How the Apostle Paul Won the Culture War
Look at the world and see worship, not secularism.
Recently a friend was sharing some thoughts with me about Acts 17, the chapter that includes the apostle Paul’s sermon to the Greek pagans at the Aeropagus (or Mars Hill). Paul tells the crowd that he has seen one of their altars with an inscription, “To an Unknown God,” and proceeds to preach the gospel to them, proclaiming that it is Christ who, while unknown to them, was the true God worthy of trust and obedience. As we were thinking about the passage, Paul’s proclamation in verse 23 stood out to me in a way it had not before: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
As I turned these words over in my mind, I realized that this sentence was not merely a prefatory comment aimed at an ancient polytheistic society, but contained a massive vision for engaging contemporary culture with the gospel.
The Athenian society whose pantheon of idols “provoked” Paul (v. 16) was a culture primed to hear the gospel of the true God. The altar to the unknown God was more than a sociological curiosity; it was a transparent confession of religious impulses bursting inside these pagan people. While the good news about Yahweh and Jesus of Nazareth may not have been what these religious folks thought they needed to hear, Paul knew it was fundamentally something they wanted to hear. Their hearts were restless, so Paul preached rest.
Christians in the West today should think very carefully about how this might describe our context. I fear that we sometimes throw around the word “secular” carelessly, glibly labeling every facet of Western culture as secular and reenforcing the notion that we live in some kind of post-religion generation. While it’s true that the traditional institutions and forms of religion do not have the same influence they once did, it is likewise true that contemporary culture in the West is inarguably, even aggressively, religious.
A few years ago I read an essay by a bookstore owner who was tormented that a particular volume he disagreed with politically was selling so well. He wrote, “What can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time?”
I smiled when I read this line because it immediately reminded me of my childhood in a conservative evangelical pastor’s home, where we stood out like sore thumbs due to our avoiding certain movies, books, TV shows, and albums. The agonized bookseller helpfully demonstrated what I’ve now seen demonstrated in countless essays, books, and conversations about politics and justice: you can take a person out of church, but you can’t take church out of a person. If God is dead, that’s not the end of the story. You have to name a successor.
A post-Christian society is not the same as a post-religious society. The religious flavor of our political and ethical discourse is overwhelming. Everybody worships, because you gotta serve somebody.
Whether this American altar is dedicated to the god of partisanship, the god of therapeutic self-help, the god of intersectionality, or merely the almighty dollar, the point is the same.
Perhaps the clearest example of post-Christian religiosity concerns shame culture. Who would have ever dreamed that the internet, the greatest libertine free-for-all ever constructed by human beings, would have become a theater of moral scolding and condemnation that would give Nathaniel Hawthorne pause?
As the essayist Wilfred McClay points out in one of the most important essays written in the past decade, a people that have abandoned the Christian doctrines of sin, atonement, and forgiveness end up spending their pent-up moral energy by enacting eschatological judgment on each other. Every punishing online mob that ruins a stranger’s career or reputation is a living liturgy to the need human beings have to purge sin and experience absolution.
This We Proclaim to You
Just as the apostle Paul knew how to present the gospel to the kind of people who built altars to unknown gods, so followers of Jesus in a post-Christian culture must know how to wield the good news.
Realizing that our public square is un-Christian but not irreligious should make us bold: bold to speak in moral language, knowing that our audience may tell themselves they are relativists but do not live like it when they talk about the election or racism on Facebook.
For a while Christians in America were afraid that speaking of God’s judgment would alienate people and push them further from Jesus. But as Derek Rishmawy has pointed out, every corner of modern society seems to be crying out for a God who can and will make all things right, including heaping justice on the heads of the wicked.
Following in Paul’s example might mean saying to contemporary Western society, “I perceive that in every way you want justice. The God of heaven and earth is a God of perfect justice, and he has appointed Jesus Christ to judge the world. Find forgiveness and a sure hope of a righteous eternity by coming to him in faith.”
For those whose hearts are captive to the self-help section and want assurance they can live a life of meaning and joy, Christians hold out the only gentle Savior, who himself is our wisdom, our righteousness, and our sanctification. Exhausted, wounded souls need to hear that they don’t need to be an alpha male or #girlboss to know a life worth living. To this world we can say, “I perceive that in every way you want purpose and meaning. Jesus Christ offers perfect rest, freedom from shame, and a real kingdom to give yourself to, body and spirit. Find help and hope by coming to him in faith.”
When we look out and see our post-Christian society, we should not see an impenetrable wall of secularism. We should see what’s actually happening: worship, worship, worship. The soul-cries of those who live haunted by the specter of transcendent truth could scarcely be louder. They are waiting for someone to explain how they already live. They need the church of Jesus to stand and say, “What you worship as unknown, this we proclaim to you.”