Paul in Athens
By Joseph Sanok
March 13, 2006
The monkeys stared at me as I walked around the Buddhist shrine. Their piercing eyes rotated with their heads. Our guide, a Nepali man, walked my friend and I up the numerous steps. As we entered the central area, our guided warned us, “The monkeys won’t hurt you, just don’t get too close.” The shrine, or stupa, we were visiting was known as Swayanabath, but most everyone referred to it as The Monkey Temple. One of the most famous shrines in Nepal, Swayanabath sits on a western hill of Katmandu, miles above sea level.
Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the wind, and the smell of incense filled the air. A small monkey sat perched about five feet away from me, just above eye level. Drums were beating in the background as I quietly pulled out my camera to capture the magic before my eyes. At that exact moment the monkey lunged at my face.
Rewind approximately 3 minutes. A Buddhist layperson had just arrived with an offering that he prayed the gods would accept. If a monkey, acting on behalf of the gods, ate his offering, he would leave the monkey temple a very happy man. As he approached the statue where he was making his offering, I stood behind him hoping for a picture of a monkey.
As I waited, the man pulled a banana from his pocket and peeled back the yellow skin. After he had pulled the long cylindrical fruit out and smeared it onto the statue, he stepped back, hoping that a monkey would eat his most humble offering.
There I stood, between the monkey and the banana offering, looking for a nice photo opportunity when the monkey dove straight at me. I ducked, and he smacked right into the statue and began eating the banana. Before another gymnastic pseudo-god monkey could even smell the newly crushed fruit, the banana had been consumed. In that moment I learned firsthand about the daily life and sacred ritual of some of the Nepali Buddhists.
This situation is not too different from a story that we find in the New Testament of the Bible. In Acts 17:16-34 we find the apostle Paul waiting in Athens for some of his traveling companions. Athens had been the center of thought and politics for many years. By the time of Jesus—though the Romans had the upper hand in the oppression market—Athens was allowed to remain fairly autonomous within the Roman Empire.
Paul spent most of his time in Athens walking around and carefully looking at their objects and teaching the ways of Jesus and Yahweh. Some scholars even believe that he started a school in Athens to teach these approaches to life. At some point, his new teachings rubbed some people the wrong way, and he was brought before the Aeropagus, the main ruling body that met on Mars Hill. Here we get a glimpse into Paul’s approach to ministry:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and look carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”
(Acts 17: 22-23, TNIV).
Paul stated that he “looked carefully at” the temples. In the Greek there is one word for this phrase it is anatheoreo. The exact meaning is “to look carefully at,” but the meaning is actually much deeper. This word comes from two words. The first, ana, means “to look at in turn.” The second, theoreo, means “to watch closely and experience.” This word is a fascinating compound word that comes to mean something deeper, in the same way that “bouquet” encompasses the thought “a bunch of flowers.” In other words Paul took in, one at a time, each experience in turn. He carefully became a part of—for the purpose of understanding—the different temple rituals. He even goes a step further:
As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ 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. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent
(Acts 17:28-30, TNIV)
He quotes their poets, the artists that represent their culture. In order for him to quote these poets he would have had to have read them with interest and understanding. So the process Paul chose in debating with the intellectual elite of his day involved his first experiencing their culture, then speaking to them about those observations.
Paul knew that the Greeks were proud of their intellectual history, so which philosophical approach does he use to ask for a change in thought? He challenges their intellectual ineptness.
When I compare Paul's approach to mine, I feel very uncomfortable with the differences. As we study this passage, it should call us to move toward those that are different from us, rather than away from them. A natural progression would be to leave behind the habit of creating communities that only engage a Christian worldview and begin to step into a relatively uncomfortable arena, the Athens of our world. This new approach would begin to study world religions for the purpose of engaging the world as Paul has attempted.
This can play itself out in the way that we read Harry Potter. We would read to understand this cultural phenomenon rather than to read in order to solely condemn. We would read Rolling Stone magazine to understand the coming generation, instead of feeling pressure to only listen to “Christian” music. As individuals we need to educate ourselves about the happenings outside of our sanctuaries.
If we are truly to become like Paul, we must engage in studying every aspect of our culture. We truly limit the power of God when we only trust Him to touch us when we are in the sanctuary. Moving past this mindset is a higher calling, one that spends time “carefully looking at” the culture around it. We have to systematically experience the culture to be informed of where God already is. Then, as Paul did, we can help others discover how God is at work in their culture, workplace, school or personal life, even if they have rejected this notion.
When we see God’s boundaries expanded, our faith expands as well. We see God in places that we never thought he would be. Paul expected to find God in the pagan poets and in the Statue to the Unknown God. In our time there are millions of cultural truths that have yet to be connected with the depths of God. We must allow Paul’s approach to infiltrate our life, rather than fear an unknown culture.
So explore the temples of today without fear, leaning on the power of the same God that walked with Paul through Athens.
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