CSM's future candidates have been reflecting on the challenges of Public Office in an internet age. Some ancient words may provide some guidance.
10 As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. 12 Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. 13 When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. 15 The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.
16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him. Some of them asked, "What is this babbler trying to say?" Others remarked, "He seems to be advocating foreign gods." They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, "May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean." 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.) or Tom Wright translates it “novelty”, or I translate it “Twitter”.
Teams in tournaments like the World Cup prepare very differently for playing different teams. Different strategies and at times different players will be employed. Tom Wright likens this approach to that of Paul to in his commentary on Acts 17:10-21.
“Luke has shown us how the gospel matches against two major opponents: the ‘zealous’ Jews, in synagogues around Turkey and now in Northern Greece, and the economic and political forces of the Roman Empire. But there is an entire world of thought – and I mean ‘world of thought’ which we haven’t yet had on stage. This is the hugely important sphere of the prevailing ancient philosophies. They conditioned how thousands of ‘ordinary people’ saw the world, what they thought of as reasonable and unreasonable, what they thought about ‘the gods’, what they thought human life was for and how best you should live it. Millions who had never studied ‘philosophy’, who maybe even couldn’t read or write for themselves, were nevertheless deeply influenced by the major currents of thought that were debated in the schools, just as plenty of people today who have never studied philosophy or economics are massively influenced by popular presentations in the media of large and complex ideas.
And now Luke is taking Paul to where he must meet the ancient philosophies head on: Athens. This is a different team. You can’t just say what you say in the synagogue, or even what you said in a hurry in Lystra. This demands a different gameplan. Luke is building us up for a big setpiece, one of the classic scenes in the whole book. Athens is a major showdown between the new young faith, and the old established, tried and tested philosophies of the Western world, which still in various modern guises, dominate peoples thinking. Until we’ve thought through this confrontation, we are not ready for the global contest.
It is by no means clear that Paul intended to go to Athens. It would have seemed more natural to go through North-West Macedonia, all the way along the road to the sea, and then perhaps to Caesar’s city, Rome.
That might have been natural, but it wasn’t, it seems what the Holy Spirit had in mind. The reason Paul goes to Beroea is that the Thessalonians bundled him off there to keep him safe. And, once there, he seems to have been less than usual master of his own movements, with the local believers putting him on a boat to go, not west to the capital of the Roman world, but south to the ancient capital of the Greek one. Get the philosophy sorted out and the politics can follow in due course.
First, though, the welcome interlude at Beroea. What a relief to find some people who are actually prepared to say, in effect, “Well, we hadn’t ever thought of this sort of thing before; but let’s have a look at the scriptures and see if it’s true”. But the inevitable happens and zealous Jews arrive from Thessalonica , hot on Paul’s trail. This time it is only Paul who is packed off, while the others stay, perhaps to help new believers become firmly established.
So Paul was sent alone to the great intellectual capital of the ancient world.
And it was full – of idols. And ideas. And intellectual and cultural novelties of every kind. Luke’s comment on the latter point (v21) is a bit sarcastic, since ‘new’ in the ancient world was one of the worst sneers you could offer, especially about an idea. ’Old’ was best; everyone knew that. Mere novelty was ephemeral, here today and gone tomorrow. But if you were interested in temples, and idols, and every kind of religious cult, Athens was the place. It had everything – including some cultural symbols which would have strongly confirmed Paul’s perception that idol-worship went hand in hand with sexual immorality.
Paul was not short of places to go and people to talk to. He did what he normally did in the synagogue. More interesting to Luke at this point, he argues in the marketplace, which in Athens was a marketplace of ideas as well as of commodities. And there it was that he met the great philosophical schools of the day, the Epicureans and Stoics.
Briefly, the Epicureans held a theory according to which the world and the gods were a long way away from one another, with little or no communication. The result was that one should get with life as best as one could, discovering how to gain maximum pleasure from a quiet, sedate existence. The Stoics, however believed that divinity lay within the present world, and within each human being, so that this divine force, though hardly personal, could be discovered and harnessed. Good human living then (virtue) consisted in getting in touch with, and living according to, this inner divine rationality. What would a Jew or a Christian say to either of those? We are about to find out.
But the request for Paul to speak at the Areopagus, the highest court in the city, set on a rock from which one could look down the famous market-place and across to the more famous Acropolis with its spectacular temples, was not as friendly, and innocuous as it sounds. It wasn’t a matter of “well here is an interesting fellow: let’s see what he has to say”. It contained a double veiled threat. “This man”, they said, “seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”. Well yes in a sense, though that was based on their misunderstanding of the fundamental content of Paul’s message, which was Jesus and the resurrection. Resurrection, which in Greek is Anastasis (what Paul said) which to them sounded like another God.
In particular, the charge of “preaching foreign divinities” was the charge famously and classically on which Socrates, the greatest philosopher of all time, had been tried and condemned. Athens may have been interested in new ideas, but divinities from elsewhere could easily get you into trouble. Serious trouble. Especially if someone proclaiming them was starting a secret society with mysteries only open to the initiates. “Are we permitted to know?” they asked with veiled and sarcastic threat, what is this new teaching all about? In other words, you better get your philosophy sorted out, or we have other questions we may want to ask as well. Are you a danger to our state? Paul is thus given the chance of a lifetime, but also a challenge that will stretch his theological and rhetorical skills in quite a new way.”
In a world where Twitter has become an Areopagus of sorts, how do we engage? In a world obsessed by novelty, how do we prevent ourselves being tugged along in that flow, while making sure that our voice is heard?
I used to spend a lot of time highlighting to people that they need to watch and read the news with hypersensitive filters on their eyes and ears. I wanted to make clear that news corporations have a vested interest in printing what is tragic, salacious and scandalous, as they need to sell ads or papers to keep profits high. I wanted to remind people that what they were reading was far from the whole story. They won’t be reading too much good news, and they won’t be reading about the wonderful but unremarkable acts of kindness and service that happen in communities up and down the country everyday. The net effect is that we all become more cynical, depressed and unable to believe that positive change can occur. I spent a lot of time encouraging folks to be involved in the media, to bring better standards of journalism and a desire to tell the whole truth.
Now those things I still believe to be true, but I think there is also something more fundamental going on. We have allowed “news” to become the default information source for our lives. In some ways the “news” can’t help it. By its very definition it is made up of novelty. But novelty is a bit like carbohydrate. Very necessary, but if your diet consists only of it, then you are in big trouble. It is great for snacking, but will leave you hugely undernourished if it is not part of a more varied diet. That diet should include at least some ancient and deeper writing and art. It takes more effort and patience for sure, but there is huge reward in embracing what has stood the test of time, whether in the realm of music, philosophy or everywhere in between. We confuse what is new for what is true. If my frame of reference for what is important or significant is based (as it cannot fail to be) on a daily diet of the BBC news website (and it is much better than most!), then my plumbline is more like a pendulum.
What is more worrying about the Twitter/facebook phenomenon is that it is all about speed. The time for considered response is rarely available. The wisdom of silence and reflection is rarely available or seen as a sign of weakness. As those who wish to see divine wisdom inserted into popular debates, it becomes more difficult if we are never stopping to consult each other, never mind our creator. Too many relationships have been damaged and too many people thrown into inappropriate boxes or tribes by the non-nuanced and potentially non-relational nature of the internet.
So we are desperate to see how Paul deals with his version of the toxic blogosphere. That’s next..
More soon on the methods he used in the famous speech in the following verses.... all will become clear....