Cultural Engagement

by

Early in my ministry, I served as a youth pastor, and like every other evangelical youth minister, I received all the advertisements from youth ministry curriculum-hawkers telling me how I could be “relevant” to “today’s teenagers.” The advertisements promised me ways I could “connect” with teenagers through Bible studies based on MTV reality shows and the songs on the top-40 charts that month.

All I knew how to do, though, was preach the gospel. Yes, I knew what was happening on MTV, and I’d often contrast biblical reality with that, but I fit nobody’s definition of cool—including my own.

I remember, too, when a group of teenagers—mostly fatherless boys, some of them gang members—started attending my Wednesday night Bible study. I found they weren’t impressed with the “cool” supplemental video clips provided by my denomination’s publisher. They laughed at Christian rap stars in the same way I laughed at my high school history teacher’s effort to “have a groovy rap session with you youngsters.”

But what riveted their attention was how weird we were. “So, like, you really believe this dead guy came back from the dead?” one fifteen-year-old boy asked me. “I do,” I replied. “For real?” he responded. “For real,” I said.

In a day when many people are (rightly) seeking to think through ways to engage the culture with the gospel of Christ, it seems that the Bible, in Acts 17, gives us a pattern for doing so in a way that some might not expect—by embracing the “freakishness” of the gospel.

Christians seeking to “engage popular culture” often point to this passage—the Apostle Paul’s speech on the Areopagus in which he cited the lyrics of pagan poets and the architecture of pagan temples. Christians, they argue, should follow Paul and use popular culture to “build a bridge” with its consumers, finding in popular works a “common ground” through which we can attract their interest and later communicate the gospel.

And yet, Paul’s discourse on the Areopagus is strikingly different from many Christians’ attempts to be relevant to popular culture. He points to the Athenians’ culture not so much to bring out what they know as what they deny.

Paul systematically unhinges key facets of Hellenistic thought, and he boldly challenges the Greeks’ tribal pride in being “sprung from the soil of their native Attica” (in the words of the New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce) by pointing to the common ancestry of humanity from “one man,” with God determining the “bounds of their habitation” and “removing all imagined justification for the belief that Greeks were innately superior to barbarians.”

Moreover, the very nature of Paul’s message was an affront to the ideological underpinnings of Athenian culture. He constantly returns to the resurrection of the body. Nothing was more freakish and alien to Epicurean and Stoic thought, both of which sought to combat the fear of death by separating the prison of the body that dies from the spirit that survives.

Paul does indeed see a common humanity and a common image of God at work in the Athenian culture. But he sees this common grace twisted and perverted by human rebellion. This is why he is “provoked” by the idolatry in the city (17:16). This is why he refutes the culture’s affirmation that gods can be made of gold and silver and propped up in man-made houses (vv. 24-29). And this is why he warns the Athenians, in the strongest terms imaginable, to flee the wrath of the God of Jesus by repenting before His throne (vv. 30-31).

Contemporary attempts at engaging popular culture are partly right. We cannot ignore it. It affects life in twenty-first-century America far more than high culture, far more, even, than the middlebrow culture of Broadway and PBS.

But what pop-culture-engaging Christians need to understand most from Acts 17 is the Athenians’ response. Luke tells us that what arrests the attention of the Athenians is not the so-called bridges Paul builds by citing Athenian cultural products. What pricks their attention at the end is what pricked their attention at the start—Jesus and the resurrection: “Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (v. 32).

Often at the root of so much Christian “engagement” with pop culture lies an embarrassment about the “oddity” of the gospel. Even Christians feel that other people won’t resonate with this strange biblical world of talking snakes, parting seas, floating ax heads, virginal conceptions, and emptied graves. It is easier to meet them “where they are” by putting in a Gospel According to Andy Griffith DVD (for the less hip among us) or by growing a soul patch and quoting Coldplay at the fair-trade coffee house (for the more hip among us).

Knowing Andy Griffith episodes or Coldplay lyrics might be important avenues for talking about kingdom matters, but let’s not kid ourselves. We connect with sinners in the same way Christians always have: by telling an awfully freakish-sounding story about a man who was dead, and isn’t anymore, but whom we’ll all meet face-to-face in judgment. For real.

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