Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Paul, Athens, Acts 17 and cross-cultural sensitivity.

Acts 17:16-31 is frequently held up as a model of Paul's cross-cultural sensitivity in his evangelism of non-Jews who were completely unfamiliar with Christian ideas and teaching. Have a quick read:

Acts 17:16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Acts 17:22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Acts 17:29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Acts 17:32 Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 So Paul went out from their midst. 34 But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

In making the case, various observations are routinely trotted out.

So for example, Paul doesn't move straight into the attack, offended though he is by the idolatry he sees everywhere (Acts 17:16). He goes to where the hearers are and engages them, even physically moving into their own territory. He assumes no prior knowledge of the God of the Lord Jesus Christ. He goes so far as to begin by complimenting them on their religiosity, and mentions their altar 'To the unknown god'. He is starting where they are, and sympathetically winning a hearing for himself and his message.

When he begins his explanation, his thoughtfulness and intelligent cultural sensitivity are again on display. He shows an awareness of what they know and what they don't know, and supplies plentiful background knowledge about the nature of God, who alone creates and sustains and rules the universe—all this before even mentioning a word about Jesus.

Then as he explains the truth about Jesus, he puts his best apologetic foot forward. He gently reminds his hearers of God's sovereign, patient, forbearing and sustaining grace before moving on to ideas they may find harder to hear. Indeed he saves to the very last the objectionable but necessary truth of the resurrection, thus allowing him the maximum amount of time possible to speak about the other aspects of God he would like them to hear about.

Of course some dismiss him and mock him as a fool (Acts 17:32), reinforcing their earlier judgement on him as a 'babbler' (Acts 17:18).

But the success of his evangelistic approach is seen in that "some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them."

Sure, this is not as good as the 3000 at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), to whom many were added daily (Acts 2:47); nor yet as impressive as the 5000 men in Acts 4:4. But hey, I’m speaking as a theological evangelical not as a charismatic, so let’s forget the numbers for the moment. When it comes to sympathetic cross-cultural evangelism that would be the envy of our mission societies, not to mention our ministries at home to other ethnic groups, this is as good as it gets.

However, let me make five observations—there may be more—that suggest that Paul was never going to win the title ‘Mr Cross Cultural Sensitivity of the 50s*’ because of his performance in this place.

*That’s the first century 50s, not the 1950s

First, if we are to credit Paul with a thoughtful understanding of the people he is dealing with, it’s a pity he spends almost no time learning the culture and customs of the local Athenians. That has to be a cross-cultural boo-boo, doesn't it? He's never been there, he is on the run from a mob in Berea (Acts 17:14) and the encounter described in Athens takes place in the short gap while waiting for “Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible.”

(but compare Acts 18:1 and 18:5, where it seems that Paul had already left Athens so quickly that Silas and Timothy had to catch him up).

He could have watched and waited, taken notes and thought carefully. Instead, he has to open his big mouth.

Nor does following up potential converts seem to have been part of Paul’s strategy on this occasion. His Athenian encounter is more like a one-night evangelistic stand than a slow and gentle courtship of ideas. Most contemporary mission societies worth their salt would shudder at the idea of parachuting in a culturally untested missionary like Paul, with a history of provoking violent conflict, for purposes of a one-off spontaneous debate hosted by the locals.

Second, Paul as a rule insisted that “the love of Christ control[led]” (2 Cor 5:14) and directed his evangelistic concern. But on this occasion pure exasperation with the local idol industry seems to have been the button that triggered his apparently unpremeditated spray against the local collection of religions. At least as far as motivation, we seem to be seeing at least two parts John the Baptist to one part Jesus. Frothing at the mouth is not an attitude that is going to set you up for careful and detached, yet sympathetic, analysis of the prevailing culture.

Third, although we like to level the accusation of cultural sensitivity at Paul, isn’t Luke (the writer of the account) the more likely recipient of such an award? He, and not Paul, is the one who carefully identifies the enormous cultural diversity that Paul must now wisely navigate in this ultra-cosmopolitan city: “Jews…devout persons…those who happened to be there…Epicurean and Stoic philosophers…Athenians…foreigners.” (Acts 17:17-21) As the missionary on home leave might be tempted to say over the first slide: “Athens. A city of contrasts.” Luke identifies those contrasts, a fact that only serves to highlight how Paul simply lumps every different group together under the general heading ‘idolatry’. Paul scores approximately 0.18 cross-cultural points out of a possible 10 for failing to even acknowledge the less than subtle differences between Epicurean and Stoic philosophy, not to mention the famous, richly traditional Athenian school of “those-who-happened-to-be-there-ites”.

Nevertheless, all this would not matter if it were to turn out that Paul gathered his self-control and allowed the love of Christ to shape the theme of his subsequent message in the direction of niceness and goodness instead of grumpiness. But does he? Let us see.

Fourth, Paul describing the Athenians as ‘very religious’ is a little bit like the school teacher who writes the nicely ambiguous school report summary, ‘Jane is a student who is trying at all times’. Anyone familiar with Romans 1:18-32 is hardly likely to mistake ‘very religious’ for a compliment. But even if the Athenians did think Paul was being nice (being understandably ill-acquainted with writings Paul had not yet produced), the supposed attempt to ‘start where his hearers are’ comes badly unstuck the more he tries to explain. It quickly becomes clear that the one Athenian resident idol Paul is prepared to give time to is ‘the unknown God’. And he immediately moves to alienation mode when he proceeds to insist that of thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of idols on display in Athens, this ‘unknown god’ is the only true one. This is a bit like preaching the gospel of the beef kebab at a vegetarian Hindu Body-Mind-Spirit festival.

Indeed and fifth, even picking out ‘the unknown god’ as the deity with whom the Athenians had hit the jackpot is a slightly awkward thing to do. Possibly the ‘unknown god’ was there as a form of insurance, in case an inadvertent error had been made. Possibly there was an attempt at humility on the part of the idol makers, in order not to seem to lay claim to too much knowledge. Whatever the case, if someone agrees with you that yes, you are essentially as ignorant as you acknowledge yourself to be, they are not fast tracking themselves to popularity.

From this point and on to the end of his address, Paul is sticking fairly close to the gospel itself. Thus it is quite possible that any offence he now proceeds to give is simply because he’s telling God’s story the way it is. So let’s go easy on him, and not mark him down for suggesting that God doesn’t need us, we need him. And let’s skate lightly over his faintly derogatory language about gods who need to be served “by human hands” (v 25; cf. Deut 4:28; 27:15; 31:29; 2 Chr 34:25; Ps 115:4; 135:15; Isa 2:8; 31:7; 37:19 etc.), especially since most likely only Jews would have picked up any insult here. Let’s even acknowledge that quoting an Athenian poet (Acts 17:28) is pretty good stuff really in the cross-cultural stakes, even if ad hominem argument is logically light on.

Nor could Paul have avoided the offence of the resurrection, even had he wanted to—along with its ludicrous and intellectually offensive assumption that God became a man; that that man died; and that this particular man has now been raised up to judge anyone who doesn’t repent of serving idols. Yes, Paul knew that the idea of God becoming a man and dying was offensive (1 Cor 1:18), but whether or not he wanted to offend by telling his audience, the passage doesn’t say. It’s probably enough to observe that along with Paul's own struggles in the sensitivity stakes, the gospel itself is the crowning example of a message that fails to take into account the cross-cultural context of the people being addressed, beyond recognizing the universal cross-cultural truth that we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God.


Jeff A said...

So Gordo, In summary are you suggesting that any form of contextualisation is uneccessary for presenting the truth of the gospel?

Gordon Cheng said...

Heya Jeff,

It isn't something that this passage argues for, anyway. Paul supplies information about God that he knew the Athenians lacked, but that is not really contextualizing, is it?

I suggest that all the contextualization we need comes from the fact that we are humans speaking to each other. We're not Dr Dolittle, so we probably can't talk to the animals; but if we are human beings we have the inherent capacity to talk to other human beings, and to make ourselves understood.

Loving people counts for a great deal more than any principles of contextualization. If we love someone, the contextualization will follow. I suspect that's why the Bible talks so little about this subject when discussing evangelism.

Phil Nicholson said...

Hey Gordon,

Acts 17 IS a favourite passage in thinking about cross-cultural preaching. But it seems to me you are attacking a straw-man. Evangelical contextualisation is not about making the gospel more palatable but making it properly understood. Working across cultures we do work to avoid unnecessary offence. But good contextualisation often leads to even more offence as people understand what we are really saying!

I think Acts 17 is an example of this type of contextualisation. Paul presents biblical truth in a way they can understand. Did he do this out of love or frustration? - I don't know. But he certainly took into account the fact he was talking with Greeks & not Jews. This is probably not the main point of the passage but it is certainly an example of contextualisation.

Besides, we all contextualise, using language, concepts and words that our listeners can understand. It is just a question of whether we do it well or badly. I presume you do not usually use Swahili when you preach at your church. ;-)

But I agree with your last point - love covers a multitude of (contextualisation) sins.

Gordon Cheng said...

Besides, we all contextualise, using language, concepts and words that our listeners can understand. It is just a question of whether we do it well or badly. I presume you do not usually use Swahili when you preach at your church. ;-)

All true, Phil. But the contextualization questions are secondary and consequential, not primary. The greatest context of all is the gospel of God, who is creator and judge, and no creature or sinner escapes this or misunderstands this because of language difficulties.

Straw man this contextualization question may be, but I keep hearing it preached and it keeps me reaching for the matches.

CraigS said...

My friend Kamal referenced a report from the Presbyterian church recently, which showed that one of the reasons the youth were leaving the Presy church was because they felt alienated by the very traditional forms of Sunday church services being used.

Now, you could argue that the form of church service is completely irrelevant so long as the gospel is being preached. But you may well find yourself preaching to empty pews.

Our Archbishop made the same point at Synod this year, when he strongly spoke against churches that, in appearance, belonged to the 1950s...

marion said...

Gordon, just after reading yr post I got an email from a friend about almost the same thing. Its an article in A Christian Consensus on Culture,
Culture Matters January 23, 2008

Gordon Cheng said...

Now, you could argue that the form of church service is completely irrelevant so long as the gospel is being preached.

Then it's just as well I haven't argued that! What I've said is that 'contextualization' is secondary and consequential, and that Acts 17 is not an example of it.

Phil Nicholson said...

I agree contextualisation is 2ndary but that is not the same thing as unimportant!

BTW what is it that you hear being preached that inspires you to arson? Is it that we should soften the gospel to make it more acceptable? If so, that is not contextualisation - that is seeker-sensitive ear tickling.

And I still think Acts 17 is a good example of Paul; taking the context into account in deciding how to present the gospel. Whether it worked in terms of results is another matter.

Gordon Cheng said...

Marion: interesting article, thank you. In it Charles Colson says:

First, we must participate in culture at the same time that we are engaged in a biblically based critique of culture. For too long, Christians have ignored the arts and have, thus, failed to realize that culture and the arts can be conduits of God’s truth, grace, and beauty.

I have problems with that for a couple of reasons, but the reason that is relevant to this discussion is that it (and the rest of the article) appear to use the term 'culture' almost synonymously with the arts. But sport, politics, and the public transport system (along with many other things) are as much a part of culture as the arty bits.

As for "conduits of God's grace, truth and beauty"—what does that mean? And is such an idea in the Bible?

Gordon Cheng said...

phil: good distinction between contextualization and softening the gospel.

Once you've established that you're speaking the same language, though, I am not sure how far you need to go with contextualization. Jew (meaning they know their OT) vs Gentile (meaning they don't) is probably about as nuanced as I, for one, would be likely to get. And I think it's as nuanced as Paul gets here, and in his Acts 14:15-17 mini-sermon.

(Which, BTW, looks like he was using the same outline as he did at Athens, he'd just cut and pasted "Athens" every time his old talk said "Lystra" ;-) )

Phil Nicholson said...

BTW, looks like he was using the same outline as he did at Athens, he'd just cut and pasted "Athens" every time his old talk said "Lystra"

But even here where the 2 contexts are probably quite similar there are differences in his message. e.g. He speaks about the weather to the people of Lystra and mentions Greek poetry to the sophisticated urbanites of Athens. He takes into account the context of their lives.

It is 2ndary to the basic point of God as creator, but it is still not trivial to make such adjustments when you are wanting to get a hearing for the gospel and make it understood.

CraigS said...

Well, it seems to me that modernising a church service is an example of cultural contextualising. Electric guitars weren't invented in churches, after all.

Gordon Cheng said...

"Hide those lyres, fellow-Areopagites! Paul's on the way and as well as preaching, he wants to plug some CDs."


Anonymous said...

Perhaps worth checking an old article by CK Barrett - I'm pretty sure it was him - on this article. It's on how Paul used stoic & epicurean philosophy in the address. (It reminded me of the sadducee v. pharisee argument Paul caused later in Acts.) It doesn't make context primary. But does help explain why these two groups might have been mentioned.
Little Chris

Dave Lankshear said...

Hi all,
what's your take on 1 Corinthians 9?

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Sarah Fordham said...

Paul does something very interesting in quoting the poet Aratus. He re-interprets, or should I say re-contextualises [to place (as a literary or artistic work) in a different context]. He seems to be ignoring the fact the poem is about Zeus and extolling the deity, nay false god, full on. It's like he is replacing the name Zeus with the name Jesus in his mind, and making out this is an OK thing to do. In v 29 we have the turning point: 'being then children of God' and it's a recontextualisation.

Let us begin with Zeus, whom we mortals never leave unspoken.
For every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.
Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.
Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.
For we are indeed his offspring... (Phaenomena 1-5).

I would link this passage with what Paul says in Romans 1:'the pagans are without excuse because of the things that have been made...' He says that people suppress the truth - 'that which is known about God is evident within them.'
Surly mission is about uncovering this truth no it is no longer suppress? Wouldn't that entirely change the way we approach evangelism?

Anonymous said...

Gordon, my friend, I really have to thank you for initiating this debate on Acts 17 and for arguing strongly against using Paul's speech as an argument for "contextualizing the gospel". After a bit more research on Acts 17 which I had to conduct in the last days, I am even more inclined to agree with you and want to add some points to your list:

1. What is often overlooked is the context of the Areopagus speech, the framing narrative. The Areopagus speech itself is not the start of Paul's preaching in Athens, it is his last word there. He apparently started preaching soon after he arrived in Athens. Note that from the beginning of his preaching he addressed not only the Jews and the God-fearers in the synagogue but also gave public talks in the market-place (v 17). And what was the content of his message to the Athenians? The usual stuff: Jesus and the resurrection (v 18). So Paul confronted the pagan Athenians with the Gospel right from the beginning, and there is not the slightest hint of "contextualisation of the gospel".

2. In the Areopagus speech itself he is indeed not too nice to the well-educated, philosophy-loving Athenians. His reference to the "unknown god" (agnostos theos, v 23) is often understood as if he were saying: you poor guys, I understand that God is difficult to know; I'll help you. But that's much too soft an interpretation. What he actually does in this verse is calling the philosophers, who are terribly proud on their education and knowledge because of which they think they know everything - he calls these guys agnoountes (note the plural): those who know nothing, who, despite of their brillant education and knowledge, have not the slightest idea of the true God. Your philosophical knowledge, Paul says, on which you are so proud, does not help you at all. To put it bluntly, he calls them stupids - wrapped in philosophical clauses.

3. agnoountes derives from ag-noein, literally: having no mind. Later in the speech, v. 30, Paul uses this compound again, as a noun, ag-noia, together with another compund with -noein: the well-known "meta-noein", literally: to change one's mind, mostly translated with "to repent". So in v 30 Paul not only characterizes the Athenians again as being in the state of agnoia, of ignorance, but he also calls them to turn their minds! This is rudest philosopher bashing, and it is a real surprise that they interrupt him not already then but only after he mentioned the resurrection (again!, one has to add).

In consequence, one can't really say with Phil Nicholson (s.a.) that Paul is making adjustments because he wants "to get a hearing for the gospel and make it understood". I think Christoph Stenschke (Luke's portrait of Gentiles, p. 224) has it right that "the speech addressed and revealed at every point the misconceptions behind and the inadequacy of pagan theology, worship and piety, all of which are branded as ignorance of the true nature of God and his worship. ... The best educated Gentiles appear as spiritual 'write-offs'." One may call this 'contextualisation', if one wants to...

(If this comment needs editing, feel free ...)