Reading ACTS, by Willie James Jennings, WJKP, 2017
ACTS Willie James Jennings, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017
During the next few weeks, I’m using some of the time freed up by “July at South Church” to do a close reading of Professor Willie James Jennings’ superb commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. It’s my hope and plan to periodically add an essay on what I’m reading and how it affects me to this site.
Professor Jennings’ book is thin, by commentary standards. I own two other commentaries on Acts; each of them is at least an inch thicker than this one. Each of them is filled with page after page of detail about the words, the context, the social situation, and even the condition of the oldest manuscripts. In other words, each of them is all about the words. Jennings writes about what the words mean for us today.
Each type of commentary is important – essential – to the scholar. However, it’s possible to read Jennings’ commentary without ever touching the other; it is not particularly fruitful to read an analytical commentary without proceeding on to one which examines meaning.
Jennings begins, in his introduction, by talking about why the Acts of the Apostles is important. (I’m not going to go over his whole argument; but rather, just raise some thoughts which struck me as I read.)
In my childhood as a Hicksite Quaker, as I remember the lessons, we were the ones who followed pure, original, apostolic Christianity. Everyone else was flawed; not so much that they weren’t really Christians, but enough that they were missing the “good stuff” that only we had. “Look”, we were told, “at the Acts of the Apostles. There you’ll see the model for how we do things; there you’ll see the proof that we are right, or at least the rightest, of all the Christian churches.” Even the most modest of mid-twentieth century Quakers engaged in sometime triumphalism. This is one of the most common ways we use the Bible: look, we say, here’s proof that I’m right.
The thing is, as soon as we say that, we’re wrong. There’s a lot to be found in Jennings’ introduction, but the first thing is this: the Book of Acts is not a simple list of facts, like a tide table. It is a story, and moreover, a story of how God has acted, is acting and will continue to act in our future. History is not really about facts; facts are tools which storytellers us to help us see the meaning of history.
If we think of history as nothing but facts, it ossifies into something as solid as my grandmother’s gravestone. There you can read her name, her birthdate, death date, and the name of my grandfather (they share a stone). Those are the facts, but they are not the story. The same kind of ossification takes place when we read Acts as a flat recitation of facts. We know when Paul made his second missionary journey, perhaps, but we never look to see what that journey meant then or means now, where it points us into the future.
Jennings suggests that when we reduce history to “history for history’s sake”, we turn it into something that must be preserved without question, a source for answering “right way” questions, and thus something like the experience of the colonial life which seeks to recapitulate life in the world from which they came, without regard to current need. (Think of the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii, trying to get the inhabitants to wear wool clothing, because, in their colonialist mindset, that’s what decent people wear.)
History is a story which lives in the spaces between the haves and the have nots. Jennings calls these two poles empire and diaspora: for Acts that means the Roman Empire and the scattering of Jews across the world (the Diaspora). History, too often, tries to get us to choose between empire and diaspora. We’re asked to either be the ones who have it all, or the ones who’ve lost it all. The empire-ists in Acts only want actions and religions which support the hierarchies and structures of the Roman Empire; the diaspora wants to live as a body totally unconnected to Empire, turning away from anything which might cause the Jewish community to be assimilated. Those two poles cannot be reconciled; they must live in constant opposition to each other.
But, Jennings posits, Christianity lives in the spaces between Empire and Diaspora. Christianity tries to build what he calls “the common”; a community which says there is something more important than being right; it is being loving. It doesn’t matter where you originally belong: to become Christian is to abandon the values of each of those communities.
The common is a place where we all can meet, where we are not fixated on the one right way, not the right Diaspora way and not the right Empire way, but rather coalesce around the Christian way, which has many right ways. The story of the birth of the common is the story of Acts. It is the story of moving away from the life of total disconnection while avoiding moving into the lifestyle of the Empire.
I think of this and remember so many arguments in church life that, in the light of Jennings’ introduction, are arguments about power, not arguments about carpets, or what kind of music to play. It makes me think that in many ways, all life is a struggle between those who have power and those who don’t.
The central concerns, the rightnesses of Christian faith, at its best, are about how we behave with one another and how we interact with the powers and principalities of our world. They’re not about matters of taste or custom; those things can be important to believers, but they are adiaphora…. things that, however personally important, are not essential. One of the most challenging tasks of the believer is to discern which things matter to our faith and which do not. The Acts of the Apostles is the story of a beginning effort to figure that out.
What things do we think are central? What matters to God? When are we acting out of our sense that ours is the right wayand when are we acting as if we’re totally cut off from things? When are we bringing it all together?
Next time: Chapter 1 – how it all began.