The scene from Acts 17:22-31 doesn’t sit well with me. Paul stands up, provoked by anger, believing he has something important to say. And he says it, with force.
I’m not here to argue about whether Paul’s point is a good one — by all accounts, he does a fine job telling the biblical story in a way his gentile listeners can understand. I, like Paul, am a Christ-follower. I’ve already bought what he’s selling. I’m asking about the way he makes his point — I’m pushing back against the notion that Christianity is an idea that can and should be argued in the public square.
The problem is this: Christianity is a way of life, not an idea. It’s neither a philosophical system, nor a coherent constellation of abstract beliefs. Christianity is a network of vital relationships, a set of practices, an expression of daily desire that mirrors God’s own. Christianity is not theology. It’s agape, in human flesh. The “case” for Christianity can’t be made in the Areopagus, or the pulpit. It can only be made on the street corner, in the hospital room, around a table.
I went, once upon a time, to a wise mentor of mine, and asked for her recommendation about the best book to give someone who is new to the faith and wants to learn about Christianity. “Don’t bother with books,” she said. “If what you want is to teach someone about Christianity, introduce them to a Christian.”
True. Yet our faith is consistently portrayed in the culture as a way of thinking. We list “beliefs” on church websites, not core practices. We expend energy training young ministers in theology, instead of pairing them with mentors with whom to apprentice (think Mr. Miyagi’s “wax on, wax off”). Ask someone what he thinks a Christian is, he’s likely to tell you it’s someone who believes that Jesus Christ is Lord. How many people will you ask before someone suggests that a Christian is someone who acts like Jesus, their life aligned by compassionate care with those who are poor?
Paul at the Areopagus is a flawed leadership paradigm for American Protestant Christianity. Liberal, conservative — we clergy have all internalized that our job is to engage the prevailing philosophies of the day with rigorous thinking and morally superior ideas. Paul is our hero: a man who can’t keep his mouth shut as he wanders from city to city, going toe-to-toe with the godless culture.
Did anyone notice, while we focused on Paul’s elocutionary antics, that it was the Greek philosophers — not Paul — who “won” the argument? They invite Paul to play their game. They draw him out of the synagogue, where Jesus’s way can be considered in the midst of close-knit relationships and deeply-rooted practices of piety. They move him out of the marketplace where merchants, farmers, tradespeople, and panhandlers interact, a place ripe for an embodied enactment of the social reversals that come with the Kingdom of God. They tempt him into believing that understanding can be achieved in a forum of ideas, separated from lived experience.
I’m not against philosophy, theology, or other kinds of “book learning.” I’m not against preaching, either. But all of these things are the trailing edges of Christian faith. It is distinctively Christian practices — not our thinking and our speaking about our thinking — that are the leading edge of the faith:
- The greatest among you is the one who serves.
- You must lose your life to save it.
- Wash one another’s feet.
- You feed them.
- As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.
- Follow me.
Paul, my brother, if you must tell the Athenians about your faith, tell them first with your body. Break bread with slaves. Wash feet in the marketplace. Show them the way of Jesus.
And church: If you feel the spirit calling you to proclaim to this secular age your faith, show them. Put your body in close, discomfiting proximity with people who are poor, hungry, sick, or scared. Sacrifice something of yours that is of great value.
The age of explanations — and explainers — is over. No one is listening. But out of the corner of their eye, they might be watching. Show them something through your own life. Show to them your passion for this unknown God — the one with the life that never ends, the mercy that saves you, and the love that has conquered death forever.
Via ON Scripture.