand the significance of the fact that Christianity is here rather than not.

Secondly, I was trying to get to some specifics about Christianity as it came into the world and how surprising these specific things were, both to the wider culture in which Christianity emerged and to our own general history — intellectual, moral, practical, etc. — for the last two millennia.

So there I focus on (a) the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, (b) Christianity’s view of the human being, and then (c) ecclesial institutions, which are a very unpopular topic in the North Atlantic West. But those three things seem to capture not all, by any means, but a lot of the things that were surprising to the early Christians.

And one last thing I’ll say is that I had planned this as a big scholarly book and then wrote the smaller version because of the exigencies of life.

What I realized was that average Christians were very accustomed to being Christians — and, again, I’m talking about the North Atlantic West. I’m not talking about in the middle of Bolivia or Mongolia; that’s a whole different context. But in the North Atlantic West we’ve taken Christianity as a settled part of our existence because of its deep penetration in every layer and every culture in the North Atlantic West, and we don’t really have a sense of its newness and its surprise. And so I thought that a book written for an audience that would benefit from that would also be appropriate, or even helpful.

M

It seems that, when Christianity appears on the scene, it comes to people who aren’t just waiting around to become Christians, right? They’re living their everyday lives with their own existing narratives.

If you were a typical Roman, say, in second-century Corinth, what would be the presupposed, dominant narrative around which you’d structure your life?

KR

There was, for a long time, a declension narrative about Roman religion, that it had fallen into disrepair — all these things that were posited by scholars as a way to explain Christianity’s attraction. There was this kind of void, and what fit the void perfectly was Christianity. It brought all the things that were missing in Roman religion and life. (And by the way, religion is an abstract category. In Roman times, of course, there was no separation between stuff like religion and politics, or religion and family life, or whatever. It was all bound up together in one inseparable whole.) But nonetheless there was this idea that religion had declined, and that people no longer took their gods seriously, and all that sort of stuff. But in much more recent scholarship — I mean the last twenty-five years at least, but even before that — the declension narrative about Roman religion has been shown to be false.

As far as we know, religion was alive and well, and people were just doing basically what they had been doing for a long time, which was living their lives in the context of a polytheistic network of religious life, political life, cultural life, family life, festival life — I mean, everything was just saturated with the gods.

And to the extent that there was a dominant narrative, it would have been that the world is like that. There wasn’t a dominant narrative in the sense of a robust philosophical tradition. There were those various narratives, and of those around the time of the New Testament, Stoicism was the most common or the most powerful.

But if you were to have lived in Corinth or Ephesus or any of the major cities in the Empire at the end of the first or beginning of the second century, your life would have been infused with participation in the stuff of the gods. And in that way, you would also be plugged in to an imperial network, which included the emperors and their delegates, as it were (that’s a modern term), the authorities, those who wielded the imperium in Achaea or wherever else.

And that whole network of imperial politics, polytheistic life, and so on, would have been what structured your existence at a kind of macro and micro level. In Corinth, you might have found some people who were much more interested in Stoicism, or you might have found some people who were beginning to be excited about what eventually became the Second Sophistic and the Athens renewal and all that sort of stuff.

But in terms of the average people that you would find, they would be participating in this vast network of unchallenged practices and assumptions about polytheistic life.

M

And the polis gave you freedom by its laws and all its maxims. That’s the kind of structure that makes you go, well, “Why on earth would anyone become a Christian?”

KR

It’s hard to answer that question in any kind of non-theological terms.

Many folks look at it with cost-benefit analysis: there’s a way in which Rodney Stark’s well-known book on the rise of Christianity shows that, yeah, you get more out of it if these bonds of love replace ones that were shaky or whatever, or if you’ve moved to the city.

One of my teachers, E. P. Sanders — he wanted to split history and theology very cleanly. But when asked, what’s the difference that Christianity would make in the ancient world such that it would grow and people would become Christians, he would say — and he’d be very careful about it — it’s the experience of the resurrection.

But I think the theological point would be that, in some way, the converts are confronted with something that is ravishingly attractive.

And you can understand that from an existential level. You can understand it at a theological — in the sense of actually finding something compelling — level. Or you could understand it at a miracle level. Or you could understand it as the straightening-out-of-a-gnarled-existence level. There are so many levels that it’s complicated to say. It could work better for person X to become a Christian than to stay as they were, but often it didn’t. As you say, there could be a cost.

Human life is so dense, then as now. It’s just hard to find a reason. There would be, I assume, a kind of multifaceted set of concerns that would go with any individual’s account of why Christianity proved attractive.

I mean, to be explicitly theological, I don’t think you could give an account of the why without talking about the Holy Spirit. If you want to speak about conversion, then, as Christians anyway, our grammar ought to be trinitarian. And we would therefore want to say that any and all conversions are, in some sense, the work of the Holy Spirit. And of course, the apostles actually make that pretty explicit.

M

You frame the beginning and the end of your book with commentary about today. Partly to say that the surprise of Christianity is something that Christians should rediscover, to jolt the familiarity of it and learn it anew.

So I wonder, first, can you outline some of the modern dominant secular narratives that we Northern Atlantic Christians or non-Christians might otherwise believe? And then, second, what is the surprise of Christianity within that context?

KR

Sure. Well, on the first question, what are the stronger narratives or more dominant currents?

Let me back up just a little bit to frame our situation for today. Our culture has been so much in Christian images, Christian language, Christian literature, Christian history for so long, that it’s just everywhere. You can’t turn on the news of any sort without some general Christian stuff being in the background, whether it’s an allusion to scripture, an allusion to a part of tradition, or the name of Jesus, or a weird political Christianity, or whatever it is that shows up on the news. Things Christian are just everywhere.

And so we can’t not know things Christian. That’s one side. The other side is that, for a long time, some of the stronger cultural and particularly philosophical currents have been eroding basic Christian convictions and practices. And so at the same time, Christianity is both familiar and strange. It’s both here and gone. And that’s part of what’s so perplexing about our situation now. It’s not like the early Christians in the Roman world, where Christianity is just not there unless they bring it. And it’s also not like the fifteenth century, when it’s just there and is yet to be eroded. So I think that makes our task more challenging and requires of us a more thoughtful, dexterous response.

So to your questions, then: In part, it’s difficult to name dominant narratives because we’re living in a time of fragmentation. More than just one other dominant narrative is trying to replace Christianity; there are many narratives out there claiming our attention and our allegiance.

But the narrative with the most potential to grab our attention and conscript us is the one that I name at the end of the book: the autonomous individual.

As you know, “autonomous” just means “self-law,” that we are really ourselves when we reflect on what we want and pursue in the world, and our freedom is inherent to us, and we can exercise it by means of determining the best fit between what we think we want and what the world has to offer. And we find that the only thing that is binding on us is what we ourselves choose to have as binding on us. Anything else is an imposition on my native freedom. And that is true for each and every individual.

And then if you take that story as a given, you begin to understand right away why all social bonds are now conceived of as contracts, because you can’t have someone just impose something on you. You have to agree to their suggestion of imposition, and they have to agree to yours, and then you make a contract. That’s why we need lawyers — because now we don’t know how to resolve our disagreements without impinging on each other’s freedom.

And, of course, any given law outcome is in the end backed by force. So you have to force people to be imposed upon. But the narrative about the autonomous human being is the one that’s the most powerful and is one that we have, in the North Atlantic West, all ingested whether Christian or not.

M

That’s what Charles Taylor calls “the ethics of authenticity” — there’s a unique way to be yourself that is up to you to discover and cannot be imposed on you externally, a way that’s captured in the colloquial phrase “you do you.”

KR

Yeah. Or “do your own thing.” All of that absolutely trades on that same anthropology. And when it makes it to the level of advertising and sloganizing and so on, you know that it has been centuries in the making.

M

So what about Christianity? How does Christianity not simply differ, but what about Christianity is compelling from within this frame? On the one hand, there’s a novelty, and then there’s a reason why someone might become existentially captive to a different idea, right? So why on earth would Christianity be attractive, particularly given our elective society anyway?

KR

One of the insidious and pernicious effects of the narrative of the autonomous individual is that it leaves you alone. You’re ultimately alone and lonely.

You turn out to be an I, and that’s it. And your relationships are not constituted in any way that is prior to your I, so that your belonging, either to God or to others, is, in this autonomous individual narrative, always something that is secondary to your will and to your potential loneliness. And it’s connected to something that is insidious about Stoicism in the ancient world: that in the end, you’re left to yourself. And that’s not to say you go become a Christian because you want friendships or whatever. But it is to say that being lonely is hard for the human.

And that’s just one dimension. The other dimension is that you might discover that your life is a wreck, and the fragmentation of your own desires is partly a reflection of the fragmentation of our society, and that it’s impossible to order them or to sort them. And so you’re pulled around like a dog on a leash, to this and that, and that and this, and over and over and over again, and it begins to destroy you. Arthur Darby Nock once said that Christianity offers “life with a scheme.” It orders things, or at least claims to.

Augustine’s basic point about freedom was not that you’re unable to do what want to do, but that freedom is the right ordering of your loves. His image is of weights: you have to get those weights in order relative to your loves or you stumble, or you fall, or you can crash. But if they’re rightly weighted, then you can experience the power of God in life for joy and the resurrection life in the present.

Of course, one of the institutions that I talk about in the penultimate chapter of the book is the church. The church is a very warty institution. We have lots of gargantuan-sized warts. But that it exists at all, and that it is a community where people confess that they are covered in warts, and nonetheless want to be together to experience healing and grace and repair, is a pretty remarkable thing in the world. And a lot of people still find that very attractive.

M

If the individual’s autonomous, and everything is up to you to decide for yourself, then yeah — loneliness, anxiety, confusion. That’s the exact kind of problem that we’re all living in. And Christianity does give a kind of structure, a structure that makes life bearable, that makes it far less confusing.

KR

On that point, there’s something important to note. This is part of why Nietzsche said that when you see the power of the will to make its own life, there are only going to be a few people that’ll really be able to embrace that. Most of the rest of us will experience anxiety and be crushed by the awesome freedom that really is ours. This is Nietzsche. This is why you have a “superman,” or somebody like that, who comes and is able to embrace the power of his own will and then enforce that in the world.

What’s interesting is, as the Nietzschean understanding that we can make our own lives has taken a deeper hold on us, we have not seen any supermen. What we’ve seen is people just wasting their lives away in front of the TV or doing Internet all the time or playing video games. We’ve fallen into a profound sense of sloth, really, in another naming of the affliction that we currently face.

So there are a lot of layers to all of this, is what I’m saying, and your point about anxiety and all the things you listed as part of what’s afflicting us in the culture seems to me to be exactly right.

You can find Issue 17 here, subscribe to The Mockingbird here, or peruse the magazine’s archives here.

Illustrations by Charlotte Ager.