Who owns the truth? Are Christians the exclusive carriers of truth? Or do non-Christians also have access to theological truths? Is the Bible the sole source of truth? Or can one find theological truths within non-Christian materials? Our answers will determine how we approach and enact evangelism.
Acts 17:16-34 describes an evangelistic encounter between Paul and a group of Athenians. Paul becomes distressed by the many idols in Athens. After speaking with Jews and “God-fearing” Greeks, he’s taken by a group of philosophers to speak before a meeting at the Areopagus. Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is a fascinating model for those wishing to communicate effectively with people of a different faith.
Paul tells the Athenians that God is not an idol and they need to repent. Did Paul use Scripture as the source of “Truth” in his debate at the Areopagus? Scripture has much to say about God’s character, and in Acts Paul often uses Scripture when he speaks publicly. However, here Paul never once refers to Scripture. It’s quite interesting to note the material Paul does use to support his points about God’s character. Paul uses an Athenian poet to emphasize the all-encompassing nature of God, “‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.'” Paul then segues into his point about idols, “Therefore, since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill.” Rather than using Scripture, Paul uses non-Christian poets as sources of theological truth.
In Acts, Paul displays an interesting pattern regarding his use of Scripture. When Paul speaks in synagogues to Jewish audiences, he employs Scripture. When he speaks to a non-Jewish audience, Paul never uses Scripture. His method reveals Paul’s desire to use materials that his audience will accept as authoritative. Since the Jews accept the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative, Paul cites Scripture with them. The Athenians accept the authority of their Greek philosophers, so Paul uses them. The ability to find theological truths in non-Christian sources shows Paul’s versatility and helps us understand why he was such an effective communicator.
Paul doesn’t critique the non-Christian material from Athenian culture; he affirms truths about God’s character within them. Paul affirms other elements of their culture as well. Paul’s opening line is “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.” In his first sentence, Paul acknowledges something good about the Athenian religious life and thus builds a bridge to his audience. Commenting on an Athenian altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god,” he states that the god they worship as unknown is in reality the God of Hebrew Scripture, the same God Paul worships.
Paul’s method of evangelism is a critique of the notion that Christians are the sole owners of truth. An anonymous missionary has said, “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.” Paul doesn’t see himself as one who brings truth to a people who have none. He helps the Athenians recognize elements of truth already present in their culture. He goes on to share new points of truth with them, but that is quite different from assuming they have no truth at all.
Paul’s use of Greek poets has direct implications for our evangelism. If our audience doesn’t accept Scripture as a source of authoritative truth, aren’t we wasting our time using Scripture as an authority? If we want to effectively connect with that audience, we must find other sources of truth that they will accept, and use these truths as springboards or bridges to our message. Those of us trying to reach young people have a wealth of cultural material at our disposal.
A Modern Model
Movies contain a plethora of theological truths, and I’m not only talking about The Prince of Egypt. I recently spoke to an InterAct club at a private high school for the arts. I usually speak to Christian audiences, so I adjusted my material for this talk. I opened by referring to the film Magnolia. This movie accurately depicts the relational disconnection that pervades our culture. Alienation characterizes each relationship in the film, and sin is rightly shown as the primary cause of these alienated relationships. That sin causes serious scars, and disconnected, alienated relationships are the result. Forgiveness grants restoration and healing. None of these relational truths are foreign to the gospel, which positions sin at the core of relational dysfunction and forgiveness as the key to healing.
Fight Club, with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, contains a myriad of truths. Materialism and consumerism are viciously attacked as unhealthy alternatives that fail to truly satisfy that for which our hearts were created. Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, states, “The things we own end up owning us.” Jesus would be proud. His own parable of the rich man in Luke 12 illustrates this truism. “You are not your…khakis,” another of Tyler’s lines, directly contradicts the advertising mantra that our value is defined by our material possessions.
Hurricane is based on the true story of Rubin Carter, who was imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit. “Hate put me in this prison….” Carter notes that the hate was not only that of the racist police, judge, and jury, but it was also Carter’s own hate that landed him in jail. The film shows how Carter’s hate and bitterness lead him to a life of loneliness, pride, and self-destruction. “…but love’s gonna bust me out.” Carter’s not only set free by the love of the committed Canadians who champion his cause, but by the renewal of love within his own heart.
There’s an extremely powerful scene near the end of Mulan. The daughter returns home after a lengthy journey of battles. She bows before her father, laying at his feet the glorious treasures she acquired. She has longed to please him and see his approval. Her father looks upon the treasures and waves them away. “It is not these I desire…but you…you are all I have wanted.” What a fabulous picture of God’s never-ending love for us.
What Dreams May Come, with Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr., describes an afterlife that is little different from the one portrayed by C. S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. William’s character’s wife isn’t sent to hell by a wrathful God intent on punishment. She ends up in hell because of self-absorbed choices she made on earth. Her hell in the afterlife is a mere continuation of her hell on earth.
I can hear the objections of those who will argue that elements of truth within a movie fail to justify the use of such a movie as a source of theological truth. “Just because something has some pieces of truth doesn’t mean anything. We need to use material that is completely true.” The problem with such a view is that no one person fully contains the truth. We all have pieces of the truth. Movies, books, and songs are no different. Finding elements of truth within these films is no different from Paul finding truth in the Athenian poets. Isaac Watts writes, “Seize upon truth, wherever it is found, amongst your friends, amongst your foes, on Christian or heathen ground; the flower’s divine where’er it grows.”
An Apolgetic Model
Paul’s evangelistic approach differs sharply from the typical Apologetic method of the late 20th century. The fundamental message of the Apologetics movement was “Christianity is right. Other religions are wrong. Here is a list of 200 scientifically proven reasons why this is so.” Operating from a binary, dualistic paradigm, the Apologetic message failed to recognize that non-Christian traditions might contain elements of truth. Our young people were taught the differences between Christianity and other religions for the primary purpose of demonstrating that Christianity was right and other religions were wrong.
Growing up in one of the largest churches in southern California, I often attended youth group meetings where the topic was “Other Religions.” These meetings were designed to give me “ammunition” with which I could bombard any Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness who was unlucky enough to cross my path.
People were hungry for love, and we were giving them answers to questions they weren’t even asking. People were longing to experience love in a community and we were marketing information and debate as the keys to evangelism.
Enslaved to a modernist mentality, the Apologetics movement failed to recognize and affirm the theological truths within other religions. In failing to affirm the truths of their audience, they built walls rather than bridges. This has resulted in an evangelistic subculture that’s easily disregarded by many as archaic and anachronistic. Oswald Chambers, commenting on this type of evangelism, said, “We win arguments and lose people.”
Finding Their Truths
Paul was able to affirm the truths within the pagan culture of the Athenians after spending time studying their culture, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship….” If we are to emulate Paul’s model of evangelism, we must become students of the culture we desire to reach. Effective missionaries in foreign countries often spend years doing this. Naïve missionaries simply take Scripture, feed it to their audience, and blame negative responses on the people’s stubborn hearts.
We must find elements of truth within the movies, music, books, magazines, and stories of our culture. We can then use these truths as a bridge to the Gospel. Rather than branding Harry Potter books as evil, for instance, we should be reading them to find how we can use them to connect with the millions of kids (and adults!) who relish them.
Paul’s not the only one in the New Testament who employs religious concepts from his target audience. The author of the Gospel of John, in describing Jesus, chose not to use a term from the Hebrew Scriptures, but one from secular culture. The “Logos (Word),” applied to Jesus in John 1 was a word used by the Greeks to describe “Divine Reason.” I doubt the same author would use the term “Word” to describe Jesus today but would find a term that had meaning and significance in our culture.
We’re unfaithful to the biblical writers when we refuse to change our terminology and insist on using only that which we find in Scripture. After all, the term “gospel” was initially used to describe the “glorious” advent of the emperor Augustus. Our gospel authors borrowed a secular term and used it to communicate with their culture.
Such borrowings cause some scholars to assert that the early church simply stole their religious ideas from others, while more conservative scholars argue that such ideas and themes were unique and original to Jesus and the Christians. Both camps miss the point entirely. Early Christians intentionally used phrases from their secular culture to communicate effectively to those within that culture.
It’s no coincidence that the Gospel of Matthew contains the phrase “Kingdom of God” only four times. The same phrase is ubiquitous in Mark and Luke. Yet Matthew’s gospel has the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” which never appears once in Mark or Luke. These differences are easy to understand in light of the different audiences for each gospel. Matthew’s gospel is written to a Jewish community that would revere the name of God, YHWH, so much that they wouldn’t even pronounce the name. So Matthew used “Heaven,” a word that wouldn’t offend his Jewish audience. Mark and Luke are written for Gentile audiences that had no qualms about saying the name of God. Consequently, their gospels use “Kingdom of God” and never once “Kingdom of Heaven.” Paul isn’t the first to adjust his gospel message in order to communicate effectively with a specific audience.
I’m not advocating a tolerance that is accepting of all aspects of all beliefs and religions. Such an approach has no respect for truth. I suggest that we need to recognize that within every culture there exist both elements of truth and falsehood. Paul affirms theological truths in the Athenian culture, but he also criticizes aspects of their worship.
Too many of us place a higher value on our individual beliefs than on truth. We equate our beliefs with truth, failing to humbly recognize that none of us own the complete truth. Coleridge wrote, “He who begins by loving Christianity better than truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.” We have erected a wall between the sacred and the secular, a wall that doesn’t exist in Scripture, but which allows us to feel more secure in the false comfort of believing we’re in the right. Many choose to live their entire lives behind this wall. A few will recognize that there is indeed no wall, that what we thought was a wall was a mere mirage, created by people’s need to form sharp distinctions between “us” and “them.” Our task as evangelists and Christians is to communicate in such a way that demonstrates the absence of this wall.
Let’s emerge from the evangelical bubble in which we’ve lived for so long. There’s a world outside that needs us. But we need it too. We both have elements of truth, and the more we listen to each other and seek to understand each other, the greater the opportunity for all of us to grow closer to the Truth.
Matt Rindge is adjunct professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University in southern California. He has taught leadership courses for pastors and missionaries in Chile, Argentina, Thailand, Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. He speaks on behalf of Compassion International and volunteers at the Harambee Center in Pasadena, CA.
Fonte: YOUTH SPECIATIES