I can still hear the gravel voice of Marlin Vis: “There’s no better way to understand the Text than by hearing it on the Land. In the biblical text, the Land is so vital, it’s almost a character in the stories.”
Those words sunk deep in me when I heard them while in Israel and Palestine several years ago. So I didn’t want to miss the chance to hear the Text on its own soil again, as I traveled to Athens, Greece, a few weeks ago.
I’d been invited, together with a colleague, to visit with one of our church’s international partners, a burgeoning network of church plants mothered by First Church, the oldest Protestant church in that historic city.
I’d been there a few days, and couldn’t resist the allure of all the architecture and history just up the hill from the neighborhood where I was staying. One of my hosts mentioned that the area where I was would have once housed many of Athens’ philosophers and civic leaders, who’d make that steep walk up and back from the Acropolis day by day.
During some down time between meetings, I wandered to the Acropolis Museum, summited the religious landmarks, and walked around the rocky outcrop of the Areopagus, reflecting on the daring proclamation by St. Paul atop that same hill two millennia ago that we have recorded in Acts 17.
Contact / Challenge
You can still see the rough, carved out hollows. They pockmark the craggy slopes of the Acropolis, where they once would have been the stone real estate for innumerable Athenian shrines. The archeological museum nearby exhibits a staggering collection of carvings and statues depicting myriad gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures.
Acts 17 depicts Paul taking this scene in, and coming upon one such shrine dedicated “To An Unknown God.” It’s striking to me, as I sit and read Paul’s speech, that he — a dyed-in-the-wool Jew — begins his speech to the pagan Athenians, not by condemning their idolatry, but by finding points of contact between the Christian story and their own: “Let me tell you about Who you’re worshipping. . .” (17.23) He then even goes on to quote the Greeks’ own poets back to them (17.28).
Having made points of contact, Paul then challenges their idolatry and summons his hearers to respond to the crucified and risen Lord of the whole world.
The great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin observes that both of these two elements — contact and challenge, affirmation and confrontation — are necessary for a culture to experience the Gospel in a transformative way. He writes in The Open Secret that the Church “must communicate [the Gospel] in in the idiom of [every] culture both the divine good that sustains it and the divine purpose that judges it and summons it to be what it is not yet.” This posture, which he calls “challenging relevance,” offers the Church a way in the world that avoids toothless cultural assimilation on the one hand, and the ultimate irrelevance of sectarian fundamentalism on the other.
Unity / Flexibility
I sat at the base of the Acropolis, reread Acts 17, and paged through the accounts of Paul’s other travels. As Paul held forth where I now sat, he certainly saw it as his task to hand on an unchanging Gospel announcement. Elsewhere, he’d fume to the Galatians, “if even an angel of heaven preaches a different gospel than the one you heard from me, let them be accursed!” (Galatians 1.9)
Here’s the thing: Paul never seemed to proclaim that one, unchanging message the same way twice. As I paged through Acts and read Paul’s missionary speeches, I noticed that no two were alike. He and his fellow church leaders constantly adapted the way that they unfolded the Good News, depending on the culture of the people they were among.
This cultural adaptability, married to its unchanging core message, has made Christianity, two millennia later, the world’s lone truly global faith. The biblical scholar Richard Bauckham, in his Bible and Mission lectures, notes that “almost certainly Christianity exhibits more cultural diversity than any other religion, and that must say something about it.” Indeed it does.
According to recent Pew Research data, 90% of Muslims today live in a geographical band from southeast Asia to the Middle East and North Africa; 95% of all Hindus live in India and immediate environs; and 88% of the world’s Buddhists reside in Asia. By contrast, about 25% of the world’s Christians live in Europe, 25% live in central and southeast Asia; 22% reside in Africa; 15% in Asia, and 12% call North America home.
Having re-heard Paul’s Athens address on its own soil, I’m still marveling at the paradox of the Gospel. This announcement of the invisible God made visible in the risen Jesus, two thousand years on, has spread the globe so entirely that there I was, two thousand years after Paul’s visit, visiting from a then-unknown part of the world, reading Paul’s words in a language not yet invented. And yet as I shared the soil from which Acts 17 comes, I felt a deep sense of having been claimed by that same resurrection news announced millennia ago to the culturati of a now-extinct society.