“What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?” – An Old Question for Modern Christians

UnknownEvangelical Christianity teaches people how to share the basics of simple faith and Christian living fairly well. It shows people how to read their Bible, how to pray and especially how to share the “simple” gospel with others. Now we even have a growing interest in spiritual formation, including teaching on contemplation and meditation. All of this is our strength. But we do have more than a few weaknesses as well. If ecumenism has taught me anything it has helped me learn how to listen to other Christian traditions and learn from my brothers and sisters.

One of the more intriguing questions that raises difficult questions for all Christians, especially evangelical Christians, is this: “How we can be faithfully Christian while we participate in popular American culture?” This question is actually not new. In the third century the church father Tertullian famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” What he meant by this was what has biblical faith to do with secular learning, or to be more precise, “What has the gospel to do with philosophy?”

Steve Turner, in his excellent new book Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment (InterVarsity, 2013), says that Tertullian’s famous question might be asked this way in our era: “What have Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Madison Avenue, Burbank or Times Square got to do with Jerusalem? In other words, what has popular culture got to do with the Christian faith?” (Popcultured, 13).

Turner gives ten reasons why this is a pressing and important question for Christians to ask and answer with care. The first involves what he calls “the divided mind.” This is actually the response that Tertullian had to the question. Simply put, Tertullian’s response would be similar to that of many Christians that I have known over the years – popular culture and Christianity have nothing to do with one another. This claim is made because of a simplistic (biblical?) argument based upon separation from the world. Clearly many biblical texts do appeal to us to avoid becoming “worldly.” We are charged with resisting the devil and maintaining a distinctive Christian witness to the world. So the question here is important: “How are we to remain faithful to the distinctive social and moral demands of the gospel in relationship to modern popular culture?” I grew up in a home that was not overly restrictive but eventually I came into a more conservative evangelical context when I transferred to Wheaton College back in 1969. Here I met various strands of separatism that urged me to abstain from the world of popular cultural pursuits; e.g. entertainment, reading fiction, visual art, etc. (In all fairness, I did not learn this from my professors but some of my peers!)

Steve Turner gets close to my own experience when he says many of us have/had a “divided mind” about how we answer this Athens/Jerusalem question. We have embraced a fairly concrete earthly/spiritual split in the process. We devote our spiritual lives to Christ through prayer, witness and church participation while we often devote our less structured time to the more earthly interests. This has led many Christians from one extreme to the other. (My experience in the home school movement comes to mind here.) We have either become so spiritual that we have little use for popular culture and entertainment or we have become so interested in culture and entertainment that we lost our spiritual center of gravity. Turner adds, “[Many] evaluate a band, computer game or film as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ using the same criteria as their secular counterparts” (14).  I have found this to be all too true in my experience over four-plus decades of ministry.

But the interesting thing about this divided mind response to Tertullian’s question is that the Christian who seeks to practice a rigid form of separation from the world (cf. 2 Cor. 6:17), as well as the Christian who embraces popular culture without a great deal of thoughtful discernment, avoids discrimination and daily spiritual maturity. “The separatist usually deals with popular culture by issuing a blanket ban; the divided Christian, by a blanket acceptance. They both avoid the hard task of being simultaneously critical and spiritually engaged” (14).

The simple truth is, so far as I have come to believe, quite clear – we cannot avoid popular culture unless we live a strictly monastic life, something very few of us are called to do. What we actually need if we are to engage this great question well is critical engagement. Such engagement will require deeper thought; i.e., thinking that is profoundly rooted in God’s transcendence and immanence. Until we take God and his creation more seriously this will never happen. If a theologian as great as Tertullian, who helped the church discover a solid way to think about deep trinitarianism, missed a solid response to this question then I am not surprised at all that many of us do the same.

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