A Vision for Engaging Post-Christian Culture
By Samuel James, The Gospel Coalition
Jul 16, 2021
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…
This We Proclaim to You …