I have gone through two musical purges in my life. What do I mean by that? I have destroyed my music collections because of religious prompting. Both times came because of some speaker telling listeners that having secular music was sinful and was putting our eternal souls in jeopardy. They made a good case. I, being young, got swept up into the emotional fervor of the moment and destroyed hundreds of cds. I noted others who did it, too. There was a connection. I also noticed those who destroyed their evil goods versus those who sold their music away—they were clearly not as spiritual because they were profiting off the distribution of evil.
After that first purge, I listened solely to Christian music. Well, I also listened to some Classical music and instrumental jazz…don’t know that those count. But I distinctly remember the day I bought the first clearly pagan album, INXS X album. I loved it but I loathed it. I loved it because there were not only musically good songs on there, but also some lyrics that really resonated with me. I loathed it because I believed that I was somehow dishonoring Jesus; that I was breaking some Heavenly rule of holiness; and because those holy friends of mine now looked down on me.
But something was forming within me—something that said that this brand of holiness was, frankly, hogwash. These holiness preachers and friends were exhorting the evils of secular music but was this disdain for secularism constant in all aspects of their lives? Not from what I observed. These friends were fine with watching Hollywood movies, supporting professional sports, purchasing goods from unethical businesses and merchants, and so forth.
When challenged, they said things such as well there are no Christian movies, sports, etc. So, we really don’t have a choice. That is such poor thinking. We always have a choice. Abstain from movies. Abstain from sports. Learn to make your own clothing like Gandhi did so that you don’t have to support unethical business—grow your own food. It is possible…but it isn’t easy.
Hypocrisy aside, the church has had a long tension within itself—a pull between the exclusive, holiness impulses and the humanitarian, inclusive impulses. Actually, those same tensions were present within Judaism before the Church even showed up and we can see it in all religious expressions today.
I want to give you this description before we read the passage out of Acts—the one in which Paul visits Athens. Also remember that Paul has already been to the Athenian synagogue(s) to share the Gospel of the Messiah Jesus with God-believing Jews. Next, he began sharing about Jesus in the city’s marketplace. Now he has been asked to share at the Areopagus.
Here, we often make this encounter to be some sort of big event for the Greeks, but it wasn’t. It was just another talking head pronouncing another deity to which the Epicureans and Stoics would debate its merits (by their own logic and standards). But, in a way this invitation to speak was important—it was the meeting of theology and philosophy, Jerusalem and Athens. It was an opportunity for the Gospel to be heard.
Fact. In speaking to these worldly and learned men, Paul cites from both the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, and from the Greek poet Aratus. Question. How did Paul know the works of Seneca and Aratus? Did God download their work at the split second Paul uttered the words? Or, could Paul have read/studied these pagan sages? I’m guessing you’re able to tell which is more likely.
Paul does not condemn the truth of the Gospel found in non-Christian (non-Jewish) thinking and art. Instead, he lifts up the truth (the pearls amongst the garbage) and uses them to point to the human experience in relationship to the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul says in effect: What you were feeling and thinking—what you were longing for—it is found in Jesus.
Now, Paul does not water down the Gospel. He says they need to repent from their sinfulness (not knowing Jesus as Lord) and embrace Jesus, God. They are no longer ignorant of the Truth—and are called to seek it at Its source (the Holy Spirit) and as It is (not as they would like it to be). “They are called from where they began, just as were the Jews” (LTJ, 319).
Here’s what is cool about it… God has, God is, God will always be permeating His world. God has presented Himself to the peoples of the World through the cultures of the world. He’s speaking their language. But simply seeing it and understanding that it is God speaking isn’t enough. Seeing and understanding are invitations to faith. Faith in and relationship with Jesus is where salvation is found.
How does that translate to our day, our time, our culture? There is truth and beauty in our pagan culture. The Spirit is working in the minds and hearts of all people. It doesn’t take too much effort to see that “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
One of my favorite books series of all time is the tale of Harry Potter. Artistically, it is magnificent. But Harry Potter also contains significant Truths in it. Harry isn’t Jesus and the series isn’t the Bible, but there are many Gospel sightings in it. The same could be said for the Star Wars movies, Picasso paintings, and countless songs. Psychological theories, medical research, political treatises, and philosophical constructions (and deconstructions) are the same.
Our job is no different than Paul’s example. We are to be savvy Christians. We are to see what is redeeming and what is corrupt in the world around us. We are to be solid in our understanding of Jesus—not knowing about Jesus, but knowing him. We are to take that knowing relationship with us as we journey, as strangers, into the world. We interact with the world, allowing for Jesus’ Gospel to make itself known through the culture it was already imbedded within.
This is not easy. This is not for the weak of faith or those who are spiritually vulnerable. Here is where misunderstanding and failure are possible. It is much like the alcoholic trying to witness at a bar…a very bad idea. But who better to witness God’s grace and provision to an alcoholic than another alcoholic? (Just not at a bar!)
God has a mission for His People, His Church. He has sent his lambs out amongst wolves. It requires us to be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Hmm…That is pretty poetic…wonder where I’ve heard that before?
Glory to God in the Highest. May His Kingdom be blessed and expanded because of our faithfulness to follow Him. Amen.