Life in the Spiritual Marketplace (Acts 17:16-34)

I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that we’re facing the end of Christian America.  The good news is that we’re facing the end of Christian America.  Let me explain.  There was an era—not long in the past—when American culture was shaped by the kinds of conservative values we find in the pages of God’s Word.  But we currently inhabit a “post-Christian” world, one that no longer embraces Biblical teachings as the source of values.

Ask an average evangelical Christian, and they’ll tell you that America is heading for profound spiritual ruin.  Ask someone outside the church, and they’ll lament that Christians are trying to run the country.   How can both of those statements be true?  The answer is simple: people in today’s world are more “spiritual” than ever before; they’re just not wild about finding their answers within the confines of “traditional” religion.  Instead, spiritual pursuits are a matter of individual preference—what a CNN article once referred to as “Burger King Spirituality,” because you can truly “have it your way.”

Such was Paul’s experience in the city of Athens.  While waiting for his missionary companions, he found himself surrounded by the opulence of this great city, renowned the world over for its intellectual climate and spiritual leanings.  Later writers would remark that you couldn’t look anywhere without your eyes resting on an idol.

Here’s what happened in the city of Athens:

Acts 17:16-34

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Don’t you love that last verse?  Our nation finds no greater value than that of diversity.  Paul initially finds himself in the agora, or the city’s “marketplace.”  It was the common area where people gathered to discuss ideas.  But the interesting thing is that in today’s world, I’m not sure that such a place exists.  Perhaps for some it’s the coffee shop.  Maybe it’s a dinner table.  But in today’s post-everything world, I suspect the internet (social media, blogs, etc.) represents the most sprawling example of a marketplace, and the place where ideas are most regularly exchanged.

Chances are we meet the same kinds of people that Paul did.  Paul met three groups of people.  The Jews (and God-fearing Gentiles) may not have believed in Jesus, but at least they shared a common belief in the Bible.  They might be analogous to the traditional religious community of our day.  The Epicureans were another story.  They were the first to believe that the world was composed of “atoms,” and therefore when man dies he simply ceases to exist (according to Epicurus, even the gods would die and be no more).  They’re probably similar to the atheists of our day, who believe man comes from nothing and proceeds toward nothing.  Finally, the Stoics.  They believed the universe was governed by a universal “world-soul” which permeates everything in existence.  If this sounds like “the force” in Star Wars, you’re not far off.  It’s the same kind of thinking found in many Eastern religions (and their New Age counterparts).

Spiritual Types in Athens

When you look at these views together, you begin to realize that Paul stands in the center of all these swirling trends—as do we.  Paul is asked to speak to the Aereopagus, which was something of a council of intellectuals who would render their verdict on Paul’s new beliefs:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 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. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Yes, the end of Christian America is indeed good news.  Why?  Because for a long time, Christians have sought comfort and security through isolation.  The last century saw the rise of Christian schools and universities, radio stations, coffee shops—heck, even Christian breath-mints.  So much for being “salt and light” to our world.  We’ve been more likely to peek behind our protective walls to lob a few grenades as part of an ongoing “culture war.”

But Paul’s no cultural warrior.  He’s more interested in dialogue than debate.  His conversation is sprinkled with specific phrases to grab his audience’s attention.  Most significantly, he knew their song lyrics.  He quotes their own poets back to them, because he wisely understands that quoting the Bible isn’t going to do much good in their current spiritual state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a prison cell in Nazi Germany, said that we need to learn to “speak in a secular way about God.”  What did he mean by that?  Well, it means that when the Bible is no longer the starting point for a spiritual conversation, we need to find a new starting point.  And so Paul finds this point of contact in culture itself.

But make no mistake; just because the Bible wasn’t a suitable starting point doesn’t mean that his speech was anything less than Biblical.  And the gospel, properly spoken, will generate strong reaction.  Here’s what happened in Athens:

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Notice that for this community, it was the resurrection of the dead that proved to be a sticky point.  I tend to think that the gospel will challenge every culture differently.  In fact, I’d even suggest that in Western culture, we tend to struggle most with God directing human events.  Why can’t I control my own destiny?  Who cares what I do in private?  Who cares who I sleep with?  Like Paul, we can expect a similar diversity of reactions.  Some believed, some rejected—others wanted the conversation to continue.  And that’s perhaps what we also have to hope for.

I’m told that the Japanese word for “crisis” is the same as the word for “opportunity.”  I don’t know much about Japanese grammar, but it’s a nice concept.  The demise of Christian America is a crisis worthy of lament.  But it’s also an opportunity waiting to be seized.  Time to make your choice.