2016.08.15 | Joel B. Green. Conversion in Luke-Acts: Divine Action, Human Cognition, and the People of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015.
Review by Brandon T. Walker, St. John’s College, Nottingham.
Many thanks to Baker Academic for providing a review copy.
Much of the contemporary Western conversation about defining conversion has centred around questions of cognition and morality, repentance and conversion, or around attempts to discover patterns in a conversion narrative. In Conversion in Luke-Acts Joel B. Green offers an insightful take on Luke’s understanding of conversion by using a cognitive and holistic approach. Conversion is an important contribution to Lukan studies as well as understanding ‘conversion’ in antiquity.
In the first chapter Green surveys the pertinent questions concerning conversion in the New Testament (14–15), such as: ‘Is conversion a cognitive category, a moral category or both?’ (14). ‘Are repentance and conversion discrete or convergent categories?’ (15). ‘Is conversion a matter of self-correction, or is it the consequence of divine initiative?’(15). ‘Does Luke’s narrative support a “pattern”?’ (15).
According to Green, the dichotomies posed in these questions are often the result of Renee Descartes’ division between mind and body. Similarly, Green notes the influence of William James who placed conversion in terms of the individual and interiority. James also noted that conversion could be considered a ‘regenerative change’ that ‘is usually gradual’ and consists of a form of self-surrender (8). James left a legacy of conversion of the ‘modern self’ that impacted other scholars such as A. D. Nock who defined conversion as the ‘reorientation of the soul of an individual’ that ‘removes the feeling of anxiety’. Green challenges these interpretations in this current work on Luke-Acts (8).
Rather than drawing such distinctions, Green proposes a cognitive approach that embraces embodiment and a holistic approach. This approach frames conversion in terms of the web of relationships of the embodied person, which is broader than the modernist individuality that is prominent in many studies of conversion.
The second chapter engages the issues of embodiment and cognition. After examining the interesting and important topic of neurobiology and cognitive science, Green argues that all human life is embodied life engaged in a web of relationships. The questions presented above that draw distinction between cognitive and moral aspects as well as internal/external is predominantly a modern interpretation predicated on Cartesian segregation.
When creating a holistic picture of embodiment of the human person that is both an individual and part of and influenced by a web of relationships, a more dynamic picture emerges. The conversion of the embodied self is a neurobiological process in which neural connections are used and remolded based on situations and relationships. As a human grows and develops patterns of neurological and relational responses are developed which help us make sense of the world (41). These patterns assist in ‘filling in the gaps’ of what should or could be expected in life and in narratives. This ability to ‘fill in the gaps’ is part of the realm of imagination. Green concludes that ‘there can be no conversion that is not conversion of the self, understood relationally extended, embodied, holistic terms’ (43).
Green builds on the topic of embodiment and applies it to Luke’s view of conversion in the third chapter titled ‘Orienting Conversion’. Embodiment, according to Green, ‘refers to the human body (and not only the brain) as the site of cognitive processes, to the individual body as lived, experiential structure…’(19). This embodiment generally extends to ones religious experiences or in the case of Luke-Acts to God.
Beginning with an examination of previous works on Luke, Green points out the problem with seeking after a pattern or consistent ordering (forms) of conversion stories in Luke’s work. The problem with this approach is that it sets out criteria or predefined paradigm requirements resulting in circularity.
In this chapter, Green integrates the theme of embodiment, conversion and Israel’s narrative. The division between repentance and conversion is tackled in here. With repentance being a ‘turning’, Green points out that Israel often had to turn or return several times within its history. This history provides a Luke with ‘presuppositional pools’ or the data sets that audiences use to interpret events and narratives. For Luke, the turnings of Israel are a metaphor the journey of life. Green uses recent works by N. T. Wright to build the idea that forgiveness of sins is another way of saying ‘return from exile’.
Noting the communal context for identity and moral formation, the author offers John the Baptist’s community as an example of conversionary life. The community’s common practices such as fasting and praying often provide its identity. John’s mission and community provide a means of incorporation into the new community, namely baptism. Within the first-century eschatological context, the baptism and repentance becomes the means of entrance into this community whose common life is focused on the aims of God (81). This effectively places conversion outside the realm of individualistic and subjective terms and into a communal setting.
In chapter 4, ‘Text and Metaphors’, Green provides a provisional definition: ‘Converts are those who have undergone a redirectional shift and are now on the move with the community of those faithfully serving God’s eschatological purpose’(87). This definition provides a foundation in communal narrative of God’s dealings with Israel as well as a corporate identity. Green notes that this definition is not so much consent to a creed or set of doctrinal statements as it is engaging with the people of God in service to God’s eschatological hopes. This is exemplified in the conversion of Simon Peter in Luke 5 and his accompaniment with the itinerant Jesus.
This chapter traces several metaphors throughout Luke that involve movement from light to darkness (Luke 1.77–79), crooked to straight (Luke 3:4–5), and moving from the outside to the inside (Luke 16.19–31). These metaphors evoke bodily experiences and are associated with visceral responses (104–105). These metaphors provide options for individuals to respond to and play a role in biasing persons in a particular direction (105).
Green examines the labels of ‘tax collectors’ and ‘sinners’ who are consistently marginalized in Luke. Using Zacchaeus as an example of one who is presented as a head tax collector. He is rich, but is considered a sinner for his profession. Zacchaeus’ act of restitution towards those wronged demonstrates that his life is ‘oriented toward God’s purpose’ (111). Interestingly, there is no evidence that he changes his profession and remains on the fringes of his society.
The final chapter, ‘Community, Agency and Apostasy’, Green delves into the issues of motifs as directionality, the journey of conversion and the practices that enact and exhibit conversion which provide identity to the community.
The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 provides an example of the ‘conversionary life’, which is empowered through the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Spirit causes changes in previous patterns of faith and life within the new community. The new patterns, which help define the new community, are the sharing of food, wealth, and prayer.
If conversion is seen as a journey of reformation of the embodied person or community, it is possible for one to de-convert or commit apostasy. Green makes this point in examining the stories of Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, and Simon Magus. Luke notes the Satanic influences in each of these incidents and the relationship between money/wealth and their de-conversion. As conversion is seen as the journey or movement into the Kingdom of God from the kingdom of Satan, one could possibly travel back into darkness.
Green develops his argument step-by-step, developing a definition of conversion that emphasizes personal embodiment and the journey of conversion of the people of God. By embracing a holistic sense of conversion, this book effectively opens up new ways of framing conversion. The emphasis on a community of embodied people seeking God’s aims is innovative. Moreover, it elucidates some perplexing texts such as the case of Simon Magus. Further exploration of what conversion from a cognitive perspective might reveal for Paul or other early Christian authors is a welcome area of research.
With the emphasis on embodiment, it is interesting that there is little discussion on emotion in this book. Emotion and memories of emotion are a cognitive experience that shapes identity of individuals and communities. With regard to Luke, joy is expressed more than any other gospel. What might the role of emotion play in the journey of conversion?
This book is fascinating and is highly recommended for students of the New Testament or those interested in conversion. While there are some areas where knowledge of Greek and Hebrew are helpful, they are translated.
Brandon T. Walker
St. John’s College, Nottingham
btw0428 [at] gmail.com