Lessons from Mars Hill

This is a continuation of “The Postmodern Influence.” I’ve included the last paragraph of the first part to give a little context. 

The church is not immune to the movement’s impact either. The tenants of postmodernism have already caused churches to questions their doctrine and methods. Can Jesus really be the only way? Can’t the Bible be interpreted in as many ways as there are readers? While postmodernism is not without strengths, Christians must think critically about its claims and measure them against the word of God. Today the church must counter the barrage against truth and the undermining of knowledge. Failure to do so will lead to inane tolerance that distorts or rejects the Bible and fails to love the lost. If Christians have nothing to offer those with different beliefs, and if Christ is not the way, the truth, and the life after all, then the church has no other purpose but to serve itself and there will be nothing good left of the good news of Christ. 

But how can we reach a postmodern culture with the gospel? Is it possible to be culturally relevant without compromising the truth? A study of Paul’s witness to the pluralistic culture in Acts 17 offers insights that are quite useful in our day. The passage takes place in Athens, a center of worship for the Greek gods and goddesses. Like our postmodern culture where Christ can be a good teacher but not the only way, the Athenians were happy to hear about Christ as long as he was just one more god in their pantheon. Debating new religions and philosophies was a favorite pastime but the question of truth wasn’t important. They were willing to embrace all beliefs regardless of how contradictory they might prove. Sound familiar?

So how did Paul address these people and their misconceptions? He didn’t immediately join in the debate, which would have been easy but fruitless because of their indecisive curiosity. Instead he began by carefully studying their culture. His first statement to them was, “I observe that you are very religious in all respects” (Acts 17:22). Acknowledging their religious commitment shows he knows something about their culture. Instead of withdrawing from beliefs he doesn’t agree with, he’s willing to study them. Today we need to understand the postmodern worldview and its implications if we hope to effectively witness in our culture. 

Paul’s opening statement also communicates respect. He knew their gods were false and their devotion to them was ignorant. But he wanted to open the lines of communication, and offending them immediately wouldn’t be effective. We can take a similar approach in our witness today by discovering people’s spiritual interests and listening to them before we bring up biblical truth. We can listen without agreeing. Inviting people to talk about their beliefs, however mistaken they may be, is a useful way to show that we’re interested in them as a person, not just as a potential convert. Listening also gives us a chance to learn about their assumptions and discover both misconceptions and common ground.  

Paul’s next statement indicates that he was able to unearth both their true and false assumptions. He says, “While I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (17:23). He shows a more specific knowledge of their beliefs, which gives him a starting point for the discussion. They don’t know who God is so that’s what he’s going address. The principle applies still applies today.  The more we know about someone’s beliefs, the better we can dialogue about it. I’ve read Buddhist and Hindu literature to better understand my Indian, Chinese, and even American friends who follow these religions. It’s helped me know what to ask and where to begin.

This verse also demonstrates how Paul finds common ground. “Hey, we both believe in God,” he’s saying. We share much common ground with postmodernism. In addition to our critique of modernism, we have many similar convictions: we’re against racism, being socially exclusive, and thinking that we know it all. We are for showing compassion to the needy, practicing social relief, and affirming diversity. Our underlying assumptions often lead to different implications and applications in these areas, but the commonalities give us a place to start talking about deeper issues that can lead to the gospel.

It’s significant that Paul starts with cultural sensitivity, but when the time comes to proclaim the truth he’s not afraid to offend. He points out that they worshipped false gods “in ignorance.” Ouch! Now he’s in their face, not insulting but certainly challenging them. Their own inscription admitted that they didn’t know who they worshipped and now he’s ready to tell them about the only true God who deserves our worship. This is a useful conversation to have with postmodernists because they often assume that all religions are equally valid. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that different belief systems are “just different roads up the same mountain.” At this point we have to disagree. God can’t be personal, impersonal, and non-existent all at once. That’s logically impossible. 

We don’t get to make up what God is like, which is in effect what postmodernism tries to do. By showing the biblical view of God we can demonstrate that not all religions are equally valid. This is a long cry from showing that Christianity is the one true faith, but it is a necessary starting point. The issue of truth must be addressed or we can witness all we want but we’ll only hear, “That’s true for you, but not for me.” Paul goes on to describe God in a way that is very different from the gods of Greek mythology. He shows that He is the Creator, transcendent and self-sufficient yet also closely involved with us. “He is not far from each one of us,” he tells them and then illustrates the point with their own poetry: “For we also are His children” (Acts 17:27, 28). This quotation, carefully selected from their culture, implies that we need God like a child needs its parents. He has usefully contextualized without compromising the truth.  

Paul only addresses a few of God’s attributes; of course there are more. But it was enough to get to the real point: “we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man” (17:29). This is anything but politically correct: he’s directly contradicting their beliefs, unashamedly saying they’re wrong straight to their face. Now he’s ready to give the gospel. He’s already established that we need Him and He is near us, willing to be personally involved. His statements ring with boldness as he brings up the difficult truths of their ignorance, the need for repentance, the reality of judgment, and the resurrection of Christ (17:9-31). They need to hear the bad news with the good. He’s in their face, stepping all over their toes, making it clear that although he’s shown respect for them as people, he does not respect their superficial, false beliefs.

Frightening as it is to be bold, it’s the approach we must take to be effective in our culture. Acts says that while some sneered at Paul, others wanted to hear more, and still others believed (17:32, 34). The rejection we might suffer is worth it in light of the eternal impact we could have. We should be as bold as Paul was, abandoning the inane tolerance of our culture in favor of the offensive yet redemptive truth of the gospel.

Do you have stories from witnessing to postmodernists? Please post a comment about the struggles, strategies, and triumphs you’ve experienced.