As stated in the first post of this series, the apostles employed a wide variety of approaches as they proclaimed the gospel, and these approaches were both deeply personal and deeply informed. In this post, I want to address Paul’s gospel message in Acts 17:16-34. In doing so, I’m going to recommend a practice that John Piper generally recommends against.
Before continuing further, I want to state my respect for John Piper and for his clear desire for God’s glory to spread across the world. Desiring God transformed the way I approach the Father, and Don’t Waste Your Life is one of the forces God used in pushing us towards service abroad. At the same time, I disagree with Pastor Piper on his choice to avoid contemporary art forms (particularly film and television) in proclaiming God’s good news. For instance, in a recent posting, John Piper wrote:
I think relevance in preaching hangs very little on watching movies, and I think that much exposure to sensuality, banality, and God-absent entertainment does more to deaden our capacities for joy in Jesus than it does to make us spiritually powerful in the lives of the living dead. (“Why I Don’t Have a Television and Rarely Go to Movies”)
I want to say that I completely agree with him on the first point–relevance in preaching indeed hangs very little on watching movies. In fact, it hangs much more on studying movies. Unfortunately, Piper presents a popular false dilemma and a more popular straw man. I hope to show that Paul’s evangelism in Acts 17:16-34 proves these to be incorrect.
Turning then to Acts 17, we see that Paul arrives at the Aereopagus and declares to the pagans that he knows their unknown God. Look first at something often missed:
In Acts 17:23a, Paul states, “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.'”
What does Paul say here? It’s interesting to check the terms used. The term translated as “passed along” is the Greek dierchomai. I like the ESV, but this is better translated as “moved through in a thorough way.” The term translated “observed” is the Greek anatheoreo, which is not a simple “looking,” but a “careful observation.” Basically, he was investigating their pagan worship. In fact, he was close enough to read the inscription on the altar “To the unknown god.” Paul was studying the popular false religions.
In Acts 17:28. Paul states of God, “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.'” Paul is here quoting two secular sources. The first quote comes from a hymn of worship written to the false god Zeus by Epimenides of Crete, and Paul again quotes this poem in Titus 1:12.
The second comes from the stoic poem Phainomena by Aratus. This was an extremely popular poem of its time. Paul doesn’t have only a passing familiarity with these works–he’s able to cite them from memory during a tense dialogue. Apparently, Paul read and studied and knew pagan art.
In essence, what we have here is Paul first finding common ground through a familiarity with their religious practice, and then through a knowledge of their popular art.
This brings us back to what I think is the straw man in Piper’s post. He assumes that a Christian consumes movies or television only for the sake of entertainment. That we simply watch these artistic forms. And I think that he’s probably correct in a majority of cases. Too many Christians simply watch. Instead, what should take place is careful study. In the same way that we read literature not passively but actively, we should view movies with an eye for their content, their message, and their core values. Many Christians will reject a call to treat television and film as art because they don’t want to give up the entertainment available there–I’ve had faithful Christians tell me that they have no interest in thinking about what they are watching! How can this be?! Piper’s straw man argument will hold true as long as Christians refuse to engage what they view in an intentional way.
I also accused Piper of relying on an old false dilemma–of assuming there are only two options, when in fact, there are many more. Later, in the same article, he writes:
If you want to be relevant, say, for prostitutes, don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. Immerse yourself in the gospel, which is tailor-made for prostitutes; then watch Jesus deal with them in the Bible; then go find a prostitute and talk to her. Listen to her, not the movie. Being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.
I agree with his first point again. Don’t watch a movie with a lot of tumbles in a brothel. There’s no call in this post to toss discernment out the window. And I agree with his last point–being entertained by sin does not increase compassion for sinners.
At the same time, this is a false dilemma because it assumes you can only do one of two things in preparing for effective evangelistic encounters–you can either study art or study the Bible. I believe it’s possible to do both. And I believe it’s possible to subsume our study of art under our study of Scripture. I think it’s possible to pursue the study of art as Newton pursued his study of the natural realm, to make our study of art–including film and television–an act of worship.
Paul concluded his gospel message with a clear transition from the pagan art and worship to the Scriptures, which stood as the final authority in Paul’s life. In Acts 17:31, he makes a clear declaration of the coming judgment and the hope of resurrection. By Acts 17:34, some of his hearers have converted to Christianity.
All of this brings us to this very simple method for evangelism:
- Study the Bible carefully and regularly. If you skip this step, the rest will fail.
- Study the false religions of our time–maybe pay particular attention to secular paganism, or raw “spirituality”
- Study the various art produced by the world today with prayer and discernment.
- Regularly refer to these religious beliefs and these artistic creations while in discussion with outsiders. Explain why you think these shows and movies get some of it right, but still ultimately miss the mark. Often, they will fail to account for evil in people, or mankind’s general desire for joy.
This method can work well because it connects the evangelist to the listener on a non-confrontational level. It allows the evangelist to identify similar values, and then it allows the evangelist to give and explain our “Better Answer” to the questions of life.
I hope this proves helpful as you proclaim the gospel to friends, family, and neighbors. Don’t be afraid to use everything at your disposal in pursuing their eternal salvation!
Grace & Peace,