THE UNKNOWN GOD
A few years ago, the pastor of a church in my town announced a thrilling new sermon series: “The Dark Night Rises.” Posters went up with the dramatic title superimposed on the silhouette of the caped crusader himself. The marketing worked on me, at least – I was excited about this sermon series related to Batman! When the pastor opened his first sermon, however, my heart sank. He immediately started complaining about the popular Batman trilogy’s violence and grim worldview, and then contrasted him with “the true superhero, Jesus.” Apparently Batman was cool enough to use as a gimmick to get people in the pews, but not cool enough to endorse after they were already there.
Christianity, as we have discussed at length, has a complicated relationship with culture. On the one hand, Christians often commit to being “in the world but not of it,” riffing on Jesus’ description of his followers in John 17:14-18. We throw 'Harvest Parties' at Halloween, have Christian pop music and romance novels and family movies, and run systems of schools and hospitals so that we can live the majority of our lives around people who believe the same thing we do. On the other hand, Christians often seem desperate to emulate the culture around them, whether it’s by making shirts that parody corporate logos with Christian slogans, or using references to Drake and Game of Thrones to seem “hip” in sermons.
What should we make of all this? Are we too quick to retreat from the culture around us, or too quick to embrace and imitate it? The evidence seems to suggest that both are the case in different situations.
This fixation with opposing popular culture and therefore showing ourselves to be holier or more pure can be unhealthy and counterproductive to our witness. Michael Hidalgo writes: “It’s a celebrated virtue in many Christian circles to be known as ‘counter-cultural.’ We are often content to place the prefix ‘anti’- in front of a word and believe it is a way of stating what we are for. But I wonder if, by choosing to arrange our lives around what we stand against, we are limiting who we are called to be. If we always react against culture, the very things we rise up against will become our central point of reference for morality – which means we won’t get very far.”
In Acts 17, Paul offers a different solution: using people’s cultural touchstones in an uncritical way to help reach them with the Gospel. While visiting Athens, Paul sees an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God” and decides to use it to his advantage, drawing on his knowledge of Greek philosophers and poets to connect with his listeners. His words are included in the Bible, even though they are direct quotes from pagan philosophers. “For in him we live and move and have our being,” Paul says, quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides. Then, “As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring’” (17:28 NIV). Here he is quoting the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus. Epimenides was a self-proclaimed prophet and mystic who covered his body with shamanic tattoos.1 Aratus wrote books of astronomy and astrology claiming that the path of the zodiac determined life on earth. And yet their words are included in the Bible, which we believe is inspired by God.2
We can take two lessons from this passage. The first is that Paul was familiar enough with Greek culture to intelligently converse with its own philosophers and thinkers. He didn’t make awkward, dated references or misrepresent their ideas, nor did he proclaim that as a Christian he was too holy to speak in the language of their culture. Rather, he was aware of the culture around him so that he could connect to the people he wanted to reach. Secondly, Paul searched for and acknowledged truth wherever he encountered it, echoing Jesus’ command in Luke 9:50 – “whoever is not against you is for you” (NIV).
Paul has elsewhere demonstrated that while God may not be explicitly known in certain cultures by his name or his actions in the history of Israel, he has revealed himself in other ways. Romans 1:20 says: "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (NIV).
Much later in history, C.S. Lewis made a related observation when discussing the way in which God is working against human evils in the world. "First of all He left us conscience, the sense of right and wrong: and all through history there have been people trying (some of them very hard) to obey it. None of them ever quite succeeded. Secondly, He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men."3
God has, in some way or another, revealed himself to humanity in big and small ways. Christians can capitalize on the hints and echoes of God that they see in different cultural stories, customs, artifacts, and whatever else.
Paul was, perhaps, the most passionate and devoted Christian in history, regularly beaten, imprisoned, and shipwrecked for the sake of the gospel. Yet he was also culturally engaged and in tune with the world around him - able to speak to the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans. How can we emulate the balance he struck between relevant knowledge and timeless truth? Is it possible to be completely, deeply, truly in the world, yet not be "of" it?
Read Paul's argument in Acts 17:22-31. Note especially the quotes he uses in verse 28, which were likely used in reference to Zeus in their original context. If a Christian singer were to borrow poetry from secular or other religious sources like this and use them to create a new song, would you be inclined to think that was OK or improper? Would that be the same or different from what Paul is doing here?
Focus for a second on Acts 17:26-27. What does Paul mean when he says that God is "not far from any one of us?" How might that affect the way you practice your faith? How might that affect how you view the spirituality of other people?
Go back a bit and read Acts 17:16-20. Paul arrives in Athens and goes straight to the Jewish community there, which includes Greeks who have converted to Jewish faith. However, when Paul goes to the marketplace, it seems that the Stoics and Epicureans have never heard of the God of Israel before, except to recognize that he's a "foreign" God. What do you think it says about the synagogue community in Athens, that there is a large group of philosophers who have never heard of their God before? Is this a good, bad, or neutral fact? Has this religious group disengaged from the culture around them?
How can Christians use elements of culture to explain Biblical truth? Should Christians attempt to engage and even meld with mainstream culture or create a separate counter-culture?
Are there risks in using non-Biblical language to express our values? If so, do the potential benefits outweigh those risks? Why or why not?
Watch this video of popular musician Lecrae speaking about the divide between Sacred and Secular work. What does he think about this distinction? How might this apply to the Acts 17 situation, and how might it apply to your own life?
Laērtius, Diogenes. “The Seven Sages: Epimenides.” Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Trans. Hicks, Robert Drew. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 1925. Print. ↩
Kidd, Douglas. Phaeonomena. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge, 1997. Print. ↩
Lewis, C.S. "Mere Christianity." New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 54. ↩