Well, we finally reached the passage in Acts I’ve been waiting for with the most anticipation. We’ve seen lots of speeches/sermons in Acts, some to Jews and some to God-fearers. We’ve seen one made to pure pagans (chapter 14), but that was pretty short. I submit that the sermon/presentation in today's passage is incredibly relevant for us today if we want to have any hope of reaching the Post-Modern world.
Before we get to that, I need to provide a short primer on Modernism vs. Post-Modernism. If you’re already familiar with these terms, I apologize, but we really need to make sure we understand both the world we live in and how it got that way.
Modernism, as the term is commonly used, started around the middle to late 19th century. That was the time of the Industrial Revolution. Slavery was abolished in most of the western world (including the last major holdout, America), and both living standards and life expectancy were steadily rising. There was an explosion in technical innovation, and we made quantum-leap strides in chemistry, biology, mechanics, medicine, etc.
Modernists believed that we were on the verge of making our very own utopia. Science was going to lead the way into a Paradise on earth. Of course this would have to be preceded by a wholesale rejection of myths like Christianity which hold us back. If we could do that, then we could take steps to really evolve to new heights. Humanity could be tinkered with like a machine to eventually make the perfect man. We could, on our own, figure out how to rapidly improve our lot, and we certainly didn’t need any mythical “God” to help us.
Modernism took a body blow when World War I came on the scene. Sure we have wonderful advances in technology, and we used them to kill each other much more efficiently: poison gas, the machine gun, airplanes, etc. Then the death blow came with World War II: The indescribable inhumanity--not only in the battlefield but in death camps--should've shattered the notion that we’re basically good people who just need a little tweaking. The Nazis were everything the Modernist supposedly wanted. It looked like science couldn’t be our savior after all.
Out of the rubble of World War II came Post-Modernism. Of course, there are a lot of Modernists walking around, but the new zeitgeist became dominant in the West. Simply put, this was a wholesale abandonment of objective truth. It no longer matters what someone believes, as long as they don’t try to “impose” their beliefs on anyone else (usually which is another term for actually trying to convince someone of something). There's no objective truth, so whatever “works” for you is to be commended.
Let me illustrate the difference with a simple test case. Say you’re trying to share the Good News with someone who’s not disposed to accept it. A Modernist will try to convince you that the Bible is just full of myths and is incompatible with logic, reason, or science, like Christopher Hitchens or one of the other "New Atheists." A Post-Modernist will likely pat you on the back and tell you “That’s great that you’ve found your truth."Their slogan might well be “What’s true for you might not be true for me.” If someone loves to point out that they’re a “spiritual” person, that’s a clue.
That’s why this sermon is so important, because there are some parallels for us here. Athens was not only the capital of Greece but was considered the center of learning and philosophy. Please note two things which Luke mentions about the city.
First, it was full of idols. There were statues all over which depicted yet another god. And no one would mind adding another one to the mix. In fact, this is what eventually got Christianity officially in trouble with Rome. Not that Rome wanted to get rid of Jesus, but the exclusion of all other gods was just inconceivable to their minds. They'd be perfectly happy to provide a place for Jesus, as idol # 3443 right next to idol # 3442.
That’s in perfect sync with the Post-modern mind. If you claim that Jesus has made a huge change in your life, that’s fine. But when you get to the part about how everyone everywhere needs to believe in the same Jesus you do, then the sparks fly.
Second, the Athenians were supposedly the most open-minded people on earth. Note the last verse: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.” They were always looking for something new, something fresh. Anyone spouting new ideas could get a hearing, at least in theory.
Again, this is eerily similar. Post-moderns pride themselves on having an open mind. And this theoretical openness was seen by Paul as an open door to the Good News about his Savior. And he was going to take advantage of it.
Lord Jesus, it gets really frustrating to talk to people like this. But I know you love them, and I should love them too. Help me to speak the truth in love, please.