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The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself

Weekly essays by Dan Clendenin

Essay posted 25 April 2005

The Areopagus Then and Now

For Sunday May 1, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary)
           Acts 17:22–31
           Psalm 66:8–20
           1 Peter 3:13–22
           John 14:15–21

The Acropolis in Athens
The Acropolis in Athens.
Photo © 2002 by Adam B. Hocherman.

           One night I was channel-surfing when I happened upon Fox's talk show "The O'Reilly Factor." True to form, the host Bill O'Reilly would ask a question of his guest and then, with equal measures of rudeness and condescension that characterize his tomahawk style, interrupt, berate, and sneer at his guest with raised eyebrows. The topic was the urban homeless, and the more I listened I began to realize that I recognized O'Reilly's guest, Tom Tewell, the senior pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. I watched with amazement as Tom held forth with confidence, gentleness and respect about a complex issue that his church engages, with an obnoxious journalist, in a nationally-televised forum. I felt like I was watching the Areopagus all over.

           In Luke's Acts of the Apostles for this week, we find the apostle Paul at the Areopagus in the legendary city of Athens. The "Areopagus" is both a place, a small rocky hill northwest of the Acropolis in Athens (Greek for "hill of Ares" or in Latin "Mars Hill"), and more importantly it was the most prestigious and venerable council of elders in the history of Athens, so-named because it met on that site. Dating back to the 5th-6th centuries BCE, the Areopagus consisted of nine archons or chief magistrates who guided the city-state away from rule by a king to rule by an oligarchy that laid the foundations for Greece's eventual democracy. Across the centuries the Areopagus changed, so that by Paul's day it was a place where matters of the criminal courts, law, philosophy and politics were adjudicated. Paul, who had been publicly proclaiming the Jesus Way, was ridiculed by these culture shapers and opinion makers as a "babbler" who advocated "foreign gods," perhaps understandably so if you were an influential Athenian, and so they invited him to Athens's most powerful and important venue to explain what they derided as his "strange ideas."

Plaque at the Areopagus commemorating Paul's sermon
Plaque at the Areopagus commemorating Paul's sermon.

           At our worst, we Christians have isolated and insulated ourselves from our culture's mainstreams. We can be inward-looking, self-absorbed, self-important, and cloistered, instead of engaging people at our modern day Mars Hills. I remember a pastor friend who had a parishioner whose child had gone to Christian schools for so long that he was barely functional in the world at large. Another pastor friend confided to me several summers ago that at his annual denominational meeting delegates were, in all honesty, merely "talking to themselves." I still remember exactly where I was twenty-five years ago when one of my seminary professors remarked to me that he had never entered a movie theater.

           At our best, Christians have always been just as comfortable living, learning and sharing the Gospel in the market of ideas as in the ministry of the church, in bars and board rooms as well as in basilicas, in university lecture halls as easily as in church fellowship halls. In an outward, centrifugal movement modeled after Paul at the Areopagus, believers have welcomed the opportunity to meet real people where they really live, work, and think, in order to gain a hearing for their "strange ideas" about repentance, rebirth, and the resurrection.

           When my friend Scott teaches seminary courses on evangelism, for example, he routinely requires his students to attend art exhibits, interview artists in their studios, and to find their way to avant garde film festivals.

           In a most creative and ambitious Areopagean endeavor, in 1992 Dennis and Eileen Harvey Bakke of the Mustard Seed Foundation created the Harvey Fellows Program (www.harveyfellows.org). Each year they identify, equip, encourage and fund Christian graduate students who are enrolled in a program ranked in the top five of their field. They actively seek to interface the Christian faith with the secular marketplace, especially in those strategic spheres of influence where Christians might be under-represented—media, government, science, academia, and so on. In the twelve years since the program’s inception, they now boast 168 Harvey Fellows worldwide, representing twenty-one countries and over forty academic and vocational fields. The Foundation has awarded over four million dollars in scholarship funds to Christian graduate students. Paul would have approved.

           That same year in 1992 Christian graduate students at Harvard inaugurated what eventually became known as the Veritas Forums, resulting in a wonderful book called Finding God at Harvard (1997) that contains the Christian stories of over forty Harvard faculty, alumni, and friends. Their stated mission, too, is decidedly Areopagean: "We create forums for the exploration of true life. We seek to inspire the shapers of tomorrow’s culture to connect their hardest questions with the person and story of Jesus Christ" (see www.veritas.org). In partnership with over 50 major universities now, the Veritas Forums have brought the Areopagus to intellectuals, exploring anything and everything in public university settings that incorporate performances, lectures, music, film, seminars, debates, and the like in interactive formats intended to encourage rather than suppress honest, public dialogue and debate.

A closer view of the Areopagus
A closer view of the Areopagus.

           Paul's confidence for addressing a venue such as the Areopagus rested upon a twofold rationale. First, as he told King Agrippa after he was arrested and accused of insanity ("Your great learning is driving you mad!"), the message and events of the Gospel were "not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). They are matters of historical record and open to public debate, discourse, and inquiry for all honest seekers. In that sense the Areopagus was the most natural and fitting of venues for Paul. Second, as Paul preached to the Athenians, he believed that God "made the world and everything in it", so in his mind there was no sphere of influence outside of His care and concern. All of so-called "secular" life, and not just "sacred" realms, were spheres of his divine, loving presence —law, literature, medicine, education, the arts, business, government, science, quite literally anything and everything. So, in his own Christian way, Paul viewed the venerable Areopagus as just another place where the Lord of all creation had gone before him and was already present; indeed, said Paul to the Athenians, "He is not far from each one of us."

           The epistle for this week hints at the purpose of these Pauline, evangelistic forays, which is not the acquisition of power, the manipulation of public opinion, or victory in debate, but rather the opportunity to "give a reason for the hope that is in you." The manner in which believers express their hope, says Peter, is characterized not by belligerent rhetoric or bellicose power-politics, but instead by "gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

           What sort of reception did Paul receive at the Areopagus? Early in Luke's Acts of the Apostles we read that the first Christians "enjoyed the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:47). But within a few chapters of his narrative a raging mob stoned Stephen to death and scattered the church (Acts 7). I have always admired Luke's candor regarding Paul's reception among the Athenians: some people "sneered" when they heard him speak about the resurrection, others took a rain check and asked to learn more at a later date (a polite put-off or honest interest?), and a few believed, namely Dionysius who was a "member" of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and "a number of others" (Acts 17:32–33). With that, we read that "Paul left Athens and went to Corinth."