Can one culture talk to another? This and similar questions animate one of Kavin Rowe’s current courses at Duke Divinity School, The New Testament and Graeco-Roman Philosophy, which I visited once just over three weeks ago. The day I visited, the texts under discussion were Romans, 1 Corinthians, Acts, a pseudepigraphal letter exchange between the apostle Paul and the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and Rowe’s own Achtemeier Award-winning essay on Paul in the Areopagus (Acts 17) titled, “The Grammar of Life.” Reading those texts together opens a conversation much more complex than I can do justice here, but the question that, to my mind, sparked the most interesting conversation involved a thought experiment of reading New Testament texts from the perspective of Seneca.
What would Seneca understand from reading 1 Corinthians? How would a Stoic philosopher read Paul’s words about the “Lord Jesus Christ,” “eloquent wisdom” (σοφίᾳ λόγου), the power of the cross, and the “foolishness of God” as “wiser than human beings”? These words and phrases simply do not mean in the same way within a Greek philosophical idiom that they do as part of the Christian story. What Seneca would mean by using the word “God” (θεός), for example, differs widely from what Paul means. As the class discussed “what Seneca would understand by reading 1 Corinthians” it seemed that either Paul’s letter would read as utter nonsense, or Seneca’s different frame of reference would render his interpretation something other than what Paul’s writing means as a text framed within the Gospel story. When the class discussion turned to Acts, particularly focused on Paul’s encounter with the Stoics and Epicurean philosophers in the Areopagus, it struck me that Seneca reading Acts might have quite different results. It makes a good deal of sense to frame a discussion about whether Paul and Seneca can make sense to one another by attending to the one passage within Acts where Paul actually interacts with some Stoics. But if one asks whether Seneca would understand Acts by reading it, well, one can’t really extract chapter 17 and make it the test case. Acts makes meaning as a narrative.
Acts’ making meaning as a narrative serves the possibility of communicating across cultures in at least the following four ways:
First, language that tells a story resists extraction and transplanting into another story not because the “meaning” of the words somehow doesn’t change because it comes from a story, but rather exactly the reverse. Extracting words from stories utterly changes their meaning. Stories make readers face this reality in a way that treatises do not. So someone could pull the word “God” from Acts and use it in a different story, but doing so makes clear that “God” no longer refers to the reality Acts intends by using the word “God.” Stories show how inescapably the meaning of words depends on their context. This rule doesn’t keep readers from using storied language in competing stories, but it exposes such re-appropriation for what it is.
Second, because the meaning of stories relies much more deeply upon effective communication of happenings than on the meaning of particular words, and because stories resist dissection into their constitutive parts, stories translate much more readily than treatises do. Acts itself provides perhaps the most salient illustration of this point: Pentecost promises and portrays the translatability of the Gospel—the diaspora Jews gathered in Jerusalem hear in their own languages what the apostles are saying through the Holy Spirit (Acts 2). But whatdo the apostles convey in all these other natural languages? They do not recite theological treatises or propositional arguments. Rather, they tell “God’s mighty acts” or “deeds of power.” To tell what God has done is to tell a story.
Third, because of the particular story Acts tells, it requires the reader to recognize it as a story within a story. In the first verse Luke mentions the first book, implying that Acts is the second one. Any reader with two brain cells to rub together should think, “If I want to understand the second book, I’d better go read that first book.” Then Peter immediately goes on interpreting recent and present events as clear fulfillment of Scripture (see, esp. Acts 1-5). So the reader thinks, “There’s even more before this story begins than I realized. I wonder what it is.” Well, happily, Luke goes on to lay out the whole thing through Stephen’s speech in chapter 7.
Finally, as Rowe himself has noted, Acts as a narrative reflects the story-embedded nature of all human life. Even the economic identity of God (meaning, “as revealed in the created world”) cannot be told other than through a story. Not surprisingly, then, when Paul preaches to the pagan philosophers in the Areopagus, he subtly reorients the words of their poets by embedding them within the story of God’s saving acts on earth (for more on that topic, see Rowe’s “The Grammar of Life” (New Testament Studies, vol. 57  pp. 31-50).
By highlighting these ways Acts works I don’t mean to hold it up as a generally superior text within the New Testament. It is no more (and no less!) Scripture than Paul’s letters. Obviously Acts is likewise not the only narrative text in Scripture, and one can argue persuasively that Paul’s letters depend for their intelligibility upon a community of reception embedded in a particular story—the same one, in fact, to which Acts belongs. But these unique qualities of Acts might make it singularly effective, among the canonical texts, at opening lines of cross-cultural communication. Indeed, as Rowe’s World Upside Down suggests, reading Acts in its narrative integrity offers a sound beginning point for opening the Christian story to those not already living it. And it is sound precisely in its inexorable gentleness—its simultaneous resistance to being coopted and refusal to promote its agenda through appeals to supposedly universal truths. One might even call it witness.
Because sometimes the best way to interpret one story is to tell another.