A Broken Cord, A Dungeon, A Shopping Mall: Understanding "Our Athens" in Apologetics
Paul M. Gould, Associate Director of RC Prof
One of the things I love about Paul’s encounter with the Greeks in Athens is how he models for us how to effectively build a bridge from the culture to Jesus and the gospel. Importantly, he begins by seeking to understand the city of Athens—its objects of worship, its history, its leading thinkers and story-tellers—so that he can understand their loves and longings, their beliefs and shared stories.
Paul’s speech at the Areopagus begins by noting the religious impulse beneath their idolatry, “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22b). He continues, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship . . . “ (Acts 17:23a). Notice, Paul went out looking. He walked the city and “looked carefully” at their objects of worship. The idea is that he went out and examined over and over again the stone idols throughout the city in order to better understand those he sought to reach. And as Paul demonstrates in the rest of his speech (Acts 17:23b-31), he effortlessly built a bridge from the Athenian’s worship of the unknown God (Acts17:23b) to Jesus, all the while quoting from poets (Epimenides in 17:28a) and philosophers (Aratus in 17:28b) familiar to the Greek world, to make his case.
Paul’s example is instructive for us. Like Paul, we would be wise to better understand “our Athens”—whatever culture or ministry context we find ourselves in—so that we can more effectively communicate the truth and beauty of Jesus and the gospel. We want the gospel to get a fair-hearing. Part of the solution is to better understand those we seek to reach as well as the world they inhabit. In this post, I share three mental images that help us better understand the collective mood and mindset of those in the West.
A Broken Cord
We live, according to the Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff, in a world and culture that is utterly unique. Every culture prior to our own understood the natural and social order as a reflection of a sacred order. First worlds—pagan worlds—found ultimate authority in the mythic primacies of the gods. Second worlds—theistic worlds—found authority in the personal God of the Abrahamic faith. Third worlds—the culture today in the west—sever the cord between the sacred and the social order. The cord uniting the divine with the natural, the sacred with the secular, is broken. “The third culture notion of a culture that persists independent of all sacred orders is unprecedented in human history.” As a result, culture today is “a warring series of fragments.” There is no unifying thread in culture; rather there are just warring “fictions” that compete for the mantle of self-legitimacy in an otherwise meaningless world. The new archetypal institution of the third world is the hospital/theatre, “founded upon the charitable fiction that we are never so much ourselves as when we are acting.” We find our identity in the stories we tell, not in a greater over-arching story, but in “our ruthless forgetting of the authority of the past.”
The metaphor of the broken cord encourages us to dig deeper in apologetics. In discussing the morality, for example, of abortion or homosexuality or war, it is not enough to simply report our views regarding the rightness or wrongness of an act or choice. We must offer a “cosmological response” to the confusion found in culture: showing others that there is a grain to the universe and we flourish when we live according to that grain. In other words, let’s work to ground our morality and our apologetic in a robust view of the natural order, a natural order that reflects the sacred order and the goodness and love of a Creator.
The second image, the mental image of a dungeon, is from the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. The dungeon imagery helps us understand how it feels to live in a secular age. For Taylor, the secular age is an age of contested belief: unbelief is possible and belief is made more difficult. We live now in an “immanent frame”—a dungeon—where all of life is understood without appeal to transcendence. The problem is that in sealing ourselves off from the divine, the buffered self, as James K. A. Smith put it, is “also sealed off from significance.” We are, in the end, alone, cosmic orphans drifting on a “sea of nothingness,” as Nietzsche would put it, awaiting death. The “general malaise” of modernity, according to Taylor, is that “our actions, goals, achievements, and the like, have a lack of weight, gravity, thickness, substance.” Everything feels flat. Everything appears monochromatic. Everything feels empty, even as we furiously try to invest our lives with meaning and purpose in a godless universe.
The metaphor of the dungeon encourages us to have compassion for those we seek to reach in apologetics. People are not the enemy. Many in culture are held captive—to the devil, to false ideas, to false narratives (2 Cor. 10:3–5)—and need to be set free. Like the freed prisoner from Plato’s cave, Christians (and Christian Apologists) are called to go back into the “cave” or “dungeon” and set others free. Would we be like Jesus, who while looking at the lost with compassion prayed to the Lord of the Harvest for more workers (Matt. 9:36–38), seeing every nonbeliever as intrinsically valuable, loved, and in need of liberation from sin and bondage and lies? Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) and he invites us to join him on this search and rescue mission.
A Shopping Mall
James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies Series helps us understand the formative power of our daily practices and how we are moved by our loves, passions, and vision of the good life. Liturgies—whether secular or sacred—shape us, forming our identity and way of being and perceiving in the world. In a disenchanted age cut off from the divine, we are witnessing the commoditization of just about everything: people and things find their value in terms of the pleasures they bring. We shop because we want to and we need to and we can. In acquiring stuff and new experiences, many hope to find the good life. In reality, consumerism is enslaving and oppressive. It cannot ultimately deliver the hoped-for happiness. The image of the shopping mall helps us remember that humans are not only rational animals, but desiring animals too. We are moved by our loves and longings and our vision of the good life. The shopping mall metaphor reminds us that people are looking for a story that actually satisfies and a food that truly nourishes.
In apologetics, the shopping mall metaphor encourages us to think holistically. Sometimes, the obstacles to belief are intellectual. But not always—they are also imaginative and moral. The fact that humans are not only rational, but imaginative, narrative, liturgical, and moral presses us to think of apologetics more broadly. We can and ought to show the reasonableness of Christianity. But we can do more. We can and ought to show the desirability of Christianity too. Christianity is true to the way the world is and also true to the way the world ought to be. This is good news! Jesus is both brilliant and beauty. Christianity is true and satisfying. The shopping mall metaphor encourages us to remember that Jesus wants to meet all of our longings and needs—for truth to be sure—but more besides (goodness, beauty, justice, love, happiness, and peace, to name but a few).
A broken cord, a dungeon, and a shopping mall—three mental pictures to help us better understand the worldview, social imaginary, and vision of the good life within “our Athens.” Understanding is the first step in seeking a genuine missionary encounter with those in culture. May we all be like Paul in first understanding our culture and then building a bridge from “our Athens” to Jesus and the gospel.
1 | Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 13.
2 | Ibid., 25.
3 | Ibid., 34.
4 | Ibid., 106.
5 | The idea of a “cosmological response” to ethical acts is from Rod Dreher, who argues in The Benedict Option that we must dig deeper in our discussions about sexual morality—showing others that there is a sacred purpose to sex, marriage, and the family. See Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option (New York: Sentinel, 2017), 208–10.
6 | James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 64.
7 | Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 2007), 307.
8 | See James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009); Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), and Awaiting the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017). For discussion of the shopping mall as a secular liturgy, See his Desiring the Kingdom, 93–103.
Paul M. Gould teaches philosophy and apologetics at Oklahoma Baptist University, serves as the associate director of RC Prof, and is the founder and president of the Two Tasks Institute. He is the author or editor of ten books including the forthcoming Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Zondervan, March 2019). He is married to Ethel and has four kids and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. You can find out more about Paul at www.paul-gould.com.
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