It’s the year AD 50. Paul of Tarsus climbs the stone-carved steps of Mars Hill alone (not counting the gaggle of Greek thinkers pressing him forward). At the flattened crest of this colossal rock, a greater host of philosophers sit expectantly in a semi-circle, ready to hear Paul explain “this new teaching” from Judea of a Rabbi and resurrection.
What they want is simple: a new idea to hear and discuss, as is their daily custom… but the apostle will settle for nothing less than telling them the ultimate message.
He begins a silent, unceasing prayer for wisdom before opening his mouth. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious…”
Paul isn’t complementing their piety, but neither does he mean to insult them. This morning, he walked through market streets littered with countless idols, each with their own mound of wasted offerings. The Acropolis looms high in the distance with its grand temples to Athena and Poseidon; the Stoics and Epicureans present are already skeptical of these demanding, petty deities.
Here’s the view from Mars Hill, with the Acropolis in view which boasted the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
So many so-called ‘gods’ with faces blur together in the apostle’s memory, yet there was one shrine in particular he does not forget. “…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.”
The eyes of his audience widen, and Paul seizes the moment. He tells them of the LORD God–Who created and rules ALL, and needs NOTHING… yet graciously desires to draw every nation back to Himself. Now the apostle’s heart is pounding with joyous excitement, but half of the Greek host are starting to tilt their heads in perplexity. They have heard this message before; the Jews speak of this God, but to the Greek culture, He sounds like nothing more than a foreign export.
Paul – knowing better than anyone that the Holy Spirit will bring sinners to repentance, yet wishing to do his part in communicating the hope for Jews and Gentiles – calculates his next words carefully.
“Now every time I want to connect with God, I put my headphones on / Got God in my Walkman / Go ahead and top that!”
… Wait, no- those aren’t the right words at all. They’re the lyrics of Macklemore’s controversial song “Church.” Why did I dare to imagine them in Saint Paul’s mouth? Because what the apostle actually says is equally unconventional and scandalous as referencing a modern rapper (minus the uninvented technology).
“…he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
There’s the words he really spoke. In Acts 17, verses 27 and 28, Paul quotes from two Greek poets–Epimenides and Aratus. If you research the context of each poet’s verse, they were originally talking about Zeus… though they began to see him more as an abstract force than the bearded man who chucks lightning bolts.
Pagan poetry. Paul was literally quoting secular lyrics in his sermon.
I’m curious as to how Silas and Timothy would have reacted (as if using a polytheistic altar to point to Jesus wasn’t edgy enough of a missions strategy!). If the loudest voices of modern Christianity are any indication, then perhaps it was for the best that the apostle ministered alone in this case.
To be fair, there are good reasons for taking a guarded stance when it comes to music or verse; the messages therein become our meditation and have the power to connect us with others. However, it’s our tendency to make black and white divisions–without the responsibility of discernment–that take us on a dangerous road of labeling between worldly and godly.
Sure, Paul instructs us to think on things excellent and upright, and there is garbage we should avoid… but this story in Athens indicates that Christendom doesn’t possess a monopoly on good things. The apostle connected with their Greek world and salvaged new meaning from their culture, and Acts records that, as a result, several believers were added from this ancient debate club. If we think about all the epistles, then Paul had a lot more to say about how nothing is itself unclean, and that we’ve been liberated from rigid requirements of the law.
God is the original Creator, and every human is made bearing His image. When we confidently search for a divine trace even among the creativity of unbelievers, we show that He truly is world-sized and near to every person. God’s character and the Bible’s truth becomes less of an alien concept, and more a familiar longing at their fingertips.
I admit, this is an area I’m currently weak in, as I prefer to replay my comfortable list of Christian musicians, who I know will offer easily-digested encouragement. I want to amend this by giving other artists a chance and accepting the challenge of finding Jesus in their art. I’ve already watched these insights uncovered in every other creative medium we explore at Geeks Under Grace, so why not in an expression as timeless as music?
I sincerely meant what I wrote earlier: that the secular lyrics to “Church” are essentially the same as the Greek poets of Paul’s day. Both react to a negative experience of religion. Both argue that God can be experienced more tangibly. Both are redemptive tools, despite their former context of pantheism and profanity, because God has revealed the answer to their questions.
I pray that God leads more of my brothers and sisters to follow Paul’s example, engaging in the culture and unveiling these clues. The Maker behind every beautiful work personally dwells within us, walks through life with us, and shows Himself even in our shuffled playlists.
Macklemore… I believe Jesus already did “go ahead and top that.”
An ardent indoorsman, Taylor Charles Lewis's enjoyment and energy are primarily found in theology and storytelling. His favorite interests and interactions often involve the melding of the two— through reading, writing, and video games. He's lives in California, and when venturing beyond computers and books helps in youth ministry to see God's word written on human hearts.
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