Strangers in Our Times (1)
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.” Acts 17.19, 20
Embracing our strangeness
No one likes to be thought of as strange.
We are uncomfortable thinking that the folks we work with, our neighbors, or even people who don’t know us regard us weird, foolish, out-of-touch – strange. Strange people don’t make friends. They can’t be trusted. People talk about them behind their backs, and even treat them with contempt. It ain’t easy bein’ strange.
No wonder we don’t want to be looked upon that way.
The Apostle Paul brought “strange things” to the ears of the Athenians. But, while they considered his ideas “foreign” and “new” and “strange,” still, they were willing to hear him, if only because, rather than try to avoid that epithet, Paul embraced his strangeness, and talked with such ease and confidence about his beliefs, that the sophisticated philosophers and people of Athens wanted to know more.
A secular age
In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that one of the defining characteristics of our generation is that it has become “disenchanted.” What Taylor means is that, increasingly, most people today have become convinced that spiritual realities just don’t exist, or, if they do, they’re not worth fussing about. The idea of God is still there, but merely as a kind of intellectual or cultural construct, or some carry over from childhood experience. On the ground, in the day-to-day realities of existence, God and spiritual matters aren’t a factor for a growing number of our contemporaries. Only strange people believe such things.
Which means that, when we come along with our message about a risen Christ, faith in God, and life everlasting, this strikes many of our contemporaries as strange truth, indeed, and us as strange to believe it.
We’re not the first generation to have our witness greeted with such skepticism. Even in Paul’s day, when religions of all kinds abounded throughout the Roman world, and just about everybody had a household deity or two, people heard the proclamation of the Gospel as a new thing, a novelty, something strange and foreign to their experience.
But this didn’t catch the Apostle Paul off guard. Paul was well-versed in Greek and Roman culture. He understood his times. He knew the local beliefs, the workings of Roman polity, and could converse readily about all manner of topics. Like the sons of Issachar, Paul understood his times, and knew what he had to do to further the interests of Christ and His Kingdom (1 Chron. 12.32).
Rather than try to avoid seeming strange, Paul went to the very places where adherents of competing worldviews were wont to gather, and he confronted them there with the message of the risen Christ. Hence, we find him talking about Jesus in synagogues, marketplaces, at gatherings for prayer, and in the gates of the city, where town officials convened to judge on civil matters. Paul understood that, despite their settled mindsets and cherished (but unexamined) worldviews, lost people need to hear the Gospel. So he would not be deterred in his mission by the fact that others found him or his teaching foreign or strange.
And despite the entrenched secularism of our times, and the likelihood that we, too, will be regarded as strange when we advocate for a Kingdom not of this world, we must embrace our strangeness, work to understand our times, and carry the Good News of Jesus into the nooks and crannies of our secular age with confidence and joy.
The need of the day
Paul’s experience in Athens is particularly instructive for us. For even in our disenchanted and secular age, people still live by faith. They cling to cherished beliefs and unrealized hopes, all of which are based on promises of happiness they have concocted in their own minds or imbibed from the spirit of the times. Such promises can only lead to disappointment, however, leaving people looking for something new, something different, something better which can deliver the happiness and sense of wellbeing for which they earnestly long.
Which is undoubtedly why those ancient Athenians “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or hear some new thing” (v. 21).
What folks today don’t realize – but what Paul did, and we must – is that everything people desire for full and abundant life is bound up in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They may regard this as a foreign idea or a strange truth, but it is true nonetheless, and the Gospel demands of us, who are called to be Christ’s witnesses, that we overcome our fear of being regarded as strange, confront the disenchantment of our age, and proclaim the strange truth of the Gospel in clear and compelling terms.
1. What’s it like to feel strange? Why must we as Christians resist the temptation to avoid feeling this way? How can we do that?
2. What do we mean by saying ours is a secular age?
3. What’s involved in “understanding the times” so that we might know the best ways to proceed in seeking the Kingdom and righteousness of God?
Next steps – Preparation: Where in your community do people gather to talk about ideas and issues? The local college? Bookstores or reading groups? See what you can find out about such opportunities. Look in your local paper or talk with some friends. Then set a time to go visit some of these venues just to listen in on the conversation and see what you can learn.
Do you understand the Gospel? Feel confident in proclaiming it? Our booklet, The Gospel of the Kingdom, can help you share the Good News with confidence. Order your copy by clicking here. While you’re at it, order a copy of Joy to Your World! and see how you can conduct a consistent witness of joy to the people God sends you to each week (click here).
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.