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This past Thursday and Friday I gathered with several hundred other people for the inaugural conference of the Newbigin House of Studies, a partnership between City Church San Francisco and Western Theological Seminary which will offer a unique M.Div track. It is exciting to see the Newbigin House of Studies coming to fruition and to see the emerging shape of its mission “to provide theological, cultural and spiritual formation for men and women interested in a wise and engaging missional impact in an increasingly secularized culture.”
It was a delight to hear N.T. Wright speak on “Challenges for the Church in Mission” and “Opportunities for the Church in Mission” on the opening day. I was especially drawn in by his analysis of Paul’s speech at the Areopagus, recorded in Acts 17. He explored how Paul was acutely aware of the philosophies and cultural trends of his audience, and how artfully he addressed them as he introduced the real identity of the otherwise “unknown god” they revered. For Paul on the Areopagus, overlooking Athens’ marketplace of ideas and deities, cultural literacy was an essential prerequisite for any attempt to convey the heart of the gospel message. In his speech, he quotes the poets and philosophers of their culture, subverting core ideas of Stoicism and Epicureanism along the way and using their energy to illuminate the core identity of the one true God.
What if we could foster a new generation of leaders, Wright asked, who are so well-versed in the philosophies of the day, who know the poets to quote and the deeper narratives to reference, who can point out the false gods and the locations of the contemporary altars to unknown gods.
Wright went on to point out just a few of the gods that Western culture continues to worship, even through modernity and into post-modernity: Mars, the god of war, whose relentless demand for human sacrifice we continue to propitiate. Aphrodite, the god of erotic love, for whose satisfaction and for whose promise of sexual fulfillment we continue to compromise the innocence and vulnerability of others. And of course Mammon, who delights in our love of money and our drumbeat of economic progress, even and especially when that means feeding the demands of hungry banks while much of the world’s population struggles under the burden of grinding poverty.
We do need people of faith, leaders and lay people alike, to understand the culture around them well enough to convey the unchanging gospel message in fresh and compelling ways. When I spend time in extremely secular places like San Francisco, or even my current home city of Boston (where, in my context, it is the god of medical progress who is revered), I am grateful for the articulate and engaging endeavors I see unfolding in places like City Church San Francisco and the Newbigin House of Studies. Grateful, too, in this week of Thanksgiving, to be part of a faith tradition that does not reject culture but invites creative participation in it, trusting that God has a use for us in the divine drama of reconciliation and restoration.